By Shibani Mahtani
SINGAPORE – The arrest of five leaders from Singapore’s biggest church this week has thrust the founder’s wife – a singer whose musical career is at the center of the case – into the spotlight after years of moderate local success as a recording artist.
Ho Yeow Sun sold several hundred thousand records in recent years before her husband, who founded the City Harvest Church in Singapore, was arrested for allegedly using church funds to help advance her career. But she never achieved the kind of mainstream success at home that’s been enjoyed by other local artists such as Stefanie Sun and JJ Lin, who sold more albums in Singapore and were celebrated by local officials, including invitations to perform at National Day ceremonies and the Youth Olympic Games there.
Now Ms. Ho is getting lots of new attention in Singapore – albeit not under ideal circumstances. Online traffic to view YouTube clips featuring the artist is surging,
with videos receiving tens of thousands of hits and hundreds of comments over the past two days. Social media sites, meanwhile, are abuzz with debates over the merits of Ms. Ho’s work. Although many viewers, including City Harvest members, have defended her work as a singer, other Singaporeans have blasted her tunes while questioning whether her racy dancing style and dress are appropriate given her stated desire to spread Christianity.
The arrests of Ms. Ho’s husband, Kong Hee, and four other executive members of the City Harvest megachurch were the result of a two-year investigation by Singapore’s Commissioner of Charities and the Commercial Affairs Department of the Singapore police. Prosecutors believe that charitable money from the church was used to help launch Ms. Ho’s career, including after she moved to Los Angeles, where she has been trying to build a career recently, without the knowledge of the church’s executive committee. Ms. Ho was not accused of wrongdoing.
The five who were arrested were charged with committing criminal breach of trust. Legal representatives for the accused have not commented on the matter and efforts to reach Ms. Ho and her manager and Mr. Kong have been unsuccessful.
Ms. Ho – better known as Sun Ho or simply “Sun” in the music world – got her start at the church itself, where she served as music pastor. She left the church in 2003 to pursue a musical career, and Mr. Kong and Ms. Ho started the “Crossover Project,” an initiative aimed at using Ms. Ho’s secular music – featuring Mandarin-language songs and dance beats – to reach out to non-Christians. Although her songs didn’t typically include explicitly Christian messages, she continued to sing at the church and tweeted about Christianity to her fans.
Ms. Ho’s initial albums enjoyed some success, selling several hundred thousands of copies. But even then Ms. Ho was accused by some Singapore residents of using church money to boost album sales – something church officials vigorously denied.
With songs distributed by Universal Music and Warner Music, each of which has a large regional presence Asia, Ms. Ho looked to expand her fan base by touring in places like Taiwan and Hong Kong. According to the official website for her Chinese music, some of her songs rose to #1 on the Taiwan MTV charts back in 2007. Efforts to contact the two record companies were unsuccessful, and neither of them currently lists Ms. Ho as a singer they represent on their websites.
Ms. Ho also began spending more time in Los Angeles to launch an English-language musical career, moving there in 2007. She collaborated with Fugees co-founder Wyclef Jean on a popularly-available track, “China Wine,” and released another English song, “Where Did Love Go,” produced by David Foster, who has worked with the likes of Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston. One of only a few Asian singers to be invited to the Grammy Awards, she featured in a number of videos and interviews in Los Angeles.
Ms. Ho continued making headlines back home, though, with some residents arguing her short skirts and revealing outfits were inappropriate considering her religious mission.
In one song titled “Mr. Bill,” Ms. Ho dances in tight, revealing outfits and talks about killing her fictional husband, Bill, and “sending him to the cemetery” for making her “cook and clean.” In the opening sequence of the music video, she speaks Chinese to the fictional husband while wearing a cropped, oriental-styled top – inviting criticism that she is playing up to Asian stereotypes in a Western market.
Her video for “China Wine” has also been widely shared, featuring Ms. Ho and her dancers gyrating to the music of Wyclef Jean and Elephant Man. The song makes reference to a dance move called “dutty wine” that’s popular in the Caribbean and involves moving one’s hair and hips simultaneously.
Following the high-profile arrest of her husband, YouTube videos of her performances and interviews have received many more “dislikes” on the video-sharing site, though she also has received some support.
“I don’t understand how this song is supposed to send a message to the non-Christians to follow God,” said one YouTube commenter, shadowedmemoire, after viewing “Mr. Bill.” “Do I have to play the song backward or something?” Another blogger named Michelle said Ms. Ho’s lyrics were “insipid” and didn’t have “any discernable lyrical connections with Christian beliefs or morality beyond pedestrian references to love.”
A member of City Harvest Church, though, wrote “I have absolute trust in the fact that none of the money was embezzled for personal gain,” while one of Ms. Ho’s dancers, also a City Harvest member, wrote “I was saved when I was in LA dancing in Sun Ho’s China Wine Music Video.”
Whether the fresh attention will imperil Ms. Ho’s career – or just make her more famous – is still unknown. But even without the charges against her husband, she faces challenges. The bulk of Ms. Ho’s concerts, including those in Singapore, Taiwan and China, were organized by Xtron Productions Pte Ltd., a production house co-owned by two members of City Harvest Church. According to local media reports, prosecutors believe it was one of the conduits through which church funds were misappropriated.
Efforts to reach representatives of Xtron Productions were unsuccessful, as the company ceased operations earlier this month.