Siva Choy, a Singapore icon

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By Tan Bah Bah

A Singapore icon has just passed away.

Siva Choy (full name Sivanandan Choy), 71, was a true original. I am proud to have been his soul brother. We first met in Secondary 2 at Bartley Secondary School and studied together through Pre-University at Bartley all the way to the then University of Singapore at Bukit Timah.

Just a bit on our personal links before I talk briefly about his contributions to Singapore’s cultural history.

He first came to Sec 2 at Bartley in 1961. I was already there. He was transferred from Pasir Panjang Secondary School as his family had just moved to Kim Chuan Road, near Bartley Road. He and I would then compete for each year’s English Language book prize. The fierce rivalry went all the way to Pre-U where we both ended up with distinctions for General Paper for the A levels.

We started the school’s newspaper called Berita Bartley and had tons of fun producing that. Siva was not only great at writing. He could sketch and draw and had a fine eye for design. What a combination of talents.

Yet, the extent of my relationship with Siva was far more than that. I knew he was a good guitarist and a singer. He and his brother James Choy formed a duo named The Cyclones. I thought it was just for school concerts.

I realised later that he had been cutting records and performing at night clubs and shows!

He told me one day he had just released a record, The Dew, done with James. And he and I would send request cards to the radio stations to try and boost the record’s ratings. He need not have to do that. The song grew wings and shot right up the charts. In particular, we noted a certain Ricardo Elvis Chan from Blair Road was one of the most fervent fans mentioned by people like radio DJs like Tan Swee Leong and Larry Lai.  Guess where that name came from.

Siva and James as The Cyclones would be backed by The Checkmates as part of the then fashionable 1 plus 2 plus 4/5 piece group. A lead singer, duo and back up band.

Keith Locke/Brian East plus The Cyclones and The Checkmates were part of a very swinging scene which included Susan Lim and the Crescendos, Naomi and the Boys, Vernon Cornelius and The Trailers/The Quests, The Straydogs, Shirley Nair and the Silver Strings, Heather and The Thunderbirds, Sonny Bala and The Moonglow, Flybait, Bobby and D’Aquarians, The Ambassadors, X-periment and so on.

Many of these musicians would hang out at the then only 24-hour coffeehouse next to the Pebble Bar at the Hotel Intercontinental in Orchard Road.  It was a motley crowd of bohemians who never seemed to ever sleep.

Siva and I came from poor families. And eating proper meals was a luxury. I remember some of the band boys actually took pity on us. We used to hang around Robert Suriya and The Boys when they were playing nightly at the South-East Asia Hotel along Waterloo Street. And Robert would give us their sandwiches during their break time. We would gobble up the sandwiches at one go. This became the routine every time Siva and I were there. But Siva would pay back by playing with The Boys. I who did not play anything did nothing in return except smile in gratitude!

Siva was also responsible for some of the record covers of that period. He and I would go to the Phonogram Far East office at Cecil Street a number of afternoons. Mr Lee King, the manager, who was impressed with Siva’s drawing talents, would ask him to design the covers for his records. He would pay him about $10 – $20 (princely sums then) for each cover. I think that was Lee’s way of encouraging Siva.

These tidbits about Siva would be among those not publicly known up to this point.

What Siva did after his university days, from which he graduated with Honours in English Literature, has become public history.

He became a well-known satirist cum comedian. He was also a writer and columnist for that cult entertainment/lifestyle magazine called Fanfare.

To quote Channel NewsAsia, “He was perhaps best known for writing that 1991 hit tune, Why U So Like Dat?, by defunct comedy group Kopi Kat Klan, which is often brought up in discussions about Singlish. The eponymous album from which it came was equally popular. Comprising songs and sketches, it is considered Singapore’s first Singlish comedy album.”
Siva migrated to Perth with his fellow journalist wife, Ilsa Sharp. But both were very much in touch with what’s going on in Singapore. Everytime he returned to Singapore, he would be roped in to play a session or two at one blues pub or another.

Music was in his blood. So were comic performance, writing and publishing design.

Sivanandan Choy was one of a kind, in more ways than one.

20 COMMENTS

  1. Siva Choy and I we met many years ago in the late 60’s and early 70’s when he was with the X-periment. I enjoyed working with him cos he is always full of ideas to make things better. Good-bye Siva, May you rest in peace. From an old friend, David Ho 92728748 (ohalamak@gmail.com)

  2. Well done, Bah Bah, your highly-intense and ultra-personalised recounts of the late Siva Choy were extraordinary.
    It genuinely came from the heart with exemplary teenager tidbits that will remind Singapore of a long-lost 1960s-70s era of bubbly rock music and Singlish literature.
    RIP Siva Choy!

  3. RIP Siva Choy. Died in Perth after 2 massive strokes. What you doing dah? Siva, why you so like dat?

    He was very much one of the foundation stones of live blues music and rock and roll in Singapore. Blues musician, English literature honours graduate, global adventurer, rebel, intellectual and pioneer. Very much a genius bordering on madman in the nicest way. He was incredibly modest and avoided praise constantly. And he loved his wife, Ilsa Sharp, deeply.

    Dat boy Choy, just upped and gone. Dem blues in Singapore done died the day Choy took the blues highway out of town.

    Not bad for a country that didn’t have cotton to pick but lots of cotton pickin’ minutes.

    • There are things that are slowly trickling out that few people knew of. Siva’s dabbling in the pole vault at school. He went backpacking in the 70s around the UK and Europe, a very fulfilling chapter in his life – it changed him forever. He and two lifelong friends – Gerry Helliwell and Tom Weller cycled from Holland all the way to Singapore – with breaks in Greece, Turkey and so forth collecting adventures of a lifetime. The shortest distance they rode was 40m. He and John were nursing god almighty hangovers. Tom was unimpressed when they stopped after such a short distance and pitched up tent again. He lived on a barge in Amsterdam for a year. Another time, travelling on a shoestring, they had a novel way of making garlic bread. The loaf would be smeared with garlic butter, wrapped in aluminium foil and then the piece de resistance… with no oven around, they’d wrap this culinary delight in their denim jeans and put into the spin dryer at the laundromat on high heat for 2 cycles.

      Voila! He almost took that recipe with him.

      He wrote a song, very reactionary for its time even ’til today perhaps, called “Politician”. Tania, a Singaporean group, recorded it on their only LP. I would say it was an even more impactful and artistic work than “Why you so like dat?”.

      The chorus went:
      “So hey politician, no need for explanations
      I don’t think you’d understand.
      You say I’m the kind you don’t want in your country
      But I wouldn’t want you in my band”

      He was a scholar, a musician but more than anything; a man with a very big heart. His home was open to all. He always encouraged people to discover themselves and their talents. Veronica Young can testify to how she was still a teenager when he encouraged her to sing. A young boy who was an Orchard Road McDonald’s kid recalled Siva bringing his bongo drums along outside McDonald’s in the then Liat Towers to make music. The kid grew up to be known as Moe Alkaff. Siva also took part and helped organize rock and roll concerts for Charity and as always, avoided all publicity and credit where it was due to him.

      He had the makings of a tenacious reporter in a country with media void of tenacity virtually. He then threw his talents into other creative projects – music chief amongst them. He helped organize the Police Music concerts designed to appeal to youth, again an unusual move in largely conservative Singapore in the 80s. In the course of all that, he was made a reservist policeman which he found ironic. However, the police by then was led by a man with a fairly independent mind called Goh Yong Hong who earned Siva’s respect. Then again, Siva respected everyone.

      He loved his literature. He loved TS Eliot, Dylan Thomas and Jack Kerouac. Muhammad Ali, also a poet, as well as the Greatest of All Time was someone he admired deeply. And then there were guitar gods like Hendrix and a plethora of blues singers.

      He grew up in simpler times. He had wonderful childhood stories and tales of his teenage years in a Singapore few under the age of 40 will know of today. How he could walk along the shores of Pasir Panjang all the way to where Raffles Hotel is. He lived in the MacPherson area and went to Bartley Secondary School. Some mornings he’d go for a run from there to the junction of Bukit Timah and Stevens Road where the Equatorial Hotel once stood. It’d be early in the morning and sometimes he’d run into a tipsy Reggie Verghese coming home after a late night gig.

      Siva Choy was akin to rock and roll royalty in Singapore’s music scene of the 60s and 70s. He was a founding member of The Experiment, a mentor to a young singer then called Joe Chandran. He had musical brethren, too many to recall, the list would go on forever. Everyone was touched by him and his gift for music, the blues in particular. He was a walking encyclopaedia of Singapore’s early rock and roll music scene. Anyone heard of Toby’s Paradise Bar, the Pink Pussycat, Tivoli, Golden Venus, Tropicana, Barbarella’s, the Kasbah or Bill Bailey’s Coconut Grove?

      He was a kampong boy at heart too. In Perth and in Singapore or around the world for that matter, every youngster wears baseball caps featuring logos of the New York Yankees to Nike to energy drinks. Siva had one made. Proudly emblazoned was “Kampong Jagoh”. In between all his activities he made a very decent living as a Creative Director for a reputable design company; Design 3.

      He loved his food. South Indian, North Indian, Nasi Padang, Otak otak, Teh Ahlia, fish and of course beer which he later abandoned for coconut water and herbal tea.

      He hated exercise but as his health deteriorated he made a return to it. He went for long walks with his wife; “Basket! Pain dah!” he’d exclaim. He went on Qi Gong and meditational retreats too.

      People think music was his first love. That’s not true. His first love was Ilsa, his wife. Music came a close second. Goodnight Siva.

      • In 1990 Barbara Cartland, of Mills and Boon fame, sent national newspapers her own obituary, bound with pink ribbon. The New Paper asked a few personalities to write their’s. Siva’s was particularly funny and rang true. From vague memory it went;

        “Here lies the late Siva Choy. He was always late and never kept an appointment on time. Sometimes he didn’t turn up at all. Siva Choy was a liar with all sorts of excuses. He’d even turn up late for his own funeral. He was a liar and here is ’til the end, lying still.”

        Vintage Siva. Classic.

          • It was a beautiful ceremony. Over a hundred people there. Siva Choy touched everyone. With him went all our love. There’ll never be another Siva Choy. Seriously, there never will be a man with such a breadth of intellect, a massive depth of creativity and love and humility that was vast.

            The wake back at your place was good too. Everyone’s speeches did him credit.

            Mr Tan Bah Bah, your tribute to Siva is a gem.

            Vale Sivanandan Choy.

  4. Wonderfully talented and a very humble man. Had the privilege of having my daughters tutored by him in English Literature. Just had a chat with Siva and his wife Ilsa a week ago having breakfast in Rasa Sayang, in Thornlie Perth. RIP Siva Choy.

  5. R.I.P “Steamroller Blues” Siva.A good article about friends.
    Use to see him jam at the Woodstock when he was here from Perth.Had a good chat with yes..a humble soul.
    Your harp will be dusted down through the blues highway for a long time.
    Condolences to his wife and family.

  6. this is where i always wonder. Is it great going to live overseas? a few people i know or heard of actually had many problems when they went to another country. Unfortunately those I know are in Australia. Several had stroke. You read a few got crazy killed other people or their own family.
    I guess, the grass is always greener on the other side.

    • You obviously have heard wrong and tom the wrong ppl. Its a great life here in australia, especially in perth. I dont have to elaborate much but just to say, we are appreciated as a human being in a culture that cares for humans as a whole , says a lot about how australians live. Australians know how to balance their lives not only work work n work. Timeto play we play and we are given a fair go unlike in s’pore where there is a huge ratrace, everyone trying to climb on top of one another, schools, unis,etc take the best of the best to excel whereas in aust if u meet the basic requirements you are welcome to have a go. No rat race. Everyone is equal. Where in the world, after office hrs, bosses n staff mingle with each other like friends??
      All in all its a fair life to live in and we , migrants, live it here. Full stop