Screen grab of Sun Ho’s 2007 music video China Wine
Accompanying her husband to court this morning, Ho Yeow Sun, aka Sun Ho, aka Geisha, was dressed in a grey, tweedy pantsuit. She tried to avoid the glare of camera lenses; her face half-covered by hair that was streaked gold, but not quite blond. Holding the hand of spouse Kong Hee—charged with criminal breach of trust and falsification of accounts, and found guilty—Ms Ho looked more like an off-duty, fashionably attired secretary than a pastor and co-founder of a mega-church, let alone a pop evangelist.
But evangelise with pop music she did, a move her church, City Harvest, felt was effective in reaching out to the “unchurched”. City Harvest services are known for their pop-concert vim and visual, and an enthusiastic and responsive audience. It is not unreasonable to assume that Ms Ho has a part in devising the musical approach and direction of the church’s ministry. She was, after all, head of the church’s “Creative Department” (from 1992 to 2001), and she herself and Kong Hee (who plays the guitar) had led many of the rousing, rather than rocking, services that brought members of the audience to a euphoric high.
The mega-production of song and dance of City Harvest’s “prosperity gospel”, as it is known, is feasible because of the religious organisation’s wealth. In a Reuters report in March last year, City Harvest, founded by Kong Hee and Ms Ho in 1989, was branded as “one of Asia’s most profitable churches”. How does (or should) a place of worship become profitable, it’s hard to say, but the financial pile may, perhaps, explain why the charge against Kong Hee and church officials involved S$50 million of church fund, most of the sum likely from tithes, a monetary obligation offered by members in support of their church. On City Harvest Chruch’s website, you will find the declaration, “We believe our giving is a form of worship.”
To propel Ho Yeow Sun into the international pop market, City Harvest established the Crossover Project in 2005. According to the court, S$24 million of church money was used to support the Crossover Project. It was a platform on which Ms Ho would morph into a pop star. Through her radio-friendly music, the church was to broaden the reach of their interpretation of the Scriptures to the secular world. Whether their mission was accomplished, perhaps only the church knows. But when you preface a song (Mr Bill) with 这狐狸精是谁 (Who is this bitch?) and wonders if you should “kill Bill” and “send him to the cemetery rock”, it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting you to spread any Holy word.
The transformation was rather rapid. Before her English-language releases, Ms Ho moved to Taiwan, and recorded mostly in Mandarin. In early tracks, she sang like an older songstress trying to sound young. And she dressed, at least in her music video, like the genteel, fashion-unaware, flower of the schoolyard every Poly grad would love to date. In the music video of her earliest hit, 2003’s Lonely Travel ( 孤单旅行), a song that vaguely recalls Rene Liu’s Later (后来), she was styled to look like a kindergarten school teacher, pining for a lost love.
Fast forward to the 2007’s China Wine, a song sung mostly by rapper and Fugees co-founder Wyclef Jean, while Sun Ho was more chorus girl lost in a sea of black voices. She, too, was classic hua ping—decorative vase to Mr Jean’s booming machismo—in Oriental styles that catered to Western men’s take on Eastern exotica. Two years later, when the album Cause a Ruckus was released, Ms Ho “woke up feeling like a millionaire”, as sung in Fancy Free. That’s not really hard if you were living in a Hollywood Hills house, and not an exaggeration when your new “international” album was executive-produced by Wyclef Jean.
Although the China Wine video peaked at number 30 in YouTube’s list of Top Faves (Entertainment) in August 2007, it would never achieve the nearly 2.5 billion views of another Asian singer: Psy, who hit YouTube jackpot with the wildly catchy Gangnam Style. However, China Wine did gained traction in social media. Ms Ho’s costumes were looked at in disbelief: do pastors wear almost no clothes? Can City Harvest Church-goers still sing hymns with gusto while thinking of Ms Ho’s avatar rocking in panties? What, indeed, was she evangelising or was she just gyrating for the Almighty?
It is not known who designed her costumes when she started recording in Los Angeles, but it is possible she was packaged by her music company. Tarted up as a geisha reflected typical American ignorance towards Asian identities, but clad in clothes that looked like Ong Shanmugam’s rejected by Nikki Minaj showed that few costumers consider the ‘hip’ in hip-hop.