Rebel. Rocker. Influential. Intellectual. Punk. Monk. Hunk. These were some of the usual terms bandied about to describe Chris Ho, though they could never fully capture him in his colourful entirety. And now, words no longer matter to the man who used his – and his singular, mellifluous voice – to leave an indelible mark on Singapore and indeed, the world. For Chris Ho, the godfather and champion of Singapore indie and underground music also known as X’Ho, died on September 27, succumbing to the stomach cancer he had been fighting for two months.
Ho’s untimely death has sent deep shockwaves of grief through Singapore’s small music scene and wider artistic sphere. But he is also mourned by thousands of Singaporeans whose lives he touched through his decades of work as a DJ, for the last 28 years at a succession of Mediacorp radio stations: 987FM (then known as Perfect 10 98.7FM), the short-lived Lush 99.5, and oldies station GOLD 905. But those were not Ho’s most vital years on the airwaves.
Ho first distinguished himself in the 1970s as one of the most popular DJs on Rediffusion, a private cable-radio station, when he played the likes of Lou Reed, The Velvet Underground, The Stooges and Suicide, underground rockers that were obscure to Singapore audiences. He also hosted a weekly Sunday morning show on SBC Radio One called Hitachi’s Airwaves in the ’80s. Over the years, the affable Ho developed a reputation for enthusiastically championing new bands and educating listeners through the unorthodox music he played on his shows like Eight Miles High and Airwaves. This endeared him especially to younger listeners (including this writer) who were eager to discover new sounds they could claim for their own generation.
“To many music fans in Singapore, he was our John Peel: a pioneering DJ who had introduced us to many indie/alternative bands,” said journalist Vernon Lee, an avid fan of Ho’s in the day who first learned about bands like The Replacements, The Church and Wire through his radio shows. “I would regularly tune in to his Eight Miles High weekly programme on Rediffusion. It was my window to the world of music from the underground.”
Besides spinning the tunes, Chris also made them. In 1982, he formed Singapore’s first post-punk band, Zircon Lounge, with guitarist Yeow Tan, emerging from the ashes of his first band Transformer. With Ho as lead singer and songwriter, Zircon Lounge released their one and only studio album, ‘Regal Vigor’, the following year. It sold a paltry thousand copies in its time, and got the band dropped from their label as a result. But it was a critical success then, and is now given its due as a touchstone in the history of rock’n’roll in Singapore, Zircon Lounge accordingly hailed as a progenitor of alternative rock in Singapore.
‘Regal Vigor’ “was flying against what was popular back then in the early ’80s Singapore, namely hard rock bands and local lounge bands who played nothing but Top 40 covers,” says Patrick Chng. “Zircon played their own original songs and stood out from the rest of the mainstream live acts that were mostly pub bands that played covers.”
Chng is a member of The Oddfellows, just one of the many bands and artists influenced by Zircon Lounge: Joe Ng, Corporate Toil, Kelvin Tan, The NoNames, Leslie Low, Humpback Oak, The Observatory and many more continued to blaze the trail Ho began so brightly with Zircon Lounge, playing and recording their own original compositions.
Like a doting godfather, Chris later broke many of these same acts on his Weird Scenes Inside the Goldmine show on Rediffusion. In concert and sometimes in collaboration with promotional efforts by pop culture magazine, BigO, the music scene in Singapore was forever changed from the ’80s on.
Ho wrote for the countercultural magazine BigO – but also for Singapore’s paper of record, the Straits Times. In his influential Pop Life column, he promoted Singaporean indie acts, shared his passion for his favourite artists like Tom Waits and Rickie Lee Jones, and championed then-emerging acts like Talking Heads, U2, R.E.M., Sinead O’Connor and The Smiths. A selection of his best essays were compiled into books, including 1998’s Skew Me, You Rebel Meh?, where Ho explicitly detailed what he wanted his obituary to say: “X’Ho. Age: Forever 27 (the real age is none of anyone’s business).”
Eddino Abdul Hadi, Straits Times music correspondent and guitarist/vocalist of the surf punk band Force Vomit, remembers Ho as “an inspiration on so many levels”. “I grew up reading his music articles in ST and BigO and ended up following in his footsteps and writing for both. He gave Force Vomit one of our first big breaks when he wrote a glowing review in ST back in 1996. More recently, when he asked me to go down to TNT Studios to play some guitar on his solo album, ‘Singapura Uber Alles’, I did so without hesitation.”
Chris Ho leaves behind a rich legacy of music – including an extensive solo catalogue that took into its scope synth-pop, protest music and black metal – and critical thought across formats. But it’s his other legacy that many will remember him by: that of a giving, generous spirit.
“It was his acts of kindness to me – a total stranger who was merely tuning in to his programmes – that I remember most,” Lee says. “When I told him that I wanted to know more about [Wire’s] ‘Pink Flag’ album, he was kind enough to dub a cassette for me and scribble the song titles on the cover! That’s how many people here in Singapore perceive him – not just as key figure in the local music scene but also a selfless and kind man.”
On the flipside of Ho’s gentle generosity was a scathing wit, which he gave voice to in satirical essays for BigO and sardonic social media posts. He held up a funhouse mirror to Singaporean society, its myths and foibles, bringing to mind the figure of the Holy Fool, as articulated by Malcolm Gladwell:
“The Holy Fool is a truth-teller because he is an outcast. Those who are not part of existing social hierarchies are free to blurt out inconvenient truths or question things the rest of us take for granted.”
When future generations look back on the last half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st, they will find one iconoclastic figure looming large over Singapore’s cultural landscape, like a punk jester or tattooed holy fool: Chris Ho.