While the rest of Singapore is singing national songs in celebration of the 57th National Day, acapella group Vocaluptuous decided to go totally local.
“We wanted to do a song that had a connection to a place that everyone knew and was completely familiar with, and My Old Hometown Katong fit the bill as it pays tribute to a place that’s near and dear to us all,” says the group’s music director & arranger John Lee.
The song and its music video takes everyone through to familiar places in Katong, Marine Parade and the East Coast Park.
Mr Lee’s father grew up in Amber Road, right across from Kampong Amber and the Chinese Swimming Club.
“And when we were rebuilding our home in Bukit Timah, my parents, my brother and I rented a house at Lucky Heights in Bayshore for two years. What a joy it was to have lived there! The East Coast Park was a short walk away, so renting a bike to ride along the breezy paths was fairly frequent. Of course, the diverse selection of eateries was also always a thrill,” he says, adding that what was quite a unique experience was “Katong and the east has a very friendly, neighbourly vibe”.
“I met up with my friends living in the east much more frequently than my friends living in the west, now, as I’ve moved back to the west. Everything and everyone seemed closer together,” Mr Lee says.
Full time mother and part time singer and entertainer Genevieve Seah says she spent a lot of her childhood days in Katong as her parents loved shopping at Parkway Parade and she had piano lessons “all my life at Katong”.
“My first piano teacher was pretty much like a second mum to me, and we would walk the stretch to buy food during lunch. I’m not sure if it counts as ‘growing up’ there. As a kid, my parents would also bring us to the Marine Parade library weekly, and the best part of the trip for me was when mum would buy me a cup of Starbucks. Then there is Taku, the chicken rice at Katong Shopping Centre! I still love it to this day,” she says.
“The song was written by my brother Peter and I for a Peranakan Association Dinner and Dance fundraiser in 2006. My father was the president of the association at the time. The concept behind the song was to create melodies about places in Singapore for Singaporeans to sing along to,” Mr Lee tells TheHomeGround Asia.
A song about places to call our own
Formed in 1998, Vocaluptuous has been called Singapore’s favourite acapella group, with three critically-acclaimed albums All Wrapped Up, Notes from an Island and ‘Tis the Season under its belt.
Known for musically adventurous, funky and refreshing, preferring an eclectic mix of music styles, its members are Mr Lee, who is also its vocal coach; property agent and part-time singer-entertainer Hazrul Nizam; Dr Kai-Wen Hwang; full-time mother and part-time singer-entertainer Genevieve Seah, conductor and lecturer Chong Wai Lun and Takuma Tanaka, who works in the financial sector.
“It has been through many member changes. … I joined in 2005, when the group was actually down to three members, Hazrul being one of them and needed a fourth to continue all their engagements. The group quickly rebuilt itself to six members, and we started adding more songs from South East Asia in our repertoire to set us apart from being a Western music cover band,” Mr Lee says.
He also reveals that he has always wanted to write a song about places in Singapore.
“In the USA, there are so many beautiful songs written about their cities — New York New York, I Left My Heart in San Francisco, Chicago, Cape Cod, Back Home Again in Indiana. So I wanted to do something similar for Singapore. This tune I wrote was originally meant to be a happy drinking song — Peranakans do love their occasional tipple — and I passed it to my brother Peter. After brainstorming, we came up with the idea of dedicating it to Katong. I had written the chorus first, and I suggested to Peter that we did something like ‘la la la la la… Katong…!’ In a few days, he wrote the wonderful lyrics that were a perfect match to the upbeat and cheery tune that I’d written,” Mr Lee says.
It took the Lee brothers about two months to write and fine tune the song before playing it for “our friend and music genius arranger, Dr Sydney Tan, who helped piece it all together”.
“I had wanted to include the well known folk song Di Tanjong Katong, and Sydney helped figure out some beautiful lush chords to incorporate this lovely detour of a ‘souped up’ version of a familiar tune, before returning to the song’s joyful ending. We also included it in our album, Notes From An Island, a series of songs dedicated to Singapore, and this time we got the amazing Ruth Ling to add her magic, light jazzy touch to the arrangement. In 2019, another brilliant arranger Bang Wenfu, was appointed music director for the Songs of Singapore Garden Rhapsody at the SuperTree Grove in the Gardens by the Bay, and he selected two of the group’s songs to be in the show. It is Wen Fu’s version that we used for this video,” Mr Lee says.
Dr Huang adds, “He kindly included us in this specially curated soundscape of Singaporean musicians, which also featured Come Home, Aisyah Aziz’s amazing cover of another Vocaluptuous original written by John and Peter. We recorded everything in a single late-night session at Ruth Ling’s Red Roof Records studio, and went for supper afterward at Cheong Chin Nam Road. It was the last studio recording we did with our beloved former bass Timothy Huang, so it’s always a cherished but bittersweet memory.”
Going for the Wes Anderson feel
Vocaluptuous had been planning to do a music video of the song last year, “but things got a bit difficult with the pandemic and the social distancing rules, so we planned to do it this year”, Mr Lee says.
That was when Mr Chong stumbled across A Wes Anderson-ish Singapore, filmmaker Kevin Siyuan‘s video on YouTube and found his portrayal of Singapore “very real yet hauntingly beautiful when different sights of Singapore are captured in their magical, calm moments.. so I told John about it”.
“We were so impressed by his Wes Anderson inspired reels that I said to the group, ‘Wouldn’t it be such a great idea to get him to collaborate with us on this video?’ and I literally just ‘cold called’ him. Isn’t this the beauty of social media? It makes the creative world smaller, and so much easier to find like-minded people,” Mr Lee says.
Anderson has become notorious for using the same set of stylistic techniques over and over in his films: smooth camera moves that stay in a single flat space; slow-motion shots, often depicting one or more people walking, set to vintage pop songs; and highly detailed sets that look like life-size dollhouses.
He found Mr Siyuan’s email address on Instagram, wrote to him, and waited in anticipation for a reply but when the group did not hear back from him, Mr Lee decided to try the more direct way and messaged him on Whatsapp.
“His reply was almost immediate and fortunately, he was interested in our idea, so I arranged a meeting at my home. … He was receptive, thoughtful, meticulous and organised, even in preparing a detailed storyboard of every scene for the video, and together with the group’s input, we managed to shoot the singing scenes in one afternoon. He also wanted to experiment with filming the entire video on his iPhone 13Pro. We filmed the video in early July,” he says.
“I used to live in Katong too so I find this song very relatable and familiar and making music videos is something new to me as well. Everyone from the group has amazing ideas to share so I am excited to work on this together to imagine and fill up the visuals to the lyrics,” Mr Siyuan says.
Filming took about a day and a half with everyone reporting at location on a Sunday at 7.30 in the morning, with Mr Haizul deciding not to even go to sleep the night before, in case he could not make it on time.
“Kevin chose that timing because the daylight was most ideal in the early morning. The East Coast was nice and breezy to shoot in the morning, but Koon Seng Road was very hot and still. Just standing in the shade was enough to make you sweat buckets. However, we had a lot of fun,” Mr Lee says
Editing around a week to complete and he decided to use only the iPhone 13 Pro to shoot the clip in its entirety.
“I have used the iPhone 13 Pro for my other video projects and I find its video quality to be really great. Everyone has his or her own commitments so we really only have less than a day when everyone is available to get together to film the group singing scenes, so using the iPhone would allow quick and efficient filming of all the planned scenes without compromising on quality. Plus the iPhone’s colour science really captured the vibrant colours of Katong very well,” he says.
Mr Siyuan adds that it was “really fun working together”.
During the filming everyone was spontaneous, cheerful and energetic. John also has a lot of great ideas from typography to visual sequencing which are valuable contributions to make the video better. “Most importantly I can feel the dedication of everyone during the filming, the passion of singing and performing and their commitment as vocal artists,” he says, adding that he enjoyed working with the group.
“We were afraid we may be intruding on people’s private spaces, but fortunately, we managed to make friends with some of the neighbours, who generously allowed us to film in front of their homes. There were many passersby filming us being filmed! Perhaps it was our colourful, Peranakan inspired outfits and our happy singing and dancing that attracted them,” Mr Lee says.
For Ms Seah, the most memorable part of making the clip was being in Katong again, “but this time being able to experience it with my daughter. She was such a trooper that day enduring the hot sun in that kebaya,” she adds.