Singapore busker sees the best and worst of humanity on the streets

PHOTO: Jarvis Quek

Politics, backstabbing, in-fighting — all part and parcel of "work" for Jarvis Quek.

His occupation though? Busking on the streets of Singapore.

Life as a busker is probably a foreign concept to many of us. After all, it's the antithesis of the typical Singaporean dream — a stable career with high returns.

But for the last four years, armed with his guitar and his portable sound equipment, Jarvis has been plying his craft on the streets of Orchard Road and in the heartlands.

PHOTO: Jarvis Quek

Declining to reveal his takings, Jarvis replied: "I would say my three meals can fill my stomach, but if you want to buy a Rolex, Mercedes, BTO, impossible lor."

Javis shared that the scenes that play out on the streets are at times heartwarming, but surprisingly, equally heartbreaking.

And it's not always due to reactions, or lack of, from the audience.

The 26-year-old felt particularly let down after an incident he witnessed involving a fellow busker, an auntie in a wheelchair.

"She was in a wheelchair, and always asked people to help push her around," said Jarvis. And he did so willingly after she confided that she needed to busk to pay for her medical bills and to take care of an ill relative at home.

Feeling sympathetic, Jarvis even offered her his spot to let her sing.

One time when it was raining, Jarvis helped to push her to the shelter where he was standing. But as the ground was slippery, the wheels started to slide.

What happened next left him stunned.

Before he could grab onto the wheelchair handles, Jarvis saw the auntie use her legs to 'brake'. "You know like how u zam (step forcefully on) your brakes? Yes, that. Not exaggerating," said Jarvis.

Speaking about it now, his disappointment is palpable. "Can I just say a piece of my heart really died?"

Jarvis has since stopped talking to her but has refrained from exposing her ruse to others.

"You try to be compassionate about things, but when you see the truth and reality behind it…" he trailed off.

He has also had to fend off those who snatched his designated spot.

"Another time in Ang Mo Kio, there was this uncle who was sitting around, and he said to me, eh I chope (reserve) already, chope already. The uncle was not singing or anything. But he said 'I help my friend to chope'."

Even after Jarvis set up his equipment, the friend eventually came and "started to do his thing, then I'm like 'then I come early for what?' Cannot like that right?".

In the end, however, Jarvis took a step back and gave in, with the mindset: "Sometimes, it's good to lose the battle, but maybe you will still win the war."


PHOTO: Jarvis Quek

Being on the streets all the time also means being vulnerable to the weather conditions like getting beaten down by the hot sun in the afternoons for one. And a rainy day would mean a day's worth of potential earnings gone.

He joked about the damage that the sun can inflict on one's appearance: "If you earn a living based on your looks, you'll be dead. I'm still okay."

But the goodness of people have moved him, and it's the offers of food and drinks that get to him every time.

Said Jarvis: "I feel like I'm someone who looks at a person's heart.

"You'll be surprised, even a foreign worker will (buy a drink) for me, even under the hot sun. Maybe that's what they experience and they know what it's like."

He's also received cancelled orders from food delivery services as well when kind delivery men would drop off the food for him.

"I made some very good friends along Orchard, these delivery guys. It's really proper food, and the food at Orchard is not cheap... so I get to eat those kinds of things."

Where he used to busk full-time up to five days a week, Jarvis now has turned his focus to playing gigs and etching out a more sustainable career in entertainment, including studying music at The Songwriter Music College in Singapore.

But he still tries to busk about twice a week, as he enjoys "the relationships you can establish with the people, using music and stories. Just basic interaction."

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hey guys. here's another cover song filmed straight out from busking, very raw, got my voice + birds + audio feedback + cars honking. Anyway the song's from a really really sad movie (literally) which naturally makes it a good song for people to cry, so a lot of times i'll be a bitch and sing it out for people. So I can see them cry HAHA. im evil. But hey, a few of them actually left thank you notes for me and said it was nice to let their emotions out. Unfortunately, the song slowly got me too while singing it (KARMA BITCH), so I seldom sing it anymore. I guess it's nice it was recorded down, so i can put it on the internet forever. NOICE. If you like it please drop a like for me maaan. THANKSSS Hi! 这是一首前阵子每晚会唱的歌,虽然有一点退流行了,但是有看过 【比悲伤更悲伤的故事】的朋友们,应该永远会记得这首歌吧。 不瞒你说,有时我看到sad sad 的朋友们,我会故意唱这首歌,好让他们哭出来,release 一点 emotion. 我不敢说是我的歌声让他们有感触,但是我敢说是这首歌的创作者 张简君伟 的功力,他不用花花绿绿的文字,而是巧妙的把词与曲融合在歌里最寒心的 part 里,勾起我们的情绪。我现在很少唱了,因为唱了会不经想起一些不开心的事,想说就po 上网吧,做个纪念。喜欢的话帮我点个赞。谢啦 。 Video Credits: #heytherejarvis #singersongwriter #music #busking #buskinglife #sgmusicians #tsmcollege #tsmc #yourfutureinmusic

A post shared by JARVIS 绍斌 🐣🐥🐤🐔🍗 (@heytherejarvis) on

"I feel like it's a longevity kind of thing because you cannot do it for the rest of your life. Of course, you want advancement, no matter how much you enjoy doing it. I think you owe it to yourself to advance and progress.

Another difficulty he faces is knowing where his peers are at in comparison.

He shared: "So another thing is the mental part, like friends around me got BTO (flats), the usual and everything."

But settling down may be a little way off for Jarvis and his girlfriend of three years, whom he met on the streets while performing.

"I was performing when she saw me, then we connected, dated."

"She's younger than me but we did speak about it (getting married) and it's a mutual thing, I told her the career thing takes a while."

Ironically, while Jarvis' choice of career is definitely the road less travelled, his academic achievement is a Singapore success story in itself.

Inspired by Taiwanese singer Jam Hsiao after he burst onto the scene in a reality singing competition, the Normal (Academic) stream pupil became fascinated with music, teaching himself to play the keyboard off YouTube. From then on, he harboured aspirations to pursue a diploma in music at Singapore Polytechnic.

But Jarvis' unexpectedly good results at the 'O' levels where he scored 11 points made him reconsider his options and bowing to pressure from his mum, he abandoned the idea in favour of a more conventional programme — engineering.

"After I got the results, my mother started to tell me 'Are you sure when you graduate is there a degree you can do in Singapore?' — these kinds of bread-and-butter questions."

"I think that time as a 15-year-old old I didn't have the balls to say 'this is really what I want to do', said Jarvis, who eventually graduated with a Bachelor's degree in Mechanical Engineering from the Singapore Institute of Technology.

For Jarvis, it's a purposeful life he craves.

"I think different people have different aspirations in life. Some people want a house, some people want a car, they have something in mind lah, like maybe a family," he pondered. 

"For me? I think it's a life (where) you feel purposeful, and right now I'm feeling it, even though it's not easy."

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