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A life marked by passion for song and sport

Mr Hor, who owns two popiah restaurants and is also a former national basketball player, says that the secret to still being able to sing forcefully and beautifully is his passion for Peking opera. He made his debut as a Peking opera performer when h
Mr Hor, who owns two popiah restaurants and is also a former national basketball player, says that the secret to still being able to sing forcefully and beautifully is his passion for Peking opera. He made his debut as a Peking opera performer when he was 19.ST PHOTO: LEONG WENG KAM

Local Peking opera pioneer spends 98th birthday singing classics at memoirs launch

A lifetime of friends and exercise and a passion for the arts could well be the secret to living long and living well.

Former Singapore national basketball player, pioneer Peking opera singer and restaurateur Hor Chim Or celebrated his 98th birthday earlier this month.

And, on that special day on March 11, he launched his memoirs, Good Chance, Hor Chim Or, at his Good Chance Popiah Restaurant in Jalan Besar before some 50 invited guests and family members.

All those present were, as usual, eagerly waiting to hear him sing.

So, after a brief introduction on the 200-page memoirs in Chinese with English translations - by founder and president of the Chinese Opera and Drama Society Bian Huibin - the microphone was passed to the birthday boy.

Mr Hor stood slim and straight at his full 1.8m height. With a walking stick in one hand, he moved quickly and steadily to centre stage.

Before breaking out in song, he told his audience - several of whom were already shouting out titles of songs they wanted him to sing - that "playing basketball and singing Peking opera have been my two best loves all my life".

He sang a couple of his favourite laosheng or old male roles from Peking opera classics, such as Hong Yang Dong from the opera Female Generals Of The Yang Family, to the delight of the audience.

Later, he told The Straits Times in Mandarin that the secret to still being able to sing forcefully and beautifully was his passion for Peking opera. As a boy, he had listened to it on the radio and gramophone.

He made his debut as a Peking opera performer when he was 19.

"My youth as an athlete and basketball player also helped," he pointed out.

He still exercises for at least 40 minutes every morning, and sings opera every Saturday afternoon at the Singapore Amoy Association in Bukit Pasoh with a group of enthusiasts and musicians.

One of the early members of Singapore's first amateur Peking opera group Ping Sheh soon after it was formed in 1940, Mr Hor also founded another group, Tian Yun Peking Opera Society, in 1992.

Today, he is the oldest living Peking opera practitioner in Singapore following the death of Madam Phan Wait Hong last September at the age of 102.

Both were recipients of the Singapore Chinese Opera Institute's inaugural Prestige Orchids Awards in 2014 for their contributions to Singapore Chinese opera, especially in the early years.

Mr Bian, 53, of the Chinese Opera and Drama Society, said Mr Hor's memoirs followed Madam Phan's, which were published 15 years ago by the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts.

"I decided to publish Mr Hor's book because his nearly 100 years' life is almost as long as the development of Chinese opera in Singapore and he not only witnessed most of that period, but was also an active participant," he explained.

The book also shed light on less-known facets of Mr Hor's life.

Despite little formal education, for instance, he was publisher of a weekly newspaper, Gongshang Daobao, and a movie magazine in partnership with friends between 1959 and 1969.

Before that, he had worked in various Chinese newspapers, including the now-defunct Nanfang Wanbao and Nanyang Siang Pau.

He also played for the newspapers' basketball teams, representing them in tournaments both here and abroad.

He was a marketing and advertising man in his two publications, leaving editorial matters to his other partners. The publications folded eventually due to stiff competition.

Mr Hor, who was born in Singapore to a candle-maker from Zhangzhou in Fujian province, went into the restaurant business in 1977 when he and his wife started selling popiah, using his mother's recipe.

Today, there are two restaurants - one in Jalan Besar, the other in Jalan Bukit Merah - which are managed by his grandchildren.

Mr Hor's memoirs were written by Shen Jihua, a publisher and writer for many Chinese clan associations' magazines in Johor, who spent over a year interviewing him.

Besides his life story, the book includes his involvement in the basketball scene both here and abroad between the 1930s and 1950s, and in helping to set up Nanyang University in the 1950s.

There is also a chapter on his wife, Madam Huang Bixia. She was his childhood sweetheart whom he married in 1943 during the Japanese Occupation here, when he was 23 and she 21.

Madam Huang, who died of kidney failure in 1997, aged 80, shared his love of the arts and sports. She was not only a good pianist but also a national swimmer who represented Malaya in an international meet in China in 1948.

The couple have four children - three girls and a boy - who are in their 60s and 70s.

Eldest daughter Hor Ching, 72, who is single and lives with her father in a two-room Housing Board flat just above their restaurant in Jalan Bukit Merah, said: "My dad has had an eventful and interesting life. My wish is for him to have many more good years ahead."

She also takes him to the McDonald's outlet at Chinatown Point every weekday afternoon to meet his friends.

What does Mr Hor think is his secret to longevity? "Exercise daily, eat moderately, be happy and show no anger," he said.

•Call the Chinese Opera and Drama Society at 62923393 to order the book at $12 a copy.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 20, 2017, with the headline 'A life marked by passion for song and sport'. Print Edition | Subscribe