Young buskers of Singapore

Alan Fong, 10, sings and plays the guitar in Chinatown once a week and wants to take part in The Voice Of China when he is older

Nine-year-old Alan Fong was shopping with his mother in Orchard Road when he chanced upon a busker performing to applause from the audience.

He decided there and then that he could get more applause if he was the one performing.

"When he finished the song, everyone clapped, so I thought that if I busked, everyone will encourage me more because I'm younger than him," says Alan in jest.

Now 10, he busks in Chinatown once a week, singing English and Mandarin pop songs while strumming an acoustic guitar. And he has indeed received encouraging responses from his audience.

Apart from applause and money, the audience has also showered him with gifts in between his performances, including handwritten notes of encouragement, flowers, drinks, ice cream cones and, on one memorable occasion, a can of beer.

The Primary 5 pupil of Kheng Cheng School is the youngest licensed busker in Singapore, according to the National Arts Council (NAC), which auditions and licenses buskers under its Busking Scheme.


Other young buskers on the streets here include 15-year-old juggler Wesley Mok, and singing duo Alastair, 15, and Xander Hoskinson, 18.

While there is no age limit for buskers, those under 17 have to get consent from their parent or guardian.

"We understand that young buskers may see it as a way to gain performance confidence and bring good cheer to the community," says an NAC spokesman.

Alan has earned praise from passers-by such as Mr Chua Thiam Siew, 65, a retiree who watched his performance in Chinatown last Thursday. "It takes a lot of courage to perform in front of an audience," says Mr Chua in Mandarin. "He entertains the old folk around the area."

Being the youngest on the streets does not daunt the singer, who enjoys playing in front of a crowd.

Since getting his licence a year ago, the earnest 1.3m-tall boy has raked in an average of $100 every session. Each session lasts for about 1 ½ hours.

Busking, he says, trains him to be more comfortable when performing in front of an audience, which is especially important as he aspires to become a professional singer.

"I want to go on a very big stage. When I'm about 16 years old, I want to take part in The Voice Of China, like Nathan Hartono," says Alan. He was sporting a pair of sunglasses while busking to hide an eye infection.

I saw a person dancing hip-hop on the street and there was such a big crowd. I was so jealous.

BUSKER ALAN FONG, who thinks that the presence of a crowd affirms one's performing skills

The boy's interest in music was piqued when he was six years old. Then, he accompanied his mother to a karaoke session at a community centre near his home.

After seeing how onlookers had cheered his mother on during her performance, he asked to take up singing lessons. Within the next two days, his housewife mother had engaged a private singing teacher for him.

He later decided to pick up the guitar because his idol, British singer Ed Sheeran, plays it while singing.

At home, Alan, who has two older sisters aged 16 and 29 - both of whom are not musically inclined - spends 11/2 to three hours every day singing and practising on the guitar. He also learns from watching YouTube videos of other singers performing.

"When performers sing and talk on shows, they'll give out their secrets, so I'll take note of that," he says, adding that he jots down these notes in a notebook.

His father, 55-year-old taxi driver Alvin Fong, also provides "important comments" on his singing, says Alan.

When not busy with singing and guitar-playing, the boy enjoys hip-hop dancing, a newfound passion.

"I saw a person dancing hip-hop on the street and there was such a big crowd. I was so jealous," says Alan, who thinks that the presence of a crowd affirms one's skills.

"But I'm not going to dance on the streets. I just want to dance for fun."

However, all the time spent on these extra-curricular activities may come at a cost.

"I worry that he spends too much time on them and it affects his studies. But he's been learning for so long and he loves it so much, we can't just give it up now," says Mrs Fong An Li, 49, Alan's mother.

She says his school grades, while still acceptable, are not up to her standards. She is however, supportive of her son's dream of becoming a singer. "Of course, if he can become a singer, I will be very glad too. After all, it's an area that I really love as well."

His busking career has just begun, but it may be a short-lived one.

Alan says he might "retire" from busking when he turns 12, a decision he made on his own.

"After I turn 12, I'll be in secondary school, so I'll probably need to catch up on my learning."

More confident in front of crowds

Wesley Mok (above) juggles three evenings a week at Clarke Quay. ST PHOTO: CARA WONG

Peers his age want to be lawyers or doctors when they grow up, but 15-year-old Wesley Mok dreams of becoming a circus performer.

The Secondary 3 student is starting off on the streets here as a busker - displaying his deftness at juggling coloured balls, lightsticks and even knives.

Performing three evenings a week at Clarke Quay, at the riverside entrance of shopping mall Clarke Quay Central, Wesley says busking is an avenue for him to display his skills.

"I like to share my art with audiences and hopefully, it brings more attention to the juggling community," says the St Hilda's Secondary School student.

His interest in juggling started at the age of 12, when his mother bought him a set of juggling balls.

From then, he was hooked on mastering the skill. After he chanced upon a busking juggler, he decided to become one too and applied for a permit.

Having busked for about a year, he treats it like a job.

"Even though I'm sometimes too tired from school to busk, I make it a point to go down anyway," says Wesley. "It takes a lot of determination. I see many buskers who give up after a while."

This might ring true for 18-year- old Ethan Ong, who made headlines here when he started off as a drummer on Orchard Road when he was five.

He was the drummer boy of Orchard Road for three years, until he moved to Guangzhou, China, with his family when his father was posted there for work.

The Raffles Institution student, who has since moved back to Singapore with his family, has no plans to return to the streets, although he says his busking experience built his confidence.

"There was a lot of flexibility in busking and it gave me ample time to perform and play, which made me a lot less nervous about performing in front of an audience," he says.

Like Ethan, Australian brothers Alastair and Xander Hoskinson started busking to shake off the jitters of performing live.

Brothers Alastair and Xander Hoskinson perform mostly during their school holidays from June to August. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

"We wanted to build our confidence. That was something we lacked at that time," says Alastair, 15. He sings while Xander, 18, accompanies him on the guitar.

The duo have been busking since they were 11 and 13 years old - mostly during their summer school holidays from June to August. Both study at international school United World College of South East Asia.

"Generally, everyone is positive and into what we're playing. We've had a lot of people come up to take photos, sing with us and dance too," says Alastair.

They have even found fame on social media. The brothers were featured in a Twitter video posted by an audience member in 2015, which got about 2,700 retweets, says Xander.

However, this summer might be their last one busking together, as Xander will graduate this year and plans to attend university overseas.

Still, Alastair says he is open to the idea of performing without his brother.

"Maybe I'll find a new partner or go solo, who knows?"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 05, 2017, with the headline 'Young buskers of Singapore'. Print Edition | Subscribe