Silver Man: The tale of Singapore’s wildest busker

Decked head to toe in silver and standing semi-nude on a pedestal, Roy Payamal contorts his body in slow motion to the music of AC/DC. One moment, he is still — is he even breathing? The next, his mouth gapes open, emitting a silent roar.

The 52-year-old conveys the impression that he’s from another planet. His message is encrypted, hard to understand. Does he bring us post-apocalyptic cautionary tales? Is he inciting us to riot? He seems to be at once grieving and partying. It is a heretic, disconcerting sight. Some passers-by avert their gaze, others walk away in a hurry.

Silver Man performing on the streets of Singapore. Photo: Ng Xi Jie

Roy’s work provokes because it fits no categories. Perhaps this is why Silver Man, as he is dubbed, was disallowed by the authorities to busk on Orchard Road from 2012 to 2015 and cast away to Tampines, where he continues to work today.

As a child, Roy received bad grades and didn’t fit in at school. But there was something that piqued his interest. Every day, he would rush home in excitement and attempt to perch objects on his nose, knee, forehead and chin. For at least three hours a day, knives and rackets – even five chairs at once – would be hoisted into the air to wobble precariously on the proud little boy’s frame.

Roy balancing chairs on his face. Photo: Roy Payamal

At 12, Roy watched a professional juggler on TV performing a trick he knew and realised juggling was his chance to shine. He dreamed of joining the circus, but in the 1970s, traditional travelling circuses were rare in Singapore – Chipperfield’s Circus from the UK and Apollo Circus from India being the notable exceptions.

Roy playing with fire. Photo: Roy Payamal

He became so engrossed in teaching himself circus tricks that friends had to steal his juggling gear to force him to hang out with them. The only person he let on board his personal world of inventions was his little sister, who would stand on his shoulders and somersault onto the bed.  It was in the privacy of his own room that Roy created his first show. He proudly took it to the streets at the age of 19, and he’s been busking ever since.

By the age of 15, Roy was a skilled juggler and fire-eater. Photo: Roy Payamal

Roy’s street art has evolved from his early juggling and human statue performances to complex multimedia pieces complete with intricate backdrops, flashing lights, music, audio recordings and dance improvisations that oscillate between stillness and movement. His installations are so elaborate, he requires four hours to set up and put on makeup, and another three to pack up. After three hours of non-stop performing, he’s physically exhausted and has to stay home the next day just to rest. He is the only busker in Singapore (and perhaps the world) whose work is so intensely multi-disciplinary, sensorial and outlandish.

Sitting in a coffee shop near his Ang Mo Kio flat, Roy shares about his life as a busker. “People treat the street like a place for transit, to go from point A to point B. Nobody expects creativity to come from the street, so nobody takes busking seriously,” he sighs, taking another sip of his kopi o.

For a man who draws inspiration from the spontaneity and energy of the street, this hegemonic worldview is his pet peeve. People sometimes look down on his art, even though it enlivens their daily commute and makes them glance up from their smartphones, reminding them to live life in the uncut and unmediated present. But even his mother hasn’t quite embraced her son’s career choice. Every now and then, people still question why he doesn’t go for a more straightforward job at a place like, say, Mediacorp.

The answer is simple: Passion for his unique craft. Reserved by nature, Roy prefers the company of his thoughts to that of fellow humans. But when he speaks about his art, his eyes light up with fiery zeal. “People queue and pay to see an eagle in a zoo, but cannot appreciate one in the wild!” he exclaims, upset at society’s apparent double standards.

Roy auditioned for Asia’s Got Talent last year, but got rejected pretty badly.

He riles against the unquestioning automatism he sees pervading today’s society and wishes people would think more freely. “I want to change human nature. Everyone is so robotic. I want to break that habit pattern, challenge people’s thinking, and provoke a reaction. Even if they dislike what they see and scowl, at least they are expressing themselves!”

For Roy, the street is his workspace and his muse. Photo: Ng Xi Jie

So what has he learnt over the years about people? Casting his gaze over patrons in the coffee shop, he remarks with the nonchalant objectivity of a social scientist that children and the elderly respond best to his shows. With sparkling eyes, he leans in and admits he loves it when kids wave to him and dance excitedly by his side, and aunties really get into the groove of AC/DC.

Of course, with everything in life, along with the good comes the bad. Hazards of his trade include cheeky passers-by who grab his butt while he’s frozen in human statue mode. He also burned half his face in a fire-eating accident in his 30s, and once he got harassed by an elderly ang moh lady who, grinning, waved a $50 bill and tried to pinch his nipples (he told her to get lost).

Now in his 50s, Roy reflects about what keeps him going. “For me, everywhere is a stage,” he declares, leaping out of his seat wide-eyed.  “There is no separation between art and life.”

Indeed, as Roy stars in the recently released film Singapore Minstrel directed by Ng Xi Jie, his poetic outlook and stage persona appear intertwined. He refuses to conform to society and continues to challenge people’s view of art and busking – simply by being himself.

When he’s not Silver Man, Roy keeps life simple and low-key. He hangs out at home and writes poetry. Walking out of the coffee shop, Roy points out a plant growing between slabs of pavement. “You cannot escape nature,” he says. Against the odds, nature finds its way to bloom in the heart of the concrete city. And just like Roy, it cannot be tamed.

We tip our hats to that.

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