After facing death, a busker's mission to fill a void in old folks' lives with joy
Mr Jack Tan has been making music since his younger days, but it was only when he thought his days were numbered that he found a higher purpose for his passion.
SINGAPORE: It is quiet, almost sombre, in the wards of the nursing home moments before Mr Jack Tan arrives. And it seems as if the only reception he will get would be the impassive faces of the patients.
But that is before the transformation begins. That is why the 56-year-old is there. That is his thing.
Once his equipment is set up and he starts on his electronic wind instrument, a range of emotions ripple through the three wards of the Lee Ah Mooi Old Age Home.
Resident Lilian Khoo, who is usually depressed and moody, is on her feet and dancing to the oldies he is playing for them.
"I've never seen her as happy as I've seen her today," says Mr Richard Then, the third son of the late Mdm Lee Ah Mooi.
Mdm Khoo is not the only one in smiles. Others are singing and clapping. One resident, however, is gripping Mr Then's hand instead – and crying.
Mr Tan knows his target audience well. Earlier, he told CNA Insider what to expect:
In the beginning, they'll ignore you. Some will start to love your music, some will dance along, some will sing along, some will cry.
Even a bedridden resident is responding to the music, moving his hands and feet. Mr Tan has seen this before as well, including among those on intravenous drip.
His music has even brought tears out of patients in coma, which in one instance, he was told, came as a final relief before death.
The irony is that his decision to bring joy to others came about after he was faced with the prospect of his own death five years ago, and which he narrowly avoided last year.
Struck by an illness that is still dogging him and thinking that his days were numbered, Mr Tan, a welder, decided to make music as a busker. Now he is touching lives.
WATCH: Transformed, and transforming lives (8:19)
A MOTHER'S GIFT
Music has been his passion since young, and he thanks his late mother for that. Her love of singing had an indelible influence on him.
"Whenever she was free after cooking, she used to sing," recalled Mr Tan, one of eight children – four boys and four girls – born to a hawker and a housewife. "And each time she sang, I'd sit beside her."
But as they were poor, his parents could not afford music lessons or even a musical instrument for him.
At the age of 17, he started working part-time as a shopkeeper and saved up to learn music. His first lesson was on the drums, which he had always wanted to play.
By the time he was 19, he was drumming in bands in varied places, from pubs to street festivals for the seventh lunar month.
It was not long before he began thinking, "How far can I go? I want to go up."
So he auditioned, successfully, for the Singapore Soka Association's symphony band. For 18 years, he played for the Buddhist organisation, representing the country in international competitions and performing in big events locally, including four shows at the Singapore Indoor Stadium.
He has also drummed for two-time Grammy winner and jazz artiste Shunzo Ohno, his "mentor". But he never thought of making music his career, as that would have been "quite difficult" in Singapore.
"I wanted to start a family. With a family, you'd need to have a daytime job," said Mr Tan, who is married with two sons, aged 20 and 25.
That job that paid the bills was as a welder, first in the marine industry and then in aviation, spanning almost 30 years now.
It was always music, however, that nourished his soul. Yet, for all he had accomplished musically, he had not quite fulfilled his mother's words to him as a son enthralled by her singing.
Use music to touch people's hearts. That's what my mum said. You can be a very good singer, but if your music doesn't touch others, you're not a good singer.
Those words came flooding back to him during the "darkest moment" of his life.
In 2013, he started feeling fatigued and fell ill often. His company, ST Aerospace Engineering, sent him for blood tests, and that was when his life was turned upside down – even before he got the results.
At the Singapore General Hospital where the tests would be done, he saw thank-you cards from the families of leukaemia patients – many who had died – and noticed other patients with shaven heads.
He googled the disease and learnt that it was a type of blood cancer. He cried.
What the doctors found, however, was lead in his blood and low blood cell counts, which had weakened his immune system. But they could not conclusively diagnose leukaemia, though they suspected related issues with his bone marrow.
"The doctor said, 'I can't give you any medication. I don't know what to request for you,'" said Mr Tan, who showed CNA Insider his medical reports. There was no medicine that could remove the lead in his blood either.
For three months, his company put him on administrative duties. The thought that he may not have much time left ran through his mind. So did the question 'why me', many times. But eventually, it gave way to another question.
"Why not take this opportunity to make my life more meaningful, and this period of time to make sure I can play music to touch people's hearts?" he asked himself.
I don't make a lot of money. I'm not very well-educated. I think, maybe, this small part I can contribute to society. Then that's why I said, 'Okay, I'll move on with this until the moment that I can't play.'
Having played in many different places before, he knew that he wanted his music to move the man in the street most of all. So he thought of busking, also because it would not be the choice of many musicians.
It was not unlike what his mother used to do when she was young, during World War II. She told him that she used to sell flowers on the street and sing at the same time.
If she could she see him busking now, he thinks it would bring tears to her eyes.
NOT ANOTHER BEGGAR ON THE STREET
Mr Tan's sons were supportive. But he received a different reaction when he told his friends and bosses that he was auditioning for a busking licence. He said:
You know what they told me? Oh my God, another beggar on the street. I was quite sad.
The comment played on his mind. At his first busking location, Tampines, he thought of wearing a cap and sunglasses so that his colleagues, friends and relatives would not recognise him.
In the end, he simply kept the volume of his music low. "I was so shy," he admitted. But the encouragement of other buskers soon gave him the confidence he needed.
"They came by and said, 'You play good music, just that you're not loud enough to capture passers-by,'" he recounted. "From that day, my whole concept of busking started to change."
His choice of musical instrument had also changed. Two years earlier, he bought an electronic wind instrument with seven octaves and about 100 built-in synthesiser sounds.
Invented in Japan, it simulates the sound of various instruments, such as the flute, guitar, saxophone, trumpet, violin and drums, as well as voice. He took six months to master it.
"There's something different about this instrument. You can do a lot of magic," he said.
One of the things it has done is to help him cater for the musical tastes of the different generations, depending on his location. And slowly, he began to achieve his goal.
He remembers the time when he was playing the Chinese song Endless Love, which reminded him of his mother, and "this aunty cried on the street".
I asked the aunty, 'Why do you cry?' The aunty said, 'I cry because your music touched me. It reminded me of my late husband.
Then there were occasions when people would come back and request the same songs. As he began to recognise his passers-by, he would play the tunes they liked. And the crowds grew.
Outside City Hall MRT Station, one of his allocated sites, the crowd was so big once that the police came and asked him to move further away from the station exit.
He said appreciatively: "When people start to enjoy my music, I feel that, oh my God, I've done something that moved their hearts."
PREPARING TO DIE
Busking was giving Mr Tan purpose and satisfaction. But last year, his health robbed him of that. His fatigue wore him down to the point that he could no longer perform.
He then found himself waking up at night, short of breath. In June, the results of a hospital check-up showed that his sleep disorder had to do with his respiratory system.
Soon after, he had a thyroid issue that even turned his knuckles black. And within the span of a month, he began to feel numbness in his hands and feet.
That last symptom called for a scan to detect whether he had any cancerous cells or growth. The result showed a lump near his groin. But the doctors could not be certain it was cancerous.
"I cried because it wasn't easy – one thing after another," he said. And when he was referred to the National Cancer Centre for surgery, he went into a tailspin, just because of the word "cancer". He became depressed.
The operation would be a high-risk one, as the growth was very near a main blood vessel. And the doctor told him that two patients had died during this kind of operation because of bleeding.
Not wanting to have the stress of living with the lump, however, he agreed to the surgery. Before the appointed date, he instructed his younger son: "If dad dies, this is the insurance you claim, this is my CPF."
Mr Tan also made a vow to keep if he survived the surgery. "I promised myself that I'd work much harder for music. I'd use music as therapy for those patients who need it more than me," he said.
Everyone lives with a mission. I hadn't finished my mission. I didn't want to die.
He was conscious during the operation – and wanted to rejoice once the surgeon told him the entire growth had been removed.
"I wanted to stand up and go out because my brother-in-law and sister were waiting for me … Just imagine, I was alive!" he said in his usual animated way.
His sisters were a pillar of support for him, before and after the surgery, caring for him on his road to recovery. Although he wanted to return to busking, they ordered him to rest first.
"I told him, 'You should keep yourself all the more fit … because if you're sick, you won't be able to share enough (of your music),'" said sister Sharon.
In all, their brother could not busk for 10 months last year.
CHINATOWN'S PIED PIPER
In January, Mr Tan was fired up again. And it marked the "turning point" of his busking journey, though not solely because of his recovery.
With Chinese New Year approaching, he started busking at weekends in Chinatown – and found a group of young-at-heart seniors who still remember the district for its lively sights and sounds of old.
He became the spark that transformed their memories into relived experiences. The seniors came, they listened and they danced. Then they asked for more – for him to keep returning every weekend with his medley of melodies from the 1960s.
Unless he has to perform at an event, he has obliged, even adding colourful lights to his set-up.
"I believe some (older folks) can't even afford to see a concert," he said. "I just do my part to throw a mini-concert on the street for them."
Given their age profile, his usual night's takings of about S$110 to S$120 is the lowest among the handful of sites where he can busk – about half of what he can possibly earn.
But he stressed: "It's not about money. I want to bring joy."
WATCH: The songs of yesteryear brought back (4:56)
He keeps going because of the difference in the seniors now. Describing what he saw before, he said: "They didn't particularly have anything to do. They just sat down and watched people move about."
Still, he never expected the crowd to grow as big as it did, blocking an entire passageway along New Bridge Road at times.
Prior to CNA Insider's earlier video on these street-jamming seniors, he had given out 400 name cards to them. In the three weeks since, more people have shown up, including youngsters who brought their parents.
Wholesale otak-otak seller Hero Loh is already an avowed fan. "His music is very good. When you hear it, you feel comfortable," said the 64-year-old. "If he continues, then I'll continue. Then we'll have (dance) partners; then I'll stay with him forever to dance."
Even as people seek out Mr Tan on the street, he has also been doing more to bring his music – a repertoire of 400 to 500 songs now – into the wards of nursing homes and hospitals.
While he has been playing for patients for some years, the frequency has increased to about twice a month. And he wants to keep doing it for free.
"It's a blessing that I'm able to go and perform for them," he said. "I believe music can heal. It's a healing process."
His own health is under control so far. Every morning, he must take probiotics for his colon. He has medication for high cholesterol and also for oily blood, which he needs to dilute.
His blood issues have yet to be resolved, though the lead content is coming down. And he did not have to fret about his hospital bills because of his company's medical benefits.
He still experiences fatigue, but his music is able to get him through it. "I have to psyche myself up and say I'm not sick, my blood is okay. This is how I change my mindset," he said.
"I still want to do more. I still think I can do more."
Know of any everyday heroes who are making an impact? Drop us a note here at CNA Insider.