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Meet Singapore's disco king, who finished 2nd in 1980 world dance contest

Before Zouk and the nightlife at Clarke Quay, Singapore was a funky town with award-winning disco dancers. The New Paper speaks to two disco kings who ruled this boogie wonderland over 30 years ago

SINGAPORE (THE NEW PAPER) - Kept away in Mr Raymond Chong’s bedroom in his two-storey apartment is an outfit so precious, he keeps it in a vacuum-sealed bag.

It is a blue jumpsuit with a plunging neckline and adorned with sequins.

While the 54-year-old remisier probably wouldn’t be caught dead wearing this flamboyant outfit in public now, it holds a special memory for him — it was what he wore when he was crowned Singapore’s disco king over 30 years ago.

In 1980, when he was 18, Mr Chong beat more than 30 other dancers from all over the world to clinch second place in the EMI World Disco Dancing Championship.

“My friend who owned a boutique gave me the costume as a gift and told me I would look good dancing in it,” says Mr Chong, who is married with four children.

“I’m quite surprised that after all these years, it still fits!”

Recently, a video of Mr Chong’s fancy footwork made its rounds online. New York fashion magazine Hint shared a video of the 1980 competition on Nov 4. It now has more than six million views.

A video of the 1979 edition of the contest, which featured Singaporean Derek Joseph, also made its rounds on social media.

Mr Chong, who was surprised at the popularity of the video, laughs as he tells The New Paper on Sunday: “I guess disco is still stayin’ alive!

“It has been such a long time, but winning that competition is still one of the best moments of my life.”

Mr Chong represented Singapore on the international dance floor after he was crowned winner of the Singapore Disco Dancing Competition that year.

Framed medals from the competitions — a testament to his outstanding achievements — now hang on the wall of his room. But the champion reveals that at the time, he had only just picked up disco dancing.

With a little over a year’s experience dancing at disco clubs, Mr Chong did not expect to get into the finals, let alone represent Singapore.

He says he was influenced by disco movies such as Saturday Night Fever and Roller Boogie. But he also cultivated his own style by drawing inspiration from other dances, including breakdancing and salsa.

Mr Chong says: “I’m a natural-born dancer because I can hear the music, look at the style and come up with my own. That’s why I did not need any formal training.

“I liked to dance and I wanted to dance as much as possible, so I tried all the styles I could. When I performed disco, I put together all the styles that I saw and made my own.”

Cutting a humble figure, he adds: “I had no idea I could even win, there were so many good dancers.”

Although he was certified as the best disco dancer here, Mr Chong knew his limited experience and skills were not enough. So, in the months before competing internationally, he worked on his sense of rhythm and perfected his dance moves.


Mr Raymond Chong can still fit into the blue jumpsuit he wore to the EMI World Disco Dancing Championship in 1980. PHOTO: COURTESY OF RAYMOND CHONG

He says: “I knew I had to train harder and be more creative, so I kept on dancing to polish my skills.”

His efforts paid off. On Dec 16, 1980, Mr Chong placed second in the world championship, which was held in London.

When asked if he was disappointed over missing out on first place, which went to the contestant from South Africa, Mr Chong laughs before saying that he was happy just to get into the finals. But he cheekily admits that it made him happy to perform better than the United States contestant.

He says: “Disco began from the US and was so popular there. It felt good to have performed better than them.”

Mr Chong came back a hero and was instantly recognised in disco clubs such as Studio M and Copacabana, just like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.

In fact, Mr Chong was so popular that he was booked for guest performances, and was even asked to judge dance competitions.

With a shy smile, he says: “People would come up to me, give me high-fives and say hi. Sometimes, they made way for me to dance disco.”

Mr Chong’s wife, Ms Shirley Cheo, 46, had no idea he was a disco legend when she first met him.

The pair met when Mr Chong was helping to choreograph a dance routine for Ms Cheo during Chingay in 1987.

“I did not know he was a disco king — it was only after we started going out that I found out. It was quite surprising,” says Ms Cheo.

Did the pair go dancing together?

Ms Cheo laughs, then says: “Not really, he is so much better than me.”

Even as the disco trend started dying, Mr Chong never gave up the funk. As a hobby, he started picking up other styles of dances and teaching them, a practice he still keeps up today.

It seems that the dancing bug is hereditary — all of Mr Chong’s four children, aged 11 to 19, are seasoned performers who enjoy dancing to Latin and K-pop music.

Eve, 17, says: “Disco is not really my thing, but it’s great that daddy still enjoys dancing. I’m proud of him.”

Mr Chong does not look like he will stop dancing any time soon.

During the interview, he did an impromptu performance for TNPS while decked out in the outfit he wore 30 years ago.

As he caught his breath, amid the applause from his proud children, he says: “Disco allows you to be creative, it’s full of life and energy. It really was one of the best.”


Proud to have represented Singapore


Mr Derek Joseph with the award he received for placing first in the first Singapore Disco Dancing Competition. PHOTO: THE NEW PAPER

Most people know disco for its flashy costumes and packed nightclubs.

But for event planner Derek Joseph, 55, disco was a way of life.

He would know. Back in 1979, Mr Joseph was Singapore’s first representative to the EMI World Disco Dancing Championship, where he finished sixth.

Mr Joseph tells The New Paper on Sunday: “It was something we all enjoyed together at each other’s house parties.

“It was all we had back then — you must remember this was a time before the Internet or even CD players.”

Mr Joseph says many of the nights in his early teenage years were filled with these house parties. Disco music had debuted in the early 1970s, and it was all people danced to.

Mr Joseph, who is married with two teenage boys, became fascinated with the music and would even mimic the performances he saw.

His biggest inspiration? Michael Jackson.

“Every weekend without fail, I would press my face against the television, watch him on The Jackson 5 and copy their performances,” says Mr Joseph.

All that practising showed in his dancing, and Mr Joseph says his friends would always single him out for his moves.

At their insistence, Mr Joseph signed up for the first Singapore Disco Dancing Competition, which he describes as a “nerve-racking experience”.

He says: “I had only danced for fun, but this was a whole other thing altogether.”

In order to set himself apart from the other competitors, he decided to incorporate Indian dance influences into his performance.

“I needed a winning card, something to set me apart from the rest. Luckily, my friend’s sister could teach me the traditional dance steps,” he says.

But the dance steps were not enough. A few days before the competition, he went to Serangoon to buy a kurta — a traditional Indian outfit — to perform in.

His efforts paid off. Mr Joseph placed first and flew to London to represent Singapore — all at the age of 17.

It was his first time overseas, and Mr Joseph says the level of competition at the international championship was unprecedented.

He says: “I remember walking up to the dance floor — it was the biggest I had ever seen in my life.

“There were hundreds of mirror balls and people were flying around and somersaulting.”

Sticking to what he knew best, Mr Joseph put on the kurta — only this time it was made by a professional and adorned with sequins. He continued adding an Indian dance twist to his moves too.

“It was important to be different, especially at the international stage,” he says.

Although he did not place in the top five, Mr Joseph counts himself lucky that he managed to even make it to the finals, a feat he says he had never dreamt of achieving.

A video of the 1979 disco championships has been spreading online recently. Mr Joseph says watching it brought back plenty of good memories.

“I was surprised, because it’s still there after so many years. At first, I watched it and kept quiet, because I’m easily embarrassed,” he says.

He adds with a laugh: “Somehow my brother saw it. Next thing you know, everyone, even my boys, were watching. If I were 22, it would be cool. But at this age, I was a bit shy.”

Despite the embarrassment, Mr Joseph says he is proud as it was rare for Singapore to be represented on the international stage.

He says: “Finally Singapore appeared somewhere at the time. It was a good feeling.”

As he excitedly flips through his collection of photographs from the time, Mr Joseph says: “I’m so fortunate to have been able to represent Singapore.”


Disco fever ended as quickly as it started


A still from the movie Saturday Night Fever, starring John Travolta.

Disco here did not start out in dance clubs.

Mr Derek Joseph says that in the early 1970s, the dance style was more common at house parties than the Zouk clubs of its day.

“It was not always about flashy dance floors,” he says.

“People would just be dancing together at house parties. No need for a fancy bar or even alcohol. They danced because they loved the music.”

Even the popular disco attire, characterised by bell bottom pants and fancy sequins, was reserved only for special occasions.

Mr Joseph says: “It didn’t matter what you wore, as long as you were having a good time.”

Over time, the disco inferno engulfed the local dancing scene. Nightclubs all across the island started playing disco music.

Mr Raymond Chong says: “The main places to dance disco included Studio M, Copacabana and Goodwood Park. The queues were always long, and people could not wait to get into the club.”

Both dancing champions say the dance style was such a hit that people would be dancing even at weddings or private functions.

But as quickly as it exploded, disco started fizzling out in the 1980s.

The soaring vocals and steady beats of disco made way for the thumping sounds of electronic music.

“By the 1990s, artists didn’t make any more disco music. It was seldom played, replaced by other kinds of music that people liked,” says Mr Chong.

But regardless of how long it has been, die-hard disco fans say the music will always survive.

Mr Joseph says: “It’s the most honest and pure music out there. It allows you to express yourself and be creative. There will never be anything like disco.”