‘Mad’ Penang busker Jimmy has the last laugh

THEY called him insane for converting tyres, chairs, tins, cups, plastic containers and many other everyday items to musical instruments. But today, busker Jimmy Tan Swee Hin is very proud to have used his creativity and musical talents to contribute to society.

The 74-year-old Penangite, who performs every Saturday at Armenian Street in the heritage site of George Town from 9am to 5pm, has been using the money he receives from onlookers to support St Joseph Orphanage in Betong, Thailand, for the past three years.

“Even my parents, teachers and friends said I was insane by coming out with unbelievable things. Give me anything, I can turn them into musical instruments,” Jimmy, as he is more popularly known, said during an interview with Buletin Mutiara at the Penang House of Music in Komtar.

He started showing his knack for this innovation in 1963 when he was a Form Three student of Westlands Secondary School. One of his earliest “crazy ideas” was converting an unused bicycle to a steel guitar.

Jimmy showing the bass guitar he made by using a motorcycle exhaust pipe,

Another conspicuous instrument of his was a shovel turned to a bass guitar and the latest of his creations was a guitar made from a motorcycle exhaust pipe. It took him six months to do it.

“I had to collect a lot of beer cans and Milo cans, melt them with the help of my friend H.K. Mook for the guitar’s body part,” he said.

“Most of the musicians in the 60s and 70s could not afford to buy musical instruments. So, we improvised. That’s how it became a hobby to me.”

Jimmy and a few of his busker friends became famous when a video of them playing instruments made of household items like tins, pots, kettles and wok covers at Armenian Street went viral in June. Accompanied by a clown, they captivated a big crowd as they performed to raise funds for Tabung Harapan Malaysia (THM). In total, they managed to raise over RM7,000.

Jimmy was on drum while one of his friends performed using a tennis racquet that had been transformed into a bass guitar.

Some of the guitars Jimmy made from recyclable items.

The video generated a lot of interest and also earned them praises. But there was one unforgettable incident for Jimmy that occurred some time later when they were using the household items to perform.

“One woman scolded us for bringing shame to Penang for using the “inferior” musical instruments. I was downhearted at first. When the crowd heard her comments, some of them shooed her away.”

Asked why he chose to support St Joseph Orphanage in Betong, Jimmy said he was touched by the plight of about 40 poor children.

“I had travelled to a couple of countries like Thailand and Cambodia and their orphanages are so much in need of help compared to ours. Some of them are just like cowsheds. And many of the children are infested with head lice.”

There are days when the fund is low but Jimmy said very strangely, a saviour would turn up at times like this. Just recently, he said a local man gave RM3,000 while he was busking as the man wanted to “support a good cause.”

Music seems to run in the blood for Jimmy’s family as his son and four grandchildren are also involved in a band, first playing with recyclable items and now with proper instruments.

The original Dreamers (from left) bass guitarist Joseph Kee,, lead guitarist Jimmy, rhythm guitarist Vicky Yeoh and drummer Eddy Tan.

It was by sheer chance that Jimmy came back to perform after leaving the music scene for 43 years. He co-founded The Dreamers in 1964. There were three others in the band.

After about five years, on the advice of his father, he left the band as drug abuse was becoming more prevalent among musicians then.

In the halcyon days, there were artistes like Joe Rozells, Jimmy Boyle, Robert Tan, Rajamoney Brothers, Albert Yeoh, Alfred Ho and bands like The Strangers, The Thunderbolts, Equinox, Teruna Ria, Tyros, The Mysterians, Junior Jets, Edwin Rajamoney and the Island Rhythmics and Jimmy Ooi and quartet. On the international scene, the Beatles, the Shadows and Elvis Presley were the rage.

Jimmy became a sales person and a technician at the famed Cheng Lee shop located then at Penang Road selling sports goods and musical instruments. At times, he appeared as a guest artiste during some functions and entertained the crowd by using glass, cups, chains, spanner and screwdriver as his musical instruments.

In later years, he worked part-time as a deejay for an entertainment club in Penang and also sold second-hand clothes, mostly jeans, that were donated by the public at the Taman Free School pasar malam. The proceeds went to charity. Jimmy had also worked as a part-time deejay at Sunshine Square in Bayan Baru for 14 years.

It was at the pasar malam that Penang House of Music director Paul Augustin won Jimmy’s heart back to the music fold as the former was organising a gathering for artistes of yesteryear and holding the second exhibition of Penang’s Popular Music of the 40s, 50s and 60s in 2013.

Augustin showing the book entitled “Just for the Love of It” which he co-authored with James Lochhead.

Encouraged, Jimmy decided to buy a guitar at a music shop called LBS Music World in Bukit Jambul. To his surprise, the proprietor, Lim Boon Seng, could recognise him and presented a guitar as a gift to Jimmy as well as sponsored three other guitars and an amplifier to the St Joseph Orphanage in Betong.

Now, when Jimmy is busking, friends, including 88-year-old Gerry Clyde, will just pop by whenever they are free to join in.

Augustin, a noted musician himself, said if things go well, they may plan to hold an exhibition for Jimmy to showcase his fascinating musical instruments.

“Life as a musician is not easy because there is no pension and no EPF (Employees Provident Fund). But they enjoy playing and are happy. In our Malaysian environment, playing music is treated as a hobby. The old players are self-taught, using their ears to listen to the cords,” he said.

“The state government strongly supports performing arts like dance, music and theatre. There must be something for the youths or else they may become bored and turn to gangsterism and drugs.”

To record some of the achievements of past musicians and the history of Penang music industry, Augustin and James Lochhead co-authored a book entitled “Just For the Love of It” which was published in 2015. It has sold over 5,000 copies at RM68 per copy and is now going into its third edition.

“We’ve collected over 1,000 photographs from various people and old recordings you have never heard before. I got quite a number of photographs from Jimmy. Fortunately, when his photographs were destroyed by the floods in November last year, I could reprint them for him.”

For busker Jimmy, who was once called insane, he certainly has the last laugh.

Story by K.H. Ong
Pix by Law Suun Ting