Alden Boon

Edmund Khong on the Business of Clowning, Making Children Laugh, and Overcoming Gaming Addiction

October 11, 2017

Clad in loud overalls of eye-popping colours, Edmund Khong is hurling multiple balls into mid-air with ease and dexterity. Free falling, each ball lands and sticks onto his “helmet”, like an arrow aimed straight for a bullseye. Just as he settles into his rhythm, he misses and drops one! He hunkers down to pick up the ball, now rolling towards his audience: an assembly of children. One rogue stretches out his hand and in one fell swoop yanks Edmund’s headwear off. Immediately, a paroxysm of laughter rings out and echoes throughout the room.

“This is what we call a ‘happy accident’,” says Edmund. Unlike precision drills where the slightest mistake sounds the death knell, the clowning world is more forgiving of slip-ups, which are comical opportunities. Moreover, Edmund relishes playing the part of the gregarious Auguste, an antithesis of the classic, prima-donna whiteface clown — think pratfalls and exaggerated gestures and repartee. The Auguste is also maladroit, and every attempt to right a mistake only aggravates it. “It resonates with children because they enjoy seeing adults fail. They are always being told what they are supposed to do, and here is an adult who is always messing things up.”

Edmund describes himself as “The Human Cartoon”, channelling three personas who are what he calls “amplifications” of himself. Flamboyant, whimsical and wacky is Captain Bubbles: the archetype of a circus clown. Inspired by his time of being a scout, Professor Bananas is a safari explorer, and for this character Edmund pulls from his bag of considerable tricks that include juggling and closeup magic to be a ventriloquist. There is also Captain Dazzle, a stripped-down version of Captain Bubbles whom he concocted specially for the Singapore market, where the clowning scene is still diminutive.

Edmund Khong Professional Clown Singapore Funny
Edmund with his clown makeup teacher Jim Howle. Edmund takes one hour to put on makeup, a process he describes as therapeutic. “Some performers feel they are clowns only when they have makeup on. For me, the clown exists in me: I am still a funny person with or without makeup.”

“It’s interesting: our neighbours Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia all have a strong clown culture — you will spot a clown at carnivals, birthday parties and family-day events — yet it is not so in Singapore. I guess my generation, and the generations after mine, are not exposed to clown entertainment, our concept of comedy shaped by influences such as Mr Bean, Charlie Chaplin and duo Wang Sha and Ye Feng.”

Edmund Khong Professional Clowning Singapore
There is a gradual shift towards clown lite, which is characterised by minimal makeup. It is embraced by caring clowns, for example, who reach out to children in need and stage closeup performances.

Edmund’s first memories of performing arts? Tagging along with his father to shopping malls, sitting amongst other wide-eyed children and cheering at the magic, mime and juggling acts. These performances inspired him — instead of the society-foisted “doctor” and “lawyer” answers, he would envision himself as a magician when penning compositions on ambitions. “I had this dream of being the Asian answer to David Copperfield: handsome, wind in my face, sexy assistants. But later in life, I realised I had a goofy personality — I enjoy making people laugh, rather than have them be amazed. So, I began using magic as a comedic trick.”

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Some people ask: “Why the makeup? Why must you put on a mask?” But it is not a mask. Makeup brings out my emotions; it accentuates my expressions. A smile is bigger; a frown sadder.

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Roy Payamal, widely regarded by many as Singapore’s first clown, was one of Edmund’s mentors. Edmund shadowed Roy in numerous street performances, and the initial experience for the then apprentice was “awkward”. “Every artist in his or her first performances is trying to emulate someone else, and so was I. But after this rite of passage, there is a need to take risks, try different things and find something you really enjoy doing.”

Read how Tattooist Sumithra Debi Defies Stereotypes by Creating Art beyond Skin Deep

Edmund Khong Professional Clown Singapore
To get himself into his over-the-top characters, Edmund thinks about the end result. “I want to make the children happy, and I want to create positive memories for them.”

Sometimes, the happiest people are the saddest
The lights have gone out, the boisterous applause now a distant whisper, and children with smiles etched by Edmund’s finesse are streaming out of the venue. It has been many hours of joy-making, and Edmund is physically and mentally spent. Most performers would pack up and call it a day, but Edmund has something pressing to do — a creeping desire gnaws at him. He reaches into his bag, retrieves his phone and launches the app “Shadow Era”. He readies himself for an online match with a disembodied gamer halfway across the world. There in the vacated venue he loiters, all alone, eyes fixed on the screen, whisked away to another world.

“I went through a dark period when I developed a serious addiction to mobile gaming, and it led to a downward spiral: It took up a lot of my energy, and I did not have enough time to run my business. I simply lost focus in life.” His wife, who helps at his events, had to bear the brunt of his festering frustration. Edmund would micro-manage her, and snap at her whenever she made a mistake. Onstage, he was this loveable, larger-than-life character, but offstage he was, by his own admission, short-tempered and at times downright nasty.

His career hitting a plateau, Edmund was like a boat impeded by blinding blackness of the night, directionless, carried forward only by the waves. “I kept wondering about what my next move would be, and I didn’t know where I was headed, career wise. My income began to dip slowly.” Another problem was plaguing Edmund as well: His health was debilitating, his weight gain brought on by unhealthy eating habits. “After a show, the last things I wanted to eat were sweet potatoes or oatmeal. I would scarf down high-fat foods such as chicken rice, fried noodles and the like.” At just thirty-three, Edmund became at risk of diabetes as well as high cholesterol and blood pressure. He also experienced persistent throbbing pain in his right knee.

Edmund Khong Professional Clown
At his heaviest, Edmund tipped the weighing scale at over ninety kilograms. Now also battling addiction, work became routine for Edmund, who (literally) had to put on a happy face. “Every day going to work I had to ‘artificially’ make myself happy, and I did that by telling myself that I needed the money to survive.” His passion was dulled, the music of children’s laughter did little to inspirit him.

Gaming soon became his refuge. “In the real world, we have to deal with problems and imperfections and inconveniences. Not so in the gaming world — everything is organised perfectly: The names of your avatars are listed alphabetically; problems are resolved instantaneously with a touch of a button.”

Like mould at first unheeded that eventually infested every nook and cranny in the house, gaming became Edmund’s apex priority, his day-to-day orbiting his online characters: Even on days when he had a gig, he would wake up at three in the morning to engage in matches. He became the reigning world champion in numerous tournaments, and at this juncture his reality and gaming milieu were dichotomous. Here was a sanctum where he excelled tremendously, celebrated even, and no troubles dwelt. The lure was strong.

“I tried really hard to quit the game, and when I went cold turkey I experienced the same symptoms as a drug addict would: my hands shivered; my energy level plummeted. And so I kept relapsing. But in 2014 I finally managed to quit the game.”

Out of the frying pan into the fire
Edmund was now extricated from the webs of addiction, or so he thought. Before long he was, unknowingly, on the prowl for yet another fix. Filling his void was Marvel Puzzle Quest, a lethal combination of his favourite Marvel characters and Candy-Crush-esque matching games. All told, Edmund splurged a staggering five thousand dollars on in-app purchases.

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I do feel regret whenever I think about all those years, which were supposed to be the prime of my life. But there’s a part of me that wants to move on. I have a talent, and I want to share my gift with the world, and I haven’t got any more time to lose.

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His life between 2012 and 2015 was spilt between such debauchery and his so-called passion: a wavering candle flame on the last inch of wick. His reset button came unexpectedly one day, and in the unlikeliest form: silly banter courtesy of his wife. “I was watching an entertainment show on TV, and I commented on how attractive the actress was. To that my wife said, ‘She would never like a fatso like you!’” Though said in jest, these words were a reality slap. Concerned about his health, Edmund began reading online resources on weight loss and body transformation. He found a new passion: powerlifting, and thanks to a strict regimen he began losing weight and cutting a tapered physique.

But it is a fine line between passion and addiction, and addiction is like black ice: not always visible yet deadly. Soon Edmund slipped back into his old obsessive ways, purchasing supplements in the hope of bulking. Then he heard on the grapevine a certain pre-workout drink would energise him, and then he learnt about branched-chain amino acid supplements. The convenience of online shopping meant that he had ready access to all these products, and once again he spent a considerable amount of money on his new hobby.

When an obsessive person has exhausted all his options, he begins exploring dangerous territories, says Edmund. “Steroids are proven to work, which is why so many people turn to them.” Fortunately, he was able to sidestep this slippery slope by employing the same technique he uses to get into his clown characters: envisioning the end result. “My goal was to become healthier, and steroids achieve the opposite of that.”

Wiser and more in control of his life, Edmund recognised the pattern of addiction, and he swiftly curbed his online-spending impulses.

A man on a mission, a clown with a vision
Today, the 36-year-old is genuinely happy, feeding off the endorphins released during his workouts. His sleep cycles are peaceful, and he wakes up feeling like a champion who can achieve a lot more. He is still living with an addiction, albeit a healthy one: children’s laughter. “Seeing them roll on the floor, having them come and hug me at the end of a show, these are very touching moments that are dear to me.”

Edmund is also driven to up the profile of Singapore’s clowning sector. When he first started out, he studied under the tutelage of Singapore’s second Ronald McDonald, whose identity is largely kept secret. He is the only disciple born out of this bloodline, and so the onus of preserving his teacher’s legacy falls squarely on him.

Edmund Khong Professional Clown Singapore
For his craft, there is nothing Edmund will not do.

Earlier this year, he began a new group called Singapore Caring Clowns Alley, galvanising like-minded performers to provide pro bono services. Together, they work with hospitals and organisations such as Make a Wish to spread joy to disadvantaged children. Making clowning resonate positively with the public is and will be an uphill climb for Edmund, his efforts hindered by Hollywood-weaved travesty and pranksters who deface the art. “I tell my fellow clown friends and students this: Go out, do meaningful work, and show the world that good clowns exist, and that clowning or physical comedy is a vital art form that has value.”

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As a clown, I open windows of happiness. Life is never amazing twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. These small windows allow us to forget the drab and the hard, the boredom and the pain. They are a simple escape, a faint memory that one can hold on to. The windows let hope in, and hope is a very important thing to have.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.

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