The Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) is Singapore’s only professional Chinese orchestra, and has made a name for itself on the world stage for its versatility and quality of its performances. We sat down for a chat with Goh Ek Meng, a veteran pipa player who has been with the SCO since its earliest days.

By most people’s standards, Goh Ek Meng, 69, would probably be considered a professional musician. An accomplished pipa player, he began performing with the People’s Association Chinese Orchestra (PACO), the predecessor of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO), in 1968. A full-time musician for nearly 30 years until his recent retirement, he now sits on the SCO’s Artistic Resource Panel. To the younger generation of Chinese musicians in Singapore, he is Teacher Goh (吴老师). Despite these achievements, when asked if he had always wanted to be a professional musician, he demurred.

“I have never thought of becoming a professional anything! It requires a lot of skill and expertise to claim to be professional at something,” he said. “I was self-taught and never formally educated, I’m only a high school graduate and didn’t receive any formal musical training either. I would say I am a dedicated full-time pipa player, but professional?” He paused and chuckled. “Maybe not.”

As we listened to his story, it became clear that his humble beginnings had left a deep impact on him. Born in China, Ek Meng emigrated to Singapore with his mother when he was eight, joining his father who had already relocated here.

Ek Meng (right) performing with his father, Goh Eng Chang, in 1997. Photo courtesy of Goh Ek Meng

Ek Meng still has vivid memories of his journey to Singapore as well as his first day here. “We came to Singapore by boat. The journey was incredibly tough; it took one or two weeks at sea before we arrived,” he recalled. “We settled in the Clarke Quay area and I would often watch the coolies working from our second-floor apartment. Singapore was still developing at that time and Clarke Quay was a very busy area. Many ships would dock at the port every day and loads of cargo would be carried off the ships.”

He spent six months “cramming English” before enrolling in Primary Two. Nonetheless, it was a difficult adjustment for a young boy who had grown up in the rural countryside. “I remember I brought a small, really old-fashioned bag to class on my first day and all my classmates made fun of me. I stood out like a sore thumb – my classmates were all locals and I was the only foreigner. The bag made it worse, it made the country bumpkin image stick,” he said jokingly.

By the time he arrived in Singapore, he was already well-acquainted with traditional Chinese music, which had been a feature of his childhood. “There was an ancestral hall [in my hometown], where the adults would play Chinese music every night. I always enjoyed watching them play. I think that was when I first fell in love with Chinese music,” he said.

Despite Ek Meng’s interest and his father being a first-generation pipa player and teacher, the latter refused to let him learn the instrument. “I saw him teaching once and wanted him to teach me too. He refused straightaway and told me he wanted me to focus on my studies. He said it had been a difficult journey emigrating to Singapore, and he wanted me to study hard.”

Ek Meng obeyed him – for a time. “I listened to him and didn’t touch any instruments…but my hands grew ‘itchier’ as I got older,” he joked.

After a few years of watching from the sidelines, Ek Meng finally got to try the pipa by persuading one of his father’s students to let him have a go. “I sat down beside one of his students and asked him [the student] to let me play the pipa. He taught me briefly and I strummed it randomly,” he said. His father, who had been watching, noticed that Ek Meng had a natural affinity for playing the instrument, and relented. A quick learner, Ek Meng was able to play the pipa properly within four months, through guidance from his father as well as trial-and-error.

“I consider myself lucky that I had guidance from my father,” he said. “Others weren’t so lucky, they had to figure out the scores and notes by themselves. Without YouTube or online platforms back then, we had to educate ourselves.”

After finishing high school, Ek Meng worked as a clerk to support himself. When the People’s Association Chinese Orchestra (PACO), now known as the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, was formed in 1968, he began playing with them as one of its pioneering members, squeezing in practice whenever he was free.

“Everything takes hard work and music is no exception,” he said. “I constantly played during my free time and would work extra hard on the more difficult pieces…. At my peak, when preparing for competitions, I would practise whenever I was free. If I wasn’t eating or sleeping, I was practising.”

Ek Meng performing at the former Nanyang University in 1969. Nanyang University subsequently merged with the University of Singapore to become the National University of Singapore. Photo courtesy of Goh Ek Meng

According to Ek Meng, Chinese pieces back then used to be less complex and more akin to folk music – simple and easily memorable tunes. Conversely, the types of pieces played now are more complex, due to the influence of Western music, and sound more like a symphonic band.

In his opinion, Chinese music has a particular charm that cannot be replicated in Western pieces. “The sound produced by Chinese instruments is very raw – perhaps not as easy on the ears as Western instruments,” he said. “But this gives each and every Chinese instrument its own personality, and this is why it is difficult to perform Chinese music as an orchestra…they all have very strong and unique sounds, so learning how to harmonise has been a challenge. That being said, Chinese music, when played in harmony, can be very elegant.”

As the PACO became more established over time, Ek Meng grew increasingly involved in the Chinese music scene. Eventually, he left his day job in his 40s to become a full-time Chinese musician.

In 1996, Singapore Chinese Orchestra was set up, which is now based in Shenton Way, with the Singapore Conference Hall as the orchestra’s home. Having been a part of the orchestra since its infancy, Ek Meng is extremely proud of what it has accomplished. “People always think of China when you mention Chinese music. But the SCO has done so well over the years that it is now one of the most recognised Chinese orchestras in the world, probably right behind China’s. It’s incredible to see how we have grown from a small band of amateurs to an internationally recognised orchestra.”

Looking to the future, he believes a balance must be struck between adapting to audiences’ changing tastes, and encouraging greater public appreciation of Chinese music. “It’s crucial to create pieces that [audiences] can appreciate. That’s how we get a sense of satisfaction when the audience understands the music we play, it is truly rewarding and comforting.”  At the same time, however, he feels that the onus should not solely lie on musicians; audiences should be nurtured to take an interest in Chinese music, so that they can appreciate the kinds of pieces played by the orchestra as well.

Although Goh Ek Meng retired last year, he continues to serve on SCO’s Artistic Resource Panel. Photo by Si Yihan

Despite his obvious pride at how far the SCO has come, success has not changed him. Throughout our interview, Ek Meng was down-to-earth and unassuming; it was clear that he has been, first and foremost, dedicated to his music all these years. “I think musicians should not chase after fame or fortune,” he remarked. “Those are a burden to musicians. We have to be able to perform with real emotion and sincerity, and if we are distracted by thoughts of fame, we will not be able to perform well.”

“It makes me really happy when audience members come up to me after performances to tell me that I’ve done a good job, or that they enjoyed the music,” he continued. “I think it’s important for a musician to put his heart and soul into performing a piece you need to truly comprehend and interpret it carefully to evoke emotions in the audience. Music is a form of expression. It connects people and it connects us to our audience…when they truly appreciate what we have created, that’s when the beauty of music is best displayed.”

Written by: Chew Hui Lin

This blogpost is part of the Red Dot Stories campaign

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