Who Exactly is Chris Ho/X’Ho??
by JOSEPH THAM
Who Chris Ho, or X’Ho which he used when he performed, is and was may differ from individual to individual. As he pointed out in one of his last interviews before he left us in September 2021, the latter was his nome de plume when he performed as an artiste and when he DJ’ed he kept to his given name to mark a difference between his two artistic personae. Using handles or monikers is nothing new in the world of the arts and performance to allow an artist to denote a taking of a new or different identity, public face or guise. This allows one artistic license perhaps to take on a façade or personality different from the relatively earthly one which families and past acquaintances are familiar with. Or it may provide the artist a separate channel to dive into another facet of his/her creative proclivity. This act of assuming an alias also supposedly allows one to take flights of fantasy or creativity beyond the mundane daily enterprise undertaken by any person. In this case, who was the Chris Ho we know?
Getting to know Chris Ho in the 1980s and early 1990s via local culture magazine, BigO, and Rediffusion was all about him being a renegade at odds with the general cultural and social zeitgeist of the times locally and globally. With the arguably oppressive regimes in both the purportedly western democracies in the US and UK and on this island republic to the other end of the spectrum behind the Iron Curtain, those who didn’t identify with the silent majority or the collaborative elites could only choose a few limited alternatives available to them. No wi-fi and the internet then, no mobile devices, just print in the form of magazines and more often than not, fanzines, and music-hosting plastic artefacts better known as vinyl and cassettes (CDs came a bit later) to provide some semblance of difference and resistance, no matter how futile it seemed then and now. Even these were hard to come by. Strict censorship was in place to filter out the undesirable elements in the eyes of the authorities, which included the politically/morally seditious on one end to the vaguely unorthodox on the other. When the American Parents Music Resource Centre (PRMC) and the major US-music label industry institutionalized the warning sticker of “Parental Advisory – Explicit Lyrics” after a series of moral panic-driven incidents from the salacious to the satanic gained critical mass, the Singapore government censorship took it on board readily in the 1980s. Less mainstream cultural consumption became a badge of honour for some locally. Chris Ho in many ways became the icon of this minority.
Amidst the cover-band culture of the post-anti-yellow campaigns in the 1970s, Chris Ho and his band of fellow New Wave travelers formed Zircon Lounge, which absorbed the best of the New York CBGB punk spirit cross wired with the sardonic humour and world view of the UK post punk. Regal Vigor, released in early 1980s could be seen as a first call-to-arms for those who sought to get out of the bland conformity of Top 40 as well as a symbolic up-yours to the general docility of the general populace. The band might not have sparked the others to form a band a la the Sex Pistols in the UK post 1977 but Punk, New Wave and many other new musical genres were heartily embraced by quite a few who grew up listening to Chris Ho in the 1980s. They participated as either nascent musicians or rabid fans. In a way, a different kind of music scene was born.
More crucially, Chris Ho’s stint with Rediffusion as a resident DJ who commanded the cabled airwaves for a few hours per week was perhaps even more pivotal in the growth of Singapore’s homegrown alternative/underground music scene. He can be considered the local answer to revered UK DJ John Peel, in championing and showcasing many artistes of a cornucopia of diverse music styles and persuasions on the cable radio station. Chris Ho curated a varied and adventurous playlist of singles and albums from the musical undergrounds of the West. Even better than that was that he consciously added a healthy and hefty dose of local demo tapes and DIY releases of as wide a musical spectrum in his programmes. His two radio programmes Eight Miles High and Weird Scenes Inside The Gold Mine became mandatory listening for those craving for the unconventional, the weird or even the most awkwardly earnest.
He also held a regular column in the main English medium broadsheet, The Straits Times, with reviews of more radio friendly acceptable outré sonic utterances to educate and proselytize releases of the then booming Alternative Rock mainstream explosion circa Nirvana’s Nevermind LP in the early 1990s. His allegiance, however, lay more in the only Singapore countercultural rag, BigO. Besides penning reviews of artistes and albums of less commercial proposition to those he did for The Strait Times, a monthly Eight Miles High chart was featured prominently as part of a central spread in BigO. I for one, due to not having a subscription to Rediffusion, looked forward to the chart for what he had advocated on his programme.
This was the Chris Ho whom some of us remember most fondly. Being a voracious listener and an evangelistic curator of challenging popular music, he kept up to date with the sea change of Western popular music in the 1990s. Bumping into him at local record shop, Roxy Music, was always a joy, to take a sneak glance at what he was buying as mostly likely some of the CDs would be played on his programmes the weeks after.
In the 1990s, with rave culture spreading in the subaltern spaces (happening concurrently with the overground Grunge and Alternative chart rampage), house, garage, jungle/drum and bass, techno and ambient became some of his most beloved genres. Many of these genres were subsequently commercialized or accepted and absorbed by the mainstream mass due to the emergence and successes of the superstar DJs and hugely popular dance bands. As a result, his deep dive into these new exciting beats and textures paved the way for these genres’ entry into commercial radio with his series of runs with Perfect Ten 98.7, Lush 99.5, Radio Singapore International and Gold FM from the mid-1990s onwards. However, he also developed an undying love for a group of subgenres of heavy metal such as Extreme Metal, which, staunchly uncompromising in sound and image. A man of eclectic but very interesting taste indeed.
His stint with commercial radio gradually brought him exposure to the lay population despite a more constricted but still idiosyncratic curation of playlists as the years progressed. As the radio industry became increasingly more corporatized in the way the radio playlist has been streamlined to abide by a strictly chart fodder algorithmic formula to cater to the lowest common musical denomination, Chris Ho was not spared. Nevertheless, it was his gentle and assuring voice and tone that marked him out from the rest. Coming across as a “friend-on-air” whom you wished you had over the airwaves, always calm and composed, with occasional chuckles thrown in, late night or on-the-road listening with Chris Ho was a treat for those who managed to tune in. On his Facebook page the days after he passed, many who left heartfelt messages were those who became acquainted with him via his latter day commercial gigs. One thing for sure is that regardless of what he spun on air and what personal emotional attachment he had with the artistes he chose to play, he always managed to reach out to his listeners and struck a deep chord with them, underground or mainstream.
Joseph Tham is a history educator as well as an independent researcher. His research interests include local and global avantgarde, alternative and underground musics, histories and subcultures. He used to run a record shop, Flux Us, and had organised gigs for local and international experimental and avant-garde artists.