A personal tribute to Denise Ho (hocc)

Disclaimer: This is very much personal and is made up of my personal recollection. There may be inaccuracies due to old, failing memory. ;p

I've always been particularly enamored by singer-songwriter types. I've spent a large part of my teenage years obsessed over Faye Wong and when she retired I was convinced there won't be any artiste that would set my heart fluttering again.

I have to admit, when I first noticed Denise Ho (she's relatively unknown in Singapore because cantopop is no longer in the musical diet of the people here these days) it wasn't because of any of her talents. It was because a good friend had pointed her out to me during a karaoke session – nope, not because of the song she was singing, but because she was strongly rumoured to be gay. And that she is the late Anita Mui's protégé.

Her appeal

She always had this androgynous quality, even back in those days when she had long, silky hair. She was always charismatic, though not in the same league as her mentor and definitely different from the unapproachable Faye Wong.

She's not naturally gifted with a voice that would take people's breaths away, neither is she blessed with drop-dead gorgeous looks. She knows this herself and acknowledged it during her 2006 concert. However, she makes up for it with musical ability – she has produced a stage musical, written several memorable songs and is great with the electric guitar. Most of all, she has a lot of heart. That unflappable drive and determination to succeed – not as the most popular artiste, but as the one who stays true to the path she wants.

2004-2006: transformation

Her first concert was held 10 years after she started her career. 10 years is a long time, especially for an artiste. The passing away of Anita Mui, her beloved mentor was the unfortunate trigger to her transformation. I believe many a time we all have to sink to the bottom in order to rise up. That was quite literal in this case.

I remember her speaking in an interview, admitting that she had always been stubborn in executing her musical career, never wanting to wear fanciful costumes or attract publicity. She simply wanted to be herself and perform great music. Her mentor once told her, once you become an entertainer, you belong to the stage and the audience. You have a responsibility to entertain.

I guess the passing away allowed her to take a look at the bigger picture and reset her priorities. She probably felt very much inclined to carry on her mentor's legacy, not only to entertain, but to do good in her capacity as a celebrity. And sometimes, in fact most times, in order to fulfill a greater purpose, you will need to step out of your own comfort zone and be committed to do things that you typically will not want to do.

So she started putting on the glittering costumes, included smooth, complicated dance routines into her songs, made the effort to put herself into the mainstream. I apologise if I made it sound like she was a sell-out, but that was far from the truth. In taking those steps forward she brought her talents out into the open. (At barcamp 4 last year, Joe Augustine pointed out that if you have a gift, you owe it to society to market yourself. To enable the sharing of the gift. I would not have really agreed with this one year earlier, but now I feel that it is very much the truth.)

So what if you need to do a little packaging, a bit of mass marketing, ultimately the goal is to get the message out to as many people as possible. It is all about looking at the bigger picture and doing the necessary bridging to your desired destination.

She had the blessed help of a truly gifted lyricist, Wyman Wong, who writes the lyrics of 95% of her songs. His lyrics are so haunting, intricate and beautiful that no words of description will do him justice. Strings of cantonese words that makes your heart wince when you listen to them. She was also blessed with a personal band – Green Mountain Orchestra, which consists of her brother and three other talented musicians.

What started of as pure curiosity when I took notice of her the first time at the ktv developed into pure admiration (okay, almost obsession lol). The more I found out about her, the more I listened to her music, the more I watched her perform; the more my admiration grew.

So when the news arrived that she was finally due to hold her first concert in Hongkong, I bought the concert and *air* tickets almost immediately. I was not doing very well financially back then but I knew it would be worth it. I was not let down. While artistes naturally gifted with amazing voices (no names mentioned lol) would perhaps run out of breath during a dance segment or struggle to reach the high notes during a live concert, Denise delivered an almost flawless performance. And it was only 'almost' flawless because the flaws came at those times she could no longer control her delivery – due to tears.

Every single cent I spent flying to Hongkong was not only worth it, but I probably had a double ROI (return of investment) in terms of the memories I brought back, at least.

2009: losing in order to gain

So when I attended her concert again last year, I went with the same expectations of a good, live, performance. But I was stunned. Just when I thought it could not get any better, she proved me wrong. She managed to deliver a vocal performance that was even better than the last. While previously she betrayed split-moments of doubts and weakness when switching to falsetto (pardon me, I have no knowledge of the proper musical terms), this time round she sounded better than a studio recording! It was better than a studio recording because apart from the impeccable vocal delivery, she infused her charged emotions into every single note. She sang as if every note would be her last.

Having been to concerts whereby the artistes sounded like they were regurgitating the song from their distant memory and as though they cannot wait to finish it, it was difficult not to be appreciative of her performance.

Synchronicity in action

I always believe in synchronicity and I believe I was meant to catch her 2009 performance. It was written in the stars. I had actually made the decision *not* to go, my Tokyo trip had blew my travel budget for the entire year. With a strange twist of fate, an ex-client from Hongkong decided to visit Singapore and meet me up for coffee before she was due to be back. I have never met this client before and in fact I had never met any of my clients (by choice), but a few months before that meeting I made the conscious decision to end my hermit-dom. If she had decided to drop by Singapore any other time, I would never have agreed! ;p (Seriously, I had a very serious case of hermit-dity.)

So we were having a good conversation and I casually mentioned that I was supposed to be in Hongkong that week to catch Denise Ho's concert. She was like, hey, come, you can stay over at my place! This was a person that I never met before in my life and we only worked together for a couple of projects and she had no reservations about inviting a near-stranger over to her place. If this was not in pure, good faith, I wouldn't know what to call it. (Thanks, Belle.)

Anyway, I told her that the tickets were sold out, it was too late to go anyway. She flew back to Hongkong that evening, saw on facebook that a friend was selling the tickets (I said it was written in the stars) and bought them as a gift for me. She emailed me right away, complete with a screenshot of that facebook status and scans of the tickets.

I was speechless. Events like these restore my faith in humanity.

Meant to be there

I was experiencing a low period in my life at that time, fatigued in every manner possible. The moment the concert kicked off, I felt a surge of energy (very similar to how I felt at the AWARE egm), the atmosphere and energy level was electrifying. If you had been in a place whereby tons of people come together, united by a common cause, you would know what I am trying to express. This is beyond words.

Midway through the concert, I understood why I had to be there. She said to us, that in the past 3 years people would have thought that she had lost a lot, but she felt that she has gained more than what she had lost. That if you believe in a cause, you should stay strong in that belief, even if means being the odd one out or going against the flow. (Isn't this what I've been writing all the time at this blog!?)

She could have gone on to greater heights from 2006, during the peak of her career. Just when everyone was expecting her to move forward from there and perhaps take the crown off Joey Yung (the reigning canto-pop queen), she almost retreated back into obscurity.

Going against the flow

Instead of doing what everyone is expecting her to do, she took what most people would view as steps backwards. She took a lot of time out to get involved in charity and social causes, produced albums that were more of an artistic ambition than an attempt for mainstream success. She married artistic ambition and her effort for causes when she produced an album (Ten Days in the Madhouse) that was accompanied by a documentary on people living in a mental institution, as well as staging a free concert themed "Happiness is free".

Her mainstream popularity waned during this period and probably people thought her career was going downhill. But she probably understood that in life, you win some and lose some – this was a tradeoff she was willing to make. Her decisions were validated during that concert. If you had been there, as part of the audience, you would have felt what she felt. Ultimately it was the people there that mattered. The support that stayed with her throughout the years, the people who understood her. She managed to influence less people, but on a much deeper level.

What really matters

I have always maintained while writing this blog that it doesn't matter if the mass audience think I am writing crap or if I am delusional, because I know that there will be people who will connect with my writing, however few and these are the people that matters. When you want to make a difference you cannot expect to change the world single-handedly, there is a reason why there is diversity in the world. Diversity is what that unites and divides people, it is what that makes the world so beautiful and yet so ugly.

You can only hope in faith that you will manage to touch the lives of a few people genuinely, and these people will go on and touch a few other lives. Just like how I was touched by a few good people and I am now trying to do the same.

She spoke of the difficulties she faced while trying to stay true to her path and the many times she has contemplated giving up, but standing at the stage that day, feeling all that love and support, she knows she has to carry on.

I swallowed back tears of empathy when I was listening to her, because it stroke a chord with me. How difficult it can be. To try and do what feels right.

Me, being part of the audience that night, I too, knew I had to carry on.

She asked the audience, was the past 3 years smooth or difficult? And that what matters was that despite whatever that happened during those 3 years, we are still there with her. I had a flashback of my past 3 years and I couldn't help but feel emotional. How much have gone by. How much I have survived. But I still did. I still survived.

I thanked my guides silently, I had felt immense gratitude to be there. That it was kind of a nice reminder for me to stay true to my cause. I went back to Singapore refreshed.

Bringing peace

She came to Singapore last weekend to act in a stage play directed by Edward Lam, "Man and Woman, War and Peace". This time, I went with no expectations (I saw a few promo clips and didn't think it looked very interesting, see am not a biased fan), and in all honesty, it was just because I wanted to see her, not because I wanted to indulge in any cultural activity of any sort.

And I am glad I went with no expectations because it provided me a clean slate to really enjoy and appreciate the play. Again, it reminded me of the time she has taken out to go on this tour, just to stay true to her ideals.

"When two people are together, they only see each other. The "third party", however, represents a way out instead of a dead end. Because two people in love only have eyes for each other, they only see each other's strengths and weaknesses, no matter how keen their perception. What's more important, however, is the turning one one's gaze outwards, away from the self, beyond each other."

"...there is no peace without war. And peace is but the temporary respite before a war."

– Quoted from Man and Woman, War and Peace's programme guide.

The play tried to incorporate lots of ideals and messaging, to me, it was rather successful despite the complexity it was trying to accomplish, coupled with many moments of comedic relief. I don't think it is everyone's cup of tea. Regardless, I could fully appreciate the effort and ideals, and I was particularly impressed with the change of parts of the script in an attempt to localize the play to a certain extent. They even brought up "Little Nonya"! The play would still be accessible whether the script was changed or not but it is really all the small details that count because it would definitely make the local audience relate to the play more.

I was suffering from a lack of sleep and was feeling rather down when I went to watch the play (yes I know, I have a pattern). I marvel at the timing of how these events seem to co-incide. Once again, both the play and Denise Ho seemed to remind me of where my priorities lie – that I should stay true to my path. It is just so difficult to find that intricate balance between survival and purpose and I don't deny I have veered off the path countless times. Sucked into a comfort-zone and and selling my soul to maintain that status-quo.

Once again, a grateful, subtle, reminder in the best way possible. I mean, how can you find fault with a reminder that consists of entertainment and an outstanding performer?

Doing what that matters

All in all, I was extremely appreciative of the performance, regardless of whatever connotations or meaning it had to me. I wanted to show how much the play meant to me, to tell her (and the cast) that hey, you've touched my heart. I very much wanted to give a standing ovation but I knew it would be very embarrassing if I was the only one who stood up. There I was, having this internal battle within me, but I eventually came to realise that my embarrassment was nothing compared to the appreciation they deserve from me. Even if it was just from that one, lonely me.

So I stood up when the director and the main leads took the stage to give thanks. As I've expected, I seemed to be the only one who was standing up (I think the local audience is generally either very shy or very hard to please ;p). I felt really awkward but I kept telling myself that it is not important. Thankfully, when it was her turn to take the mic, there were a few other fans in the front rows who stood up together, at least I felt a little less silly lol.

This act of mine is rather significant to me, because people who know me will know I am extremely shy and have issues with being in public. It is like I finally had enough and I really just want to do what that really matters. If I want to stand up and applaud, just go ahead and do it right? Why does it matter if people think I am some crazy fan or not? It doesn't matter what people think or if they really understand – as long as I know what I am doing and why I am doing it, and that I really want to do it.

Hi, to a fellow alien

Some time last year after her series of concerts, she left this blog entry that says something along the lines of, "I am an alien. I do not belong here".

I don't think most people took her literally. I don't think people take me literally either when I tell them that. And I've been telling people this all my life. And the discovery that it may just be quite literal. (I don't care if you're rolling your eyes now lol)

So, Denise, if you're reading this: please know you're definitely not alone on this. :) And please know that I admire and applaud your efforts to continue doing what you believe in.

Thank you for your persistence in your beliefs and purpose.

Why I wrote this post

I really wanted to share my after-thoughts and significance of her concert to me last year, actually right after the concert. But there was just too much I wanted to express and I never had the time and space to put them all down in words. The words have sort of taken a life of their own in my head ever since I watched the play and I think that they want to be published.

I really want to share these thoughts for various reasons. I think you can see it as a personal tribute or dedication to her, or an ambitious attempt to summarise her and her efforts in a few thousand words.

It is again, my attempt to show and share my appreciation.

Additional links (yup she's a social network's dream as well):