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Permanent LinkNov 16, 2008 
:scrooge: It's survival of the fittest as some resort to dirty tactics in face of stiffer competition.

Outwit, outplay, outlast.
That motto from TV reality series Survivor also holds true for the buskers in Orchard Road.

The current economic downturn is certainly not music to their ears as they have seen takings drop in recent months.

If that's not enough of a worry, they also have to fend off competition from both legitimate and illegal buskers.

But more of that later. For now, the downturn is a more worrisome test of survivor skills.

Take the case of Mr Donald Wee, 51, who strums the guitar near Shaw House.

'More people are donating coins instead of $5 or $10 notes,' he lamented.

He used to earn about $100 in two hours but can net only $40 now. The former security guard went into busking four years ago when he could not find another job after he was arrested for fighting.

Another busker, Mr Lee Kian Chuan, 60, makes only $20 a day now, compared to $40 three years ago. You can find him playing the banhu (a stringed instrument similar to the erhu) outside Tong Building almost every day.

'Times are hard now,' said the man who has been at it for eight years.

Erhu player Tony Loh, 50, has figured out the root causes.

'The economy is bad and there are more buskers now, so people are not so generous,' said the man who busks daily at the Wheelock Place underpass.

Among the new faces are Ms Leticia Caya, 54, and her husband Qamal Mohd Amin, 59, who returned from the Philippines three months ago, are turning to busking.

Both musicians, they were a duo known as The Highlights and toured South-east Asia.

'Times are bad and there are many young bands, so it's harder to get a job at our age. Busking is a great chance for us to do what we love,' Ms Caya said.

Her husband has been stationed for six weeks in front of Ngee Ann City, playing the keyboards and singing for three to four hours every day.

She is waiting to be auditioned to earn an endorsement letter from the National Arts Council.

Its figures show the number of buskers has risen - from 102 in 2005, to 141 in 2006, and 163 in 2007.

As of September this year, there were 140 and the number should rise after an audition is held this month.

But there are also others who play without official sanction.

Trumpet player Rosman Zeilstra Grayham Anthony, 50, said he knew of an illegal busker who worked in Orchard for two years.

'No one checked on him. It isn't fair to those who have gone for auditions and it can even lower the standard because some can't play,' he said.

Mr Lee is equally miffed and said: 'Eight years ago, there were only about two or three buskers in Orchard; now there can be up to 10.'

When The Sunday Times visited Orchard Road last Wednesday afternoon, we saw seven buskers in the stretch from Wheelock Place to Paragon.

The competition to be heard has led to dirty play.

A 52-year-old harmonica player, who wanted to be known only as Johnny, said he was a cook before spinal muscular atrophy forced him to learn to play the harmonica to survive.

He sits on the floor and uses a waistpouch-size amplifier as he has no strength to carry a bigger one.

'Others say I act like a beggar by sitting on the floor and those along this stretch sometimes turn their amplifiers up and point them at me to drown me out. This way, those of us who don't play loudly cannot compete,' he said.

Mr Lee himself has been chased away by other buskers for taking up 'their spots', even though buskers are not allocated specific spaces.

As a result, performers sometimes have to move on to other spots every three or four hours to avoid being accused of trespassing on others' turf.

Said Mr Loh: 'It would be nice if each busker is allocated a fixed spot so that we don't have to keep looking for new spaces. It would solve a lot of problems.'

But newcomers Ms Caya and Mr Qamalsaid they have not met with trouble so far.

'Everyone here has been nice. But if there's any trouble, we are professionals and we will handle it,' Ms Caya said.

Silencing the opposition

Buskers sometimes try to outshout each other, said Mr Rosman Zeilstra Grayham Anthony, 50, who has been playing the trumpet for three years.

'Those with amplifiers will turn them up to drown out those of us who don't have them. I try to tell them nicely to tone it down, but if they don't listen, there's nothing I can do,' he said.

Ignoring principles of fair play

Banhu player Lee Kian Chuan, 60, said he has been chased away from spots in the Orchard underpass by buskers who claimed that they had reserved these spots.

'If you're new, they'll try to convince you that it is a rule to give way to buskers who have been around longer,' he complained.

He has been busking for eight years and plays outside Tong building next to the Paragon.


Using gimmicks to draw attention

To stand out from the crowd, some buskers also do more than just play music. Erhu player Tony Loh, 50, decorates his speakers with patterned scarves.

'It's like putting on make-up; you must make it pretty, then they'll notice and donate,' said the man who has been playing for two years.

By Shuli Sudderuddin
Straits Times

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