Besides running an IT company, young entrepreneur Khor Choon Kiat is also the owner of 30 puppets, which he uses in his other job as an entertainer.
To buy his first puppet, a red bird he named Larry, the then 12-year-old sold his Playstation Portable game console to raise the money. Now 18, he says of the figurine from a magic shop here that cost $100: "I couldn't afford it and my father didn't want to pay for me because he thought it was a waste of money.
"But I was so happy when I got it and I took a video of myself practising ventriloquism every day. As time passed, the puppet's voice became distinct from mine."
His father is a freelance accountant and his mother, an executive at a hospital.
Khor tried ventriloquism after developing an interest in magic when his parents gave him a magic kit as a Christmas present when he was 10. He chanced on videos of American entertainers Terry Fator and Jeff Dunham, who combined magic and ventriloquism in their acts, and felt "magic as an art form is linked to ventriloquism".
His collection features flexible latex puppets as well as traditional wooden figurines ordered from the United States.
He buys a puppet online every month from American puppetmaker companies Axtell Expressions and Puppets And Props. Costing from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars each, he says the puppets are more animated and have a 3-D effect, which make them good props.
He has spent about $20,000 so far on his collection, which he hand-washes at least once a year.
The former Northbrooks Secondary School student started performing magic tricks at 13 and picked up balloon sculpting and ventriloquism to spice up his act.
He was doing so well that, a year later, he set up his own company, CK Magic School, under his mother's name. He put his studies on hold after his N levels last year to focus on the company, which he runs out of an office in Ming Arcade on Cuscaden Road. He charges $399 or $499 for his gigs and gets at least four to five bookings a month to perform at private events and birthday parties.
He also manages CK Software Solutions, an IT firm, in the same office. He started the company, which provides accounting software and website and app development services, in April with the money earned from his magic shows. "I wanted to make more money to buy more puppets."
His office is where he keeps his collection of about 30 puppets, which features characters from animals such as Larry to human dummies such as Tony, a wooden puppet in a top hat and matching tuxedo.
He usually takes along one or two puppets for his gigs. "I take Ah Meng out the most because it's the most popular with kids," he says of the monkey puppet that he bought for about $700 from American puppetmaker Steve Axtell three years ago. "But my favourite is Tony because he has a very child-like character. Kids like him a lot too and have very nice memories of him."
At $700, Tony is cheaper than the rest of the traditional wooden puppets in the collection. His most expensive wooden puppet is Mr Green, a quirky character with a bushy moustache that cost almost $4,000. Boasting the most expressive face among the puppets, Mr Green can move his eyes, mouth and ears.
Despite their hefty price tags, Khor still prefers the traditional wooden puppets to the flexible latex ones. "Not only can they last longer, up to a few decades, but they also look cooler and make for a more professional and memorable performance," he says.
"Performing with wooden puppets also requires more practice, but that's what I like because it's a challenge."
Switching between the four voices he has mastered - low-pitched, high- pitched, mischievous and a gruff old man tone - Khor spends a few hours daily to perfect the routine for each puppet.
The puppets are more than mere tools for him. "I have a passion for performing and collecting... I plan to grow my collection till I die and I hope to be buried with them," he says with a smile.
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