SG50 memories: Living through World War II, winning fans like Ong Teng Cheong

S.K. Poon recalls life in a kampung in Malaysia during World War II and making a living as a singer when she was 12

Many artists are marking SG50 with special events but few can claim to have actually lived through the last five decades and more.

Veteran singer S.K. Poon can.

Speaking to Life! at her three-room HDB flat in Toa Payoh, she digs deep into her personal history. During the dark days of World War II in the 1940s, she was living in an attap house in a kampung in Kuala Lumpur.

Recalls Poon, who is possibly in her 70s: "The Japanese soldiers were searching for girls, so my mother locked my eldest sister up in a room and cut her hair short, like a boy's. And I would pass her meals through an opening."

Mostly, though, she remembers being bored. "My brother would take me and two of my other sisters out to play. He would take a stick, tie a piece of cloth to it and pretend it was a flag and we would march along. That was very fun. I didn't even know how terrible war was."

Poon is the fifth of eight children. By her own reckoning, she did not have much of a childhood. By the time she was 12, she was already making a living singing at a getai. Over the years, the Queen of Bass (as she was dubbed for her command of the lower register) has recorded more than 100 hits, including her signature tune Lover's Tears, and she will be performing a number of them at Suntec on Sunday.

She also recalls witnessing the historic announcement of Singapore's separation from Malaysia by then-prime minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1965 on the goggle-box. "I was still young then and I didn't know why he was tearing up. But when I saw that scene again on TV recently, I choked up," says Poon, whose family then was well-off enough to afford a black-and-white television set.

When she was 16, Poon, better known to fans by her Chinese name Pan Xiuqiong, was signed to music label EMI. She would fly to Hong Kong for her recording sessions and the productive singer would put away four tracks in one day. At a minimum, she would work on 20 songs on each trip.

In 1968, she recorded her enduring hit, Lover's Tears.

It took her two days to nail the track penned by the late hitmaker Yao Min. When she could not reach the low notes on the first day, she hid in a corner and cried.

"I didn't think it was such a great song but I didn't want to lose the chance to record it. At that point, there was no sign of a lover for me," says Poon, who got married at 28 and divorced 10 years later. The next day, Yao adjusted the pitch up by a semitone and Poon wrapped it up on the first take.

Thanks to memorable tracks such as this, she won legions of fans, including the late former president Ong Teng Cheong. He called her a national treasure and was one of her biggest fans, even accompanying her on the piano when she sang Lover's Tears on a few occasions.

She adds quietly: "When he passed away, there was no fancy ceremony but my songs were playing in the background."

Poon's last major solo concert in Singapore was in August 2009 and she muses: "It's the country's 50th anniversary this time and who knows when I'll have another solo concert after this. I really cherish this upcoming show and I'm giving it my all so that my fans will have an enjoyable time."

Just do not expect her to be surrounded by a bevy of dancers. She says: "There was once when I was performing with these dancers wielding large feathered fans and I almost sneezed when they brushed against me."

bchan@sph.com.sg