Saturday, September 17, 2022

Walter Chee From Zircon Lounge played @ National Stadium With Heritage, Sweet Charity, Speedway, Gingerbread, Tokyo Square...

Walter Chee


This article is worth the read. If you don't, you're missing the point! Again, many thanks Wen Hing.

Walter Chee – The Underrated Guitar Maestro

By Chow Wen Hing.

I first came to know about Walter when I saw his Facebook postings. He had come across as a sociable kind of person – but then we can’t really tell these things from social media. And it turned out I was not too wrong. He is a friendly, cheerful and unassuming man; and one could have easily mistaken his gentle demeanor as a trait of his profession being a guitar technician or a luthier. 

I was not active in the ‘music circle’ (if ever there’s such a thing). This is the network of musicians, performers (some famous, some trying), music hobbyists, and even veteran from Singapore’s nascent music industry. Thus, getting to know Walter was like being inducted into this indiscernible circle, and I had been curious about this gentle man’s thoughts and motivation. 

I have a chance to satisfy my curiosity when I visited Walter in his shop with Andy one day. I guess you can say Walter’s persona has sparked Andy’s curiosity too, and Andy of course tasked me to do an article on this mysterious man for his blog. I resisted for a while, but my friendship with both men got the better of me. In the interest of time (and as I am not really a reporter), I’d gotten Walter to agree to share his thoughts via a question-and-answer format.

I had expected to do quite a bit of editing to his responses – but alas! I was proven wrong! Walter writes flawlessly, and very minimal (if any at all) correction or editing was required. So reproduced in full here is the Q&A, which I hope readers would feel the same sense of enlightenment as I did on reading his responses. Oh yes, please do stay for my closing comments after it you have finished the Q&A though… 😊

'Strike Back' - YouTube
An original Singapore pop music piece,
composed and performed by Walter Chee
from River Tree Music.


1. Tell us about your growing up years and the first time you began playing an instrument - was the guitar your first choice?

Growing up in the 60s was simple and with less distractions as compared to the world today. At a young age, we learn to socialise and make (real) friends with neighbours to play and learn together. As kids, we had little. No fancy toys to play therefore we invented our own games and set the rules of the game. Bedtime was usually before 10pm because playtime ended when the sun set. Black and white TV did not arrive until the beginning 60s.

Back in those days, a lot of older boys either joined gangs or played the guitar. These older boys and hippies would usually gather in the evening to sing and play the guitar, and I would be their most ardent audience. I developed an interest for the instrument and learned to play the guitar from one of the boys when I was in primary school.

2. You were with Chris Ho and his band Zircon Lounge. How long were you with the band? Can you share a significant moment during this period of time?

I started forming bands when I was in secondary school. My first serious band was called Stolen Property when I was 16. We played mostly rock songs and also did some originals. In 1984 we joined the Yamaha Combo Competition and came in first in the competition. Even though we won the competition, gigs were scarce and there were very few opportunities to perform in those days. The only chance to get our music heard was to join band competitions. Hence, we decided to join another band competition organised by one of the most popular lounges in Singapore at that time called Rainbow Lounge.  In the finals of the competition, Chris Ho was one of the judges and that was how I met him.

We did not connect until much later when Chris was looking for a second guitarist for his band to promote his new album. He asked me if I was interested and of course I said yes! I remembered Chris as a serious singer/songwriter who gave me space to express my creativity in his music. I really missed his voice on the radio. My most significant moment with Zircon Lounge was when the band was invited to play in the National Stadium for the “Police and Friends” concert. All the top bands at the time were invited – Heritage, Sweet Charity, Speedway, Gingerbread, Tokyo Square, etc; and of course, Zircon Lounge. Unfortunately, I do not have a photograph of such a big show to remind me of that glorious day. I am certain photographs were taken and I really hope I could get a hold of one as a keepsake.

3. What was it like to be a “band boy” at that age, and what were your thoughts on the music scene back then (the 80s/90s)?

I think the word “band boy” is synonymous with working musician in clubs or lounges. It cannot be use to describe me because I never played professionally or regularly. I played mostly concerts and one-off club gigs. I guess I was more of a boy-in-a-band back in the 80s. The real band boys back in those days enjoyed a rather glamorous life and had more “star” status than the current gigging musicians because they are closest to the “real” thing. In the 80s, Singaporeans were starved of being treated to international acts. 

Many world-famous bands back then were either banned from performing here because of their image, or our market was simply too small for them to do a show here. It was impossible to even catch a video on TV of such acts. But these days, you can watch and enjoy almost any band that ever existed on YouTube and on the MTV channel. Local bands playing the popular songs of the day provided the relief and bridged the gap to the real thing. There was a demand for them because the audiences were hungry for Western pop, and that I feel is one reason why many of the good local cover bands achieved star statuses.

4. You went into the corporate world after that. What made you “hang up your strings”?

I had a lot of momentum, musically and as a guitar player, in the 80s. After Stolen Property and Zircon Lounge, I joined a jazz-rock-fusion band called Fabby Dabby. We also did mostly concerts and one-off club gigs. I entered National Service (NS) in late 80s and that put almost everything to a halt temporary. After a year in the army, I started gigging again on my day-off with Fabby Dabby. However there came a time when the rest of Fabby Dabby wanted to be band-boy and it was then that we disbanded.

After completion of my NS and having failed to convince my parent to let me pursue a career in music, I left for England to pursue my Bachelor of Engineering. While in England, I also took up apprenticeship as a guitar tech in an instrument workshop in London. Upon my return to Singapore, I worked for 27 years in a corporate environment. However, during this period, I did not actually “hang up my guitar”. I played in bands whenever there was an opportunity but mostly as a serious hobby. I also did gigs and collaborated as an arranger and producer for a British singer/songwriter.

I did not take up music as my career mainly because one needs to be extraordinary in order to be successful in this industry. In most industries, you can be mediocre and still be successful if you sway where the wind blows but not in the music industry. I do not think I am extraordinary hence I decided it is better for me to take music as a serious hobby and not as my career with my livelihood depending on it.

5. Did the years away from being active in the music scene dampen or fire up your desire and passion about music?

I think it occurs to most musicians or serious hobbyists, that despite being busy for years with other real-world stuff and having neglected your instrument for years; you never really forget what really fires you up. I can imagine how many would still be turned on by that power chord blasting from a Marshall stack. For these people, myself included; all it takes is a nudge to spark off a blaze. A chance meeting with your ex-drummer or keyboardist, meeting like-minded individuals who are also tired of the rat race – all these are the little sparks that can get me fired up and I’ll be inspired to start making music again. The desire, that teenage dream, and the experience of playing in front of twenty thousand people in an arena never left me. But sadly, I know it might not happen again for me in this lifetime.

Author Chow Wen Hing [left] and Walter Chee.

6. What do you think of the new generation of musicians in Singapore now and how do you think they are faring as compared to musicians during your time?

I think every generation of musicians will find the next generation lacking – perhaps musically or emotionally. They will find them ‘soul-less’ and ‘not like our generation’. For any genre of music, we tend to go “so far” into the new generation and say to ourselves "enough it’s enough, this is as far as I can go” – we’ll stick to what we love and are familiar with. Similarly, the new generation of musicians will always feel that they are better than the last, being more connected and ‘real’. I tend to agree that with the power and use of technology, music of the current era is technically superior.

In my opinion, local musicians who grew up before YouTube came along had it easy because there was no comparison to the real-thing. If you can somehow sound like the real-thing, you will be admired. Usually, exact note-for-note replication could not be achieved so we learned to improvise and developed our own style of playing. This in my opinion is a good thing. New gen musicians are caught up in what YouTube and the new technologies can offer. Now playing the exact notes and emulating the style almost in perfection is possible. 

There are tons of YouTube tutorials and lessons to guide budding musicians with the skill and technique development. Free software is available to be downloaded, which can help slow down the music and allow complicated licks to be analysed and learned. Specialised amps and hardware are also on sale which can do the same. They play fast and are very technical in their playing. The key difference is that these technically competent musicians are not as creative, and many of them are not able to improvise. This is a very important in musicianship and developing a musical character.

7. Is a career in the arts - in music in Singapore in particular, a viable option, or is it still an uphill task today?

Music as a career is an uphill task anywhere in the world. One of the reasons why music took a backseat for me after I came back from England was that I have seen too many “nobody” buskers. There were – as I believe still are today, many street buskers who were talented and were so good that they could have stood shoulder to shoulder with any big names in the industry. Why aren’t these people “discovered” and placed “up there”? For me there were too many questions and very few answers.

If music as a career in England and Europe is bad, music as a career in Singapore for 99.999% of the people will be suicidal if you do English originals. Music as a career in Singapore is still viable only in the classrooms and not on the big stage in front of twenty thousand people in a big arena.

8. What in your opinion do you think the music industry in Singapore needs, for it to gain more traction and some semblance of a feasible career choice and become a fully contributing profession in our economy?

We need heroes and a miracle in the music industry in Singapore. We need heroes en masse – from people who have made a name for themselves on the world stage. Everyone loves a hero and hopefully these heroes will inspire and motivate more people to stand up if they have the talent to one day become a hero. But bear in mind that it will be an uphill task. A good example would be how some years back, when a well-known religious leader threw millions into Hollywood to promote a lady singer but it all came to naught. Throwing money at it is not the answer. 

We need a miracle in a national language, where we can write songs with and where it is also accepted and welcomed in the region and the world. Look at the Thais, the Koreans, the Indonesians, and the Japanese music industries. Besides the size of their markets, they have a language that is unique and accepted. Hopefully one day, just like K-pop that has now broken into the world market, we have our S-Pop.

Until then, I guess we must keep trying and keep our dreams alive. Perhaps one day, someone truly extraordinary will appear, and as our pop hero, will spark a nationwide movement that will make a career in music in Singapore a reality. 🙥

Walter Chee, luthier in his shop.

Closing Comments

A real bitter pill to swallow, but swallow it we must. Sobering words from someone who’d been there, seen it, done it; and certainly, are words we must allow to ricochet off the walls of the ‘circle’.  I would also like add a comment that “Singapore musicians are simply too lazy”, made by another veteran within the circle. 

And as I ruminated over these words, I surmised that we need:

  1. Hard work

  2. A hero (a leader)

  3. A miracle (on the surface, but frantic real-world activity beneath)

  4. Buy-in on a national level – first

Sounds like another Monday to me. 

For if this is not what Singapore is known for, I don’t know what is. We can make miracles happen – Singapore itself is a miracle, many say. So, with due respect and deference to Walter and all the veterans out there – we are in the right era. This is the time for Singapore music (S-Pop, S-Rock, Lion Rock, etc.) to happen. We have the infrastructure, the assets, the desire, the energy, the purpose and drive, and the reason to make it happen. As I am writing these words now – it is happening. 

What veterans (in and outside of the circle) can do is to add your voice to this movement. Support a local act. Buy a locally created and produced piece of musical work. Sign up for a Spotify account and create a playlist only of Singapore original music and songs (if you do not know how to do this – ask a younger Singapore musician). Attend shows and gigs of local bands. Make friends with them. See in them the you when you first started and see the struggles they have as the ones you had. See the fire and dreams they have as the ones you’ve had before. Don’t let that fire in you go out – not yet. Pass the spark along. Support a Singapore song.

Thank you Walter, for sharing your thoughts and experience on this journey. You are in the hearts and minds of many of us – a hero in your own rights. Your story has added another foundational layer onto which our younger musicians can build on. And of course, they can continue to seek your advice by visiting you at RiverTree Music 😊


From left: Musicians Walter Chee and his group 
with Andy n Wen Hing [author of this posting.]


Anonymous said...

I’ve know Walter personally for 4 years and I must say what you said here is so very true! Great Luthier ! Great Musician! Great Guy and a Great Friend!

Anonymous said...

There are countless comments but ones where the commentator has lived it definitely holds true. I believe that Walter has put the facts on the table and no soft punches at that. The road is hard but good management and a great song will seal the deal. The dream is always there for those who dare to dream.

ANDY: Pop Music Not Pills. © said...

Thanks guys whoever you are.
It's true.
Dare to dream!
And as I told Steve Ho our rocker and busker, "Don't stop believing."

ANDY: Pop Music Not Pills. © said...

I must thank CEDRIC COLLARS for his DARE TO DREAM comment which was posted under ANONYMOUS.

Thanks Cedric. Apologies for the technical posting mistake.


Good article. Wen Hing writes well. How and what we can do to boost and promote local talent ,be they be musicians, actors, dancers, lies basically with our Govt . We have great talents out there. We have great musicians,singers and song writers. But why are they not showing up.? They appear in ‘ a once in a blue moon’ concert . Then disappeared . After they perform in gigs, (being paid a miserable $150/ per night ) they go into ‘hibernation’ There is no continuity, no zest to continue performing. Ironically, too , our local talents apparently received better recognition in Taiwan. An Entrepreneur that i know of, lamented that when he put up a show ,tickets sold managed to fill up 80% of the sitting capacity n yet there was hardly any profit. How, you may ask ? “High entertainment taxes and venue rentals are the 2 evils”he said The music and entertainment industry today is a business proposition, no more just for pleasure . Entrepreneurs are willing to stage big concerts. But the bottom line must be ‘Black’ We dun need a ‘miracle’ we should not be too pessimistic. The solution lies with how our Govt views and values our local talents . Hope our minister for culture is ‘listening’


ANDY.... WALTER is a very Accomplished Musician, HE's highly recommeded by many. From my earlier interaction with WALTER about month ago, when I did send a guitar for *set up* at his shop.. *I can see both SUMMER & HIM, Very Easy Goin, making👍🏻Customers very much at home*

JAMES KWOK said...

Good evening from James. It's a matter of personal interest. For me to enjoy a piece of music, I need to catch the melody. So for me it's the Shadows or the Ventures kind of music, with soft piano jazz for late nights. The Strike Back kind of music might appeal to young people at a rock concert, which I have never attended, perhaps because I am an introvert by nature. Cheers.


I listen to Strike Back again, and I can hear the skill and technique of the guitar.. being a guitar player of sorts, I know how difficult it is to move coherently on the finger board, making sure we land on the right notes. Walter may not be Chet Atkins but you can almost see his fingers flying on the fingerboard and catching those notes in rapid succession. That to me is skill, regardless of what else that is said.

ANDY: Pop Music Not Pills. © said...

Thank you all for your comments.

Bouquets or brickbats, these comments have been frank. There is no intention to criticise, hurt feelings nor create animosity but more to look at the situation as members of music loving citizens who wish to see some more improvement in our local pop scene.

Promote LOCAL music and learn as we go along!

Walter Chee said...

I want to thank Andy Young and Chow WH for giving me an opportunity to share my story and thoughts about local music scene in this blog. LET'S MAKE MUSIC!!!

ANDY: Pop Music Not Pills. © said...

Thank you Walter for sharing your music journey with the world and to Wen Hing for writing your story.

I've always been appreciative of you both as music friends with extra talents: you a luthier/author and Wen Hing, a lecturer/author.

Singapore is never short of talent and kind people.

Till we all meet again.


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DAVE YOW said...

That was a good read, and get-to-know-you alittle more Walter. keep up the amazing work. U r a true inspiration for all.


Walter Chee Chien ... Your honesty and sincerity are always with you. Hope you continue to excel and succeed and keep up the amazing work and keep doing your best in life.👍👍

TA BAY said...

Keep your dream going Walter, Cheers


Power Walter Chee Chien 💪🎸💪🎸💪

Peter Loh said...

You gave hard, honest, heartfelt answers Walter, kudos! 👍👍👍👏👏👏. Chee Chien btw you can try SPH Straits Time photo archive to see if they've your band photos, I'm sure they would have covered those events. Can be purchased if available. Hope you find the photos!

Abdul Shukor Jalil said...

Awesome bro Chee Chien ...👏😍🎵🎸

Daniel Ng said...

Walter, u not only repair guitar, u literally shred the guitar like a rock star. Keep going !

SATRIA said...

Chee Chien YOU ARE THE BEST.....!!!!!
Keep rocking...!!!!


On behalf of Andy, a big thank you to you indeed Walter 😀 Yours was an incredible story that needs to be told, and it was an honour you allowed us to undertake this task. I hope it has inspired and motivated more to embark on their own incredible journey of discovery and sharing!

ANDY: Pop Music Not Pills. © said...



Anonymous said...

Fortunately those who couldn't see beyond their yellow culture tinted glasses have gone. I sang but without guitar as my mastery of the instrument was/is rudimentary. Anyone knows which band Richard Ang was lead guitarist in? Andy Obg

ANDY: Pop Music Not Pills. © said...

This posting has increased its viewership by quite a distance.
Walter's a pretty nice chap and I've yet to take my two guitars to his shop for a checkup.

Mrs. Chee is a very interesting lady to chat with; lots of stories to tell about the guitar business and she's great with her PR.



This blog receives no financial gain nor special discounts from its shop owner for publishing this story.

If you have stories to tell about our musicians in Singapore, do let Blogger know. He could always publish them. Let the world recognise that SG has great music lovers and renowned pop artistes.


Unknown said...

WOW - Walter you did your way.