To TC Lai, Walkmans are still the best invention that were ever made. Even with the emergence of CD players in the past, his love for Walkmans for its functionality and durability has never swayed. Step inside his shoe to discover how the Walkman has won his heart.

1A Sanyo brand walkman. Photo credit: TC Lai

The recent flood of tablets into the consumer market reminded me of the time when folks were all excited about Walkmans. The pattern is the same: A ground-breaking product being copied and improved upon by others in the greatest of haste.

Sony launched its first Walkman in 1979. By 1982, there were already a slew of walkman-like products carrying brands like Aiwa, National, Sanyo, Philips, etc. Their walkmans were more compact, had more features, and some, even a radio.

My brother bought the original Sony Walkman. I think he still has it, even the carrying case. Maybe the headphones, but not the sponge ear pieces. These fell apart years ago.

I wasn’t really a fan of the Walkman until I was in the army doing NS (1982) and felt the need for a portable music player. Maybe a platoon mate who liked to sing Chinese opera at odd hours influenced the decision. In any case, I headed down to Queensway Shopping Centre, Shaw Towers, Lucky Plaza to shop for one. These were the de facto places for Walkman then. I eventually bought one from Shaw, not a Sony but a Sanyo. I liked it for its ergonomics. Although it was meant to be carried around on a plastic belt clip, it was also designed for the bedside table (see picture above). The function buttons on it were easily accessible like that. I think I used the radio more than the cassette player.

Of the tapes I would play, they were mostly soothing guitar music or pop orchestra ones from James Last. However, my favourite cassette tape of all time has to be Electric Dreams, that soundtrack album from the movie of the same name. The man behind the music was Giorgio Moroder, whose synthesized music influenced a generation. His No. 1 hit, Together in Electric Dreams, was on top of the charts in 1984 for a long time; he and Philip Oakey.

When my Sanyo aged, I kept it for sentimental reasons. It had been through a lot with me. Like a diary, it listened to many of my quiet thoughts in the middle of the night even though I was the one wearing the headphones.


2TC Lai’s second walkman. Photo credit: TC Lai

In the early 90s when I began exploring Malaysia more, I had another walkman to keep me company. It was a popular high-end model from Aiwa. I think if you throw a stone in the air and it lands on someone in his 30s and above, he probably would’ve owned a product from this Japanese company. Or one that has been surreptitiously obtained, like some iPhone 4.

The way I came into this walkman was the same. I was withdrawing money from an ATM in Woodlands Centre to change into ringgit when someone tapped me on the shoulder. My first instinct was that a bum was asking for road money again. No, it turned out to be a young man dressed in dark cord jeans and a rolled-up sleeved shirt. Checkered, and yes, he was Malay.

He was thrusting a box in a plastic bag at me asking if I wanted to buy it. “New,” he said, in pasar English.

Well, that put me at ease as I thought he was trying to sell me ganja or some other exotic drug. He motioned to a flower trough, we walked over and sat down (not in the trough, but on its ledge). Inside the box was Aiwa’s latest walkman model, the HS-J505 – the one with the BBE and High Definition Sound. It ran on two small batteries with an optional rechargeable pack. How cool was that?

Most walkmans were going for around $200 or less at the time. This particular model was retailing for over $300, maybe four. It was expensive. Most people would just eye it and move on. There I was with this young man offering me what looked like a brand new unit for only $150. It even had a warranty card.

Although I was suspicious, I had no reason to doubt the young man as he looked sincere.

And besides, nobody was copying Walkmans at the time like what the Chinese are doing now with the tablets. I did not have to worry about the thing blowing up in my ears or suffer some other battery anxiety.So, I decided to part company with the three brand new $50 notes I’ve yet to introduce to my wallet. After the young man left, I stood there holding the walkman box for a while; quite unbelieving of what that had just happened. Was I under a spell and sold a magic stone?

I needn’t have worried as it turned out to be a good buy. The HJ-505 was indeed a wonderfully designed piece of portable audio equipment. And its headphones were the bud types, not the macaroons from yonder bell-bottom days. Well, like all walkmans before, this Aiwa followed the Sanyo into retirement after some years of use and neglect. It too had a bad case of slipped belt and dislocated hip. I tried repairing it, but each time, I ended up with more screws than I started with. That is what happens when you try to dismantle something small and compact. It’s nutty to attempt, actually.

After buying all those walkmans, I received a Sony mini disc player as a present for a change. I tried using it to interview people in my reporting but it simply refused to cooperate. Battery life was also a critical issue. You know a product is pretty useless when even the garang kuni man refuses to buy it as a 2nd hand item. And so it has since joined my graveyard bin of has-been gadgets. Still shiny and new.

3TC Lai’s “mini boombox”. Photo credit: TC Lai

Well, I needed a tape recorder tout suite at the time. So guess what? I bought another one. Yup, an Aiwa no less. I like it because it looks like a mini boombox with radio. (And a good one at that!) Now if only someone makes an MP3 player like that – with flick switches, faux or real VU meters, et al, I can bet you it will sell like hot cakes. Good too if it sold like macaroons!

TC Lai’s  story first appeared here on the Singapore Memory Project portal.
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