Only last night I was talking about Whitney Houston, reliving the memory of discovering karaoke on a study tour to the Philippines in 1989, when the sad news came through today of her untimely death at the age of 48.
In my mind, Whitney Houston will forever be associated with Asian karaoke, whether in clubs, bars or the comfort of one’s own home.
I have a vivid memory from that Philippines study tour of being in a karaoke club in Olongapo, then home to the US Naval Base at Subic Bay, where a local boy of about 10 or 11 blew us all away with a note perfect rendition of ‘I wanna dance with somebody’. Equally memorable though far less musical was the night I ended up in a bar in Cebu singing ‘I know him so well’ with a Filipina bar girl, a duet recorded by Whitney Houston with her mother Cissy in 1987.
I was living in South East Asia when The Bodyguard starring Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston was released in 1992. It played for months in Bangkok’s cinemas and the video was a best-seller at Patpong’s black market. For years, you couldn’t go to a drag show in Thailand without hearing at least one cover from the movie. ‘I’m every woman’ was a favourite among the kratoey (transsexual) performers, though the vocal cartwheeling of Whitney’s cover of ‘I will always love you’ also got regular exercise.
When I wrote a karaoke scene in my second novel The Half-Child, set in Thailand in 1997, inevitably there was a Whitney Houston song in the mix: ‘I will always love you’, as it turns out. In the scene it is sung by a Filipino man, my little homage to the land that introduced me to the pleasures of the public singalong.
That scene stands also as a homage to Whitney and the joy her gloriously over the top singing brought to so many. Even in countries where the significance of the lyrics might be lost on the listeners, the emotion never was.
I’m only sorry not to be in Bangkok tonight for the tribute shows I imagine are being put together at this very moment.