Playing It Forward: Elderly Busker Opens His Home And Heart To Seniors In Need

Playing It Forward: Elderly Busker Opens His Home And Heart To Seniors In Need

12 Jan 2021
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For 50 years, Mr Lee Cho Poon, 84, spent his days performing an erhu, a two-stringed Chinese bow instrument, and singing Chinese classics for a living.

Although the street entertainer had to stop performing during Circuit Breaker, he kept his vocals in tune by singing a capella to his roommate, Mr Neo Cheng Liang, 87.

Bond of Brothers

The pair were neighbours in the same block and had been friends for 20 years. But their strong bond was forged in 2017. 

At the time, Mr Neo was becoming more frail and unable to support himself in his one-room flat. His brother, who is also his caregiver but lived apart from him, could not keep up with the demands of a caregiver. When the topic of a nursing home came up, Mr Neo was against the idea.

Mr Lee smiling for the camera with Mr Neo in the background.

Out of compassion, Mr Lee offered Mr Neo a place to stay, and promised to care for him wholeheartedly. Since then, he showers, cooks, does the laundry, and cares for the older man like a brother would. 

Neighbours-turned-roommates, Mr Neo (left) and Mr Lee (right).

Most people would be fairly impressed by Mr Lee’s act of kindness in becoming caregiver to a good friend. But get this, it is not his first time opening his door to seniors. 

In fact, on previous separate occasions, Mr Lee has housed two other seniors years before he took in Mr Neo. Like Mr Neo, they were Mr Lee’s friends who found themselves needing a caregiver after becoming more frail. Mr Lee understood their wish to stay in the familiarity of home, and cared for each of them till they passed on.

In 2019, to recognise his strength, resilience and dedication to care for loved ones, he won a Singapore Patient Caregiver Award. This is a category under the Singapore Patient Action Awards by Tan Tock Seng Hospital.

Somewhere over the Causeway

Born and raised in Johor, Mr Lee was cared for by his foster mom, and he remembers her as a gentle motherly figure who never once raised a hand to him. 

He stopped studying after primary school. To earn a living, he picked up the art of the erhu and sang Chinese songs in many places, such as on busy street corners, in nightclubs, and even getai performances (live performances held during the Hungry Ghost Festival).

To pursue a brighter future as a performer, he followed his late erhu master and came to Singapore in the 1980s. 

Mr Lee breaking out tunes of classics during our interview with him.

His fondest memories are setting up his “spot” on the pavement near the temple on Waterloo Street, where crowds are biggest on the 1st and 15th of every Lunar month. With an appreciative audience at his beck and call, he would belt out classics. 

Before there was Spotify, there was Mr Lee’s repertoire. He has memorised over 50 songs over his busking career, he says, including 榕树下 (Under The Banyan Tree) and “叹十声” (Ten Sighs). Singing and playing the erhu are his life’s passions, and he could not imagine ever tiring from this work.

Singing the blues away 

The unthinkable happened five years ago, when Mr Lee’s busking career halted temporarily due to a stroke. He was hospitalised for one month. 

While he has recovered from the health crisis, Mr Lee noticed his hands were no longer the same. He could not hold the bow of his erhu to make a smooth melodious sound. It took time for him to come to terms with this loss. Recently, he returned to busking, but now sings with a friend who would play the instrument.

Mr Lee playing with his erhu that was gifted to him a few years ago. 

Managing passion and caring for others

While Mr Lee has always had a soft spot for helping other seniors in need, his experience with stroke may have helped Mr Lee to better empathise with his loved ones. 

When asked about his feelings on caring for Mr Neo, he says, “I don’t find caring for him a chore, because I treat him like a brother.”

The pair have never argued or spoken harshly to each other, and accommodate each other’s routines. Mr Lee even bought a giant blue teddy bear as a gift to his roommate recently. 

Mr Lee, with the Tan Tock Seng Hospital’s 2019 Patient Caregiver award trophy, and the giant blue teddy bear gift in the background.

Caregiving with a support system

Fortunately, Mr Lee is never alone in his caregiving journey. With support from Lions Befrienders, volunteers make regular visits to Mr Lee and Mr Neo to check in on their health and well-being. 

A Senior Activity Centre run by Lions Befrienders at the foot of Mr Lee’s Ang Mo Kio block provides activities and resources to help the senior residents in the area. His flat is also kept spick and span, with some help from volunteers who help him sweep the floor. Like many rental flats occupied by seniors, his apartment has been equipped with motion sensors to keep track of their safety when they are at home. 

Relying on one another

With all that they’ve been through, the duo find comfort in each other’s company. 

The two seniors find ways to occupy themselves and each other. Mr Neo is an ardent fan of the 7.30am show on Channel 8, while Mr Lee would find himself breaking out tunes from Bai Guang (one of China's Great Singing Stars), and other singers from the 50s, to his one-man audience who found joy in his company and serenades.

“I feel like we should be compassionate and loving to others. Only then we won’t find caring for others troublesome,” says Mr Lee.