Sing-sing

In the warm evening air the audience remained reserved. Even when the ‘father of Malaysian bodybuilding’ appeared on stage to present the weighty prizes, the clapping was muted. Nonetheless, despite the limited adulation and the threat of a thunderstorm flashing through the distant night sky, the crowd remained. It’s important to take Melaka’s regular Sunday night pensioners’ karaoke competition seriously.

Melaka, on the west coast of the Malaysian peninsular, has a rich history of trade, primarily from the 15th and 16th centuries. Like much of Malaysia it is a mix of cultures and religions, typified by it’s ‘Harmony Street’, where the countries three main religions worship side by side, with a Methodist church on the corner for good measure. The karaoke, on the other hand, was a wholly Nyonya-Baba (otherwise known as Straits Chinese or Peranakan) affair. These descendants of ethnic Chinese immigrants are intensely proud of their heritage, their culture, their cuisine and their town. They also love a good sing-sing and, at the culmination of the weekend market on Jonker Street, the older generation take to the stage.

Singing mainly plaintive Chinese pop songs to a respectful crowd, the contestants on in this OAP-Factor were judged by the standard panel of three judges, for whom staying awake for the seemingly never ending wrinkled performances appeared to be the biggest problem. Not that the outfits weren’t snazzy, mind you. Glitzy frocks, snazzy lapels, large floral button holes: karaoke isn’t this glam in the pubs of Yorkshire, where singers are mire likely to belch into the mic than sing an angular Chinese pentatonic.

Our favourite was a small dapper chap, decked out in a simple shirt and tie combination (no fancy frills here) and, befitting of his more elderly stature, a good old flat cap. He had clearly been practicing for his moment in the limelight and, although he seemed a touch nervous at first, he was soon giving a tender and touching performance that we thought would surely deserve a top spot. Diminutive he may have been, and the spectacle slightly bizarre, but it certainly maintained a great sense of dignity and pride.

Unfortunately for our man, the judges saw more merit in some of the other contestants, and as the audience waited patiently and the lightening began to signal a reason to get home for others, the panel deliberated and their verdict was given. One by one, the many singers came to the front of the stage to collect their various trophies. It seems that in Chinese karaoke prizegiving, size certainly matters.

But of course there was no wild cheering. Nobody gave the main prizewinners a standing ovation. There was barely a ripple of applause. If this was due to custom, it was dignified to the point of rudeness. Maybe it would be lime a school assembly, and in order to keep control, the organisers had asked the audience to clap everyone at the end. Perhaps the strange Sunday night singing competition was as much of a mystery to the local crowd as it was to us. Children chasing balloons and a little light chatter was all that rustled the audience.

As the final prizes were awarded, the prominent local politician Dr Gan Boon Leong was presenting. This old man was unrecognisable from his earlier days as a former Mr Universe. In fact, he seemed to have changed a fair bit since the statues of him had been made that could be found in various locations along the street. If the singers had dignity and humility in performance, it doesn’t seem to have been inspired by his image…

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