Faces on Singapore Subway: Living for a dream from Japan to Sabah

'Anna Takarai' is a woman in transit, searching for an identity and a place where she belongs. — TODAY pic
'Anna Takarai' is a woman in transit, searching for an identity and a place where she belongs. — TODAY pic

SINGAPORE, Jan 11 — With her hair dyed purple and sporting a number of tattoos over her arms, neck and back, “Anna Takarai” is a woman in transit, searching for an identity and a place where she belongs.

The 34-year-old Singaporean, who did not want to disclose her real name even though she was willing to be filmed, has always wanted to be a professional singer from the time she was 16. Now that she is a working adult, the closest she got to fulfilling that goal was by singing at a Japanese bar in the heart of Orchard Road.

By day, she works as a secretary in an insurance firm. When night falls, she is ready to sing by 8.30pm, clutching a microphone and belting out Japanese tunes in the darkened premises of the bar. She does this on an ad-hoc basis for some pocket money, but mostly because it allows her to live out her dream in some small way.

A self-professed Japan-ophile, Anna is attuned to the underground music scene in Japan and follows the subculture of visual kei — a fashion subculture related to Japanese glam rock, metal and punk music. She used to make a yearly trip there to attend concerts by her favourite artistes such as Synk;yet, Vexent and Buk Buk, and tracks their concert dates religiously on Twitter.

On Facebook, her own account is under the moniker “Anna Takarai,” chiefly because of her favourite singer-songwriter and actor Hideto Takarai, who is best known as Hyde, the lead vocalist of rock band L’Arc-en-Ciel.

Anna craves the “intensity and atmosphere” of the concerts in Japan, where the bands go “all out” with their make-up and multi-coloured hair, and headbanging is almost ritualistic. “When I’m there alone, I’ll follow the crowd and be crazy together,” she said.

In Singapore, her first attempts to audition for karaoke competitions and singing jobs did not go so well. In the early days, stage fright took over and she would forget the lyrics or her voice would tremble. The rejections made her realise that she “did not belong on the stage.”

Now, she is confident enough to do Facebook Live recordings of herself singing for her friends and online fans. One clip last year shows her singing at an entertainment spot. At the end of the 40-minute set, she leans forward and whispers to the camera: “(This is the) last song, Koini Ochite.” The opening notes of the song come on and she smiles.

Bills to pay

Anna’s engagements at the Orchard Road bar have been sporadic of late. While work typically ended at 2am, the slow business meant that she could be allowed to leave by about 11.40pm to catch the last train home.

It was while she was on the North-South Line last month that TODAY caught hold of her.

On another day, she took us to a hole-in-the-wall ramen restaurant where she sometimes has her dinner.

“Of course, people think it’s sleazy (to be in the night entertainment scene),” she said, “but to people in Japan, it’s considered a profession... Whatever they think, it’s up to them.”

A divorcee, Anna is now dating a Malaysian, who initially had reservations about her working at the bar. “I used to be afraid that I won’t be able to handle the male customers, but... I just assure him that everything is fine and I don’t go out with customers.”

To be sure, what she makes from singing there hardly bolsters her savings. Anna’s target is to earn at least S$3,000 (RM9,000) monthly, a sum she has not yet reached even with her various part-time jobs.

She also works as a packer in a supermarket, a banquet server at a hotel, and as a dishwasher. She has been doing this for the last three years, and works almost seven days a week.

She said she would work at “any job that can earn decent money” to pay bills, which include repaying the housing loan of her three-room Housing and Development Board flat in Admiralty (S$500 monthly), as well as settling legal fees for divorce proceedings (close to S$3,000).

She declined to talk about why her marriage broke down and said that she has no children.

In the hopes of raising her salary, Anna, who dropped out of a polytechnic after O Levels, took up a diploma course in marketing at a private school in 2008 even though she was “not good in her studies.” Her friends encouraged her to further her studies beyond that, but it is out of her budget.

One time, she entertained thoughts of living in Japan for three months to study the language, but that was another “impossible” dream.

She has also had to cut down her trips there to watch concerts, and spends less on dressing up through cosplay. Having to buy a full outfit for S$200 a pop is just too expensive a hobby to upkeep.

In the storeroom of her flat hangs a discarded Sailor Moon outfit. She has not worn it in a while because the wig to go with it is too costly.

“But I still want to cosplay as Wonder Woman (one day),” she said with a laugh.

Her home is a shrine to all sorts of Japanese memorabilia. Her living room is lined from floor to ceiling with close to 100 Gundam figurines belonging to her live-in boyfriend, the walls on her room are plastered with posters of Japanese bands, and there are also Doraemon curtains, a Pikachu plush toy and Gudetama keychains, just to name a few.

Making up for her spendthrift ways

Anna admitted that she was a spendthrift and “spent every single cent in her 20s till she had zero savings”.

Now, she is working towards a different dream, one that is hopefully shared with her boyfriend of one year whom she met through Facebook.

The plan is to hit at least S$20,000 in savings so that she can eventually move to his hometown in Sabah, where he would like to set up a Gundam shop or tattoo parlour.

“It will be more relaxing to live in Sabah,” Anna said. “In Singapore, everything is very fast-paced and stressful. Every day, people are rushing to work, and the cost of living is high.”

These days, she finds some measure of happiness just doing simple things with her boyfriend, recalling fondly how they stayed home on Christmas Day with sushi bought from the 24-hour Japanese discount store Don Don Donki at Orchard Central. That was considered an indulgent treat for them, she said.

“I used to want to be famous, standing on a stage singing But (I know) it’s just a dream,” she added. “At this age, having a simple life is better than (fame)... When I got to know my boyfriend, I realised that having a simple life is better than having a complicated one, which I used to have.”

And if she feels like singing, she much prefers doing it comfortably and in a leisurely manner at karaoke sessions, among the company of close friends and family. — TODAY

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