Pop chameleon who was charming and funny

David Bowie on an escalator in Far East Plaza in the film Ricochet.
David Bowie on an escalator in Far East Plaza in the film Ricochet.SCREENGRAB: BOWIEHAWK/ YOUTUBE
David Bowie chats with a taxi driver in Singapore in the film Ricochet.
David Bowie chats with a taxi driver in Singapore in the film Ricochet.SCREENGRAB: TOH HUN PING/ YOUTUBE

English music icon David Bowie's death from cancer on Sunday has rekindled interest in online videos of him walking the streets of Singapore back in 1983.

The clips, several of which can be found on YouTube, are taken off Ricochet, a semi-documentary, semi-fictional tour film released in 1984 that features scenes from the Singapore, Hong Kong and Bangkok stops of his Serious Moonlight world tour.

Bowie is seen taking taxis and visiting heritage venues such as Sri Mariamman Temple, Masjid Abdul Gafoor and Thian Hock Keng temple. In another scene, he is going up and down neon-lit escalators in the then newly opened Far East Plaza, at one point sitting alone among fake Christmas trees.

There is little dialogue, but he does have a brief discussion with a taxi driver about Singapore's strict laws.

There are also clips from a backstage interview with Singapore television and radio personality William Xavier before his first performance here at the old National Stadium. At one point, he asks Xavier about what it means to be a rebel in Singapore, to which the latter replies that rebellion here is "kept within reasonable limits".

Bowie's first show here was sponsored and promoted by the late poet, playwright, novelist and nightclub owner Goh Poh Seng.

In a Facebook post, his son, Mr Kagan Goh, recalled how his father "almost went bankrupt" financing the show and how they eventually developed a friendship with Bowie.

He also wrote about how Bowie initially declined an offer to visit their house to watch a Chinese classical music performance, saying that he did not "fraternize with concert promoters".

"My father sent Bowie a message through his personal assistant, telling him to tell Bowie that 'he is only a rock star. I, however, am a poet'. Bowie came to meet my father hat in hand to apologise for his rudeness."

The post also included excerpts from Bowie's Serious Moonlight tour book, in which he refers to the senior Goh as a "wonderful and fearless promoter" who "risked his livelihood, bank balance and even his freedom to get me and my band into his country".

Bowie also described how he defied the authorities by playing two songs - China Girl and Modern Love - that he stated were banned from radio airplay here, and how the senior Goh was threatened with imprisonment if the star did an "impromptu guest appearance" at a youth club gig two days before his National Stadium show.

Former Straits Times journalist Ong Soh Chin, who interviewed Bowie in Los Angeles for this newspaper in 1993, remembers him as a genial man.

"He was beaming from ear-to-ear and looked fantastic, tall and wearing a suit. I got in and there was a table with coffee and tea. He stood up and shook my hand. I told him I was nervous. He said, 'Don't be', and asked me if I would like some tea," says Ong, now a media consultant. "He was extremely pleasant, polite, charming, funny. He put you at ease. There were no airs about him."

Bowie's music and art was influential to many musicians and fans here.

Universal Music Singapore's head of artist and repertoire, Mr Lim Teck Kheng, says Bowie was a "pop chameleon" whose music had an impact on several generations of musicians and music fans. "His death is so unexpected. I have been a fan of his music since my teenage years. My experimental band back then, Kim, used to cover Bowie's Space Oddity at our gigs."

Bowie's work also had an impact on the music scene's current crop of indie acts such as singer- songwriter Inch Chua, 27.

"Bowie is one of the most unique and prolific artists that ever lived," she says. "He's courageous in all aspects of his life and he has such sensitivity to humanity."

She adds that his body of work taught her to love and understand theatrics in music, as well as an appreciation for "fantasy, sci-fi and otherworldly things".

"He is beautifully odd. His music and artistry are the reasons I am the artist that I am."

Singapore's Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, is also a fan. He posted on his Facebook page on Monday: "Musical genius of a generation. David Bowie, born Jan 1947, raised in Brixton, London. Died 11 Jan 2016 from cancer. Goodbye, Major Tom".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 13, 2016, with the headline 'Pop chameleon who was charming and funny'. Print Edition | Subscribe