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Goh Yan Han
The Straits Times
June 8, 2022
Swinging chains of large wooden beads around his neck and waist in front of an audience in Orchard Road was the late Mr Oh Ow Kee's "one and only passion", said his daughter on Wednesday (June 8).
The 80-year-old, who died on Sunday, was a well-known figure on the popular shopping street. The family did not want to give more details about his death.
Pre-Covid-19 pandemic, he would be spotted rain or shine outside Takashimaya Shopping Centre, smiling widely at passers-by and tourists, who would often stop to watch. He would also encourage them to try their hand at a smaller chain of beads.
Mr Oh would stay in his spot all afternoon - from noon to as late as 8pm.
His eldest daughter said her father once told the family that the beads were as important as his life. She has a younger brother and sister.
“He would even sometimes sacrifice time at family occasions, saying that he would just show his face for a while before heading to Orchard Road,” said Ms Oh, who did not want to give her full name or age.
Mr Oh was given his first set of beads by a friend more than 20 years ago.
A "simple man", as described by his daughter, he had been a taxi driver, karang guni man (rag-and-bone man) and a clothes seller at night markets with his wife.
In their retirement, they picked up the exercise together.
The couple would busk together during the early days, but when grandchildren came along, his wife took a step back to care for them.
"But my dad continued and started all his styles and tricks - lifting legs, hands, doing two or three chains together," said Ms Oh.
Mr Oh really enjoyed having his skills appreciated by others, she said.
"In his old age, he had picked up something he liked and coincidentally, others appreciated it and applauded him," she added.
At the wake in Toa Payoh Central on Tuesday and Wednesday, several young buskers who perform at Orchard Road dropped by to pay their respects to Mr Oh.
"They told us he was the most persistent and consistent busker - rain or shine, he would be there," said Ms Oh.
Mr Oh had about 10 sets of beads - one of his favourite sets has 108 beads and weighs at least 5kg.
Some of his grandchildren were interested in the exercise and he would teach them how to do it, Ms Oh said. He had eight grandchildren, aged between nine and 20.
In their retirement, Mr Oh Ow Kee and his wife picked up the exercise together. PHOTO: ST FILE
In November 2020, while driving from Orchard Road to Toa Payoh, Mr Oh could not find his way home.
He ended up in a car accident at Tuas Checkpoint, and when asked what happened, could not explain why he was there, said his daughter.
The car was so badly damaged that it had to be scrapped, and Mr Oh was hospitalised for a week. Yet his top concern was his beads, which were in the car during the accident, said his daughter.
"He said, 'That's my life. If you don't bring them back, there's no point saving me.'"
Though she finally managed to retrieve the beads, doctors advised Mr Oh not to continue swinging them as his spine was injured. "But he would secretly exercise a bit here and there," said Ms Oh.
Mr Oh Ow Kee in a picture taken last year. PHOTO: SHIN MIN DAILY NEWS
Mr Oh was finally able to busk again last month when his licence was approved. Busking had been banned during the pandemic, and the restriction was lifted only on March 29.
"He was very eager to return and was very worried about not passing his audition for the licence because he hadn't been active for a while," said Ms Oh.
His last performance was on May 28, when he busked for a few hours, she said.
His health had deteriorated over the last two years with the inactivity and it was difficult for him to perform for long, she added.
Ms Oh said the family has been trying to lift her 77-year-old mother's spirits, pointing out to her the positive messages and notes that people have been sending them.
On the outpouring of well wishes online, Ms Oh said: "We feel very happy that he is so well loved, well missed and well respected.
"When we looked through all the family photos - he smiled the widest when he was with his beads."
Mr Oh Ow Kee's wife at his wake on June 7, 2022. PHOTO: SHIN MIN DAILY NEWS
Mr Theodore Woon, 33, an associate director at a global public relations and communications agency, was among those who left well wishes online for Mr Oh and his family.
He said: "His overwhelming sense of fulfilment and contentment made me smile - that even in this time when everyone is rushing and trying to make money or get to places, he was just so happy and contented to be there and performing.
"When I'm in town to celebrate a birthday, promotion, Christmas or a long weekend, or even when I'm sad, broken-hearted, he was always there - smiling."
Mr Oh Ow Kee died on June 5, 2022. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG
Ms Maya Muthiah, 49, said the first time she met Mr Oh was 15 years ago in Waterloo Street. Her son, then five years old, appeared scared.
"When my son went to drop our contribution in Mr Oh's collection box, Mr Oh said kindly, 'Ah boy, are you scared? Don't be scared', and gave him a lollipop," she added.
It made her son smile, and later, as they walked past him again, Mr Oh flashed his trademark grin and waved at them.
"He's got this remarkable child-like smile - that's what I will miss," she said.