Sinister pranksters won't stop him from clowning around
Being a professional clown is no laughing matter these days as 'creepy clowns' go around scaring people. But clowns here still have plenty of tricks up their sleeves
With their balloon sculptures and distinct slapstick humour, clowns are traditionally thought to spread joy and laughter.
But some people are viewing these fun-loving entertainers as something more sinister these days.
In what has been dubbed the "creepy clown" craze, pranksters around the world have started dressing up as clowns – but to frighten people.
This trend, which originated in the United States some time around August, has since spread here.
Last week, a video of 19-year-old student Joel Wong scaring passers-by while dressed in a clown costume surfaced online. He has since apologised for his actions.
The antics of these pranksters worsen the perception that clowns are scary, which was perpetuated by famous villainous clowns such as Pennywise in Stephen King's novel It, and the Joker from the Batman comic series.
A Google image search of the word "clown" reveals the extent of this fear – nearly half of the results are of scary clowns.
The hysteria has even caused fast food chain McDonald's in the US to stop public appearances of its clown mascot, in case it contributes to the fear mongering, reported The Washington Post.
But as the "creepy clown" craze continues to spread, professional clowns here may have the last laugh as their business remains unaffected.
TNP PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR
Mr Edmund Khong, 35, who has been a practising clown for the past 12 years, says the demand for his services has not taken any hits.
He says: "I know it's a big problem overseas, but thankfully, it is still all right over here. I continue to get advance bookings."
Mr Edward Leong, who performs regionally, says his services are still very much in demand.
The 47-year-old Malaysian, who adopts the persona of Uncle Fishy de Clown, has been performing for the past 14 years.
Mr Leong, who comes to Singapore for a gig about twice a month, says: "It's never affected my business in Singapore or anywhere else. I still have lots of shows, and all my customers are happy with the show I put on."
Event organisers tell The New Paper on Sunday that clowns remain "essential" to certain events here.
Mr Edmund Khong is a full-time professional clown. TNP PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR
Mr Robin Goh, manager at JNR entertainment, says: "Clowns will always be needed. If we have no clowns for events such as carnivals or children's parties, they won't feel so alive."
The company has been organising corporate family day events for seven years, and regularly features clowns at the events.
But beneath the exaggerated make-up-drawn smiles, professional clowns admit to being worried by the "creepy clown" craze.
Mr Khong says: "I am concerned about people's perceptions. They might not be able to tell if these creepy clowns are acting or not, and then they might be scared of real clowns like us."
The problem has been highlighted by the World Clown Association (WCA), a global clown organisation that has more than 2,100 members across 30 different countries.
Its president, Mr Randy Christensen, says the pranksters who dress up as them are "not clowns".
TNP PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR
In a statement posted on the WCA Facebook page, he says: "We believe the art of clown is something to be treasured and enjoyed by audiences worldwide.
"We stand with our safety officers who call for an end to the traumatisation of individuals and communities. This clearly is not the act of a professional clown."
Dr Thomas Petschner, director of non-profit organisation Clown Doctors Singapore, which organises clown visits to hospitals to cheer patients up, has a similar stance on the issue.
He tells TNPS: "Everyone should acknowledge that (the pranksters) are not clowns. We have an epidemic of people getting disturbed by attention-seeking individuals, or perhaps fetish for dressing up as clowns to invoke fear."
Even Stephen King, creator of the demonic clown Pennywise, has spoken out against the problem.
He tweeted last month: "Hey, guys, time to cool the clown hysteria - most of (them) are good, cheer up the kiddies, make people laugh."
Despite the problem of creepy clowns, Mr Leong says he will not stop performing.
He says juggling some people's fear of clowns has always been part of the job, and there are ways to bounce back from such issues.
Mr Leong says: "Clowns have always had to deal with people scared of them, so we have to come up with our own ways to soothe the fears."
For his act, Mr Leong adopts a careful approach when he notices children who might be frightened.
"He starts his act from a distance. Often, the children end up warming to him.
"It's something very magical when they manage to get past their fears," he says.
With a loud laugh, he says: "Sometimes, the ones who stood the furthest away end up being the ones closest to me, asking for more jokes and tricks."
His job is no joke
As a professional clown, Mr Edmund Khong takes comedy quite seriously.
The 35-year-old, who performs for children as the clowns Captain Dazzle and Bubbles the Magical Clown, tells The New Paper on Sunday that he puts a lot of thought into each performance.
"I have to know my audience, practise my tricks, and carefully plan how to respond to them," he says with a laugh as his clown make-up accentuates every expression.
"It's no child's play!"
Most of the time, Mr Khong knows how he will start and end his shows, which last for an hour on average. He decides which tricks to perform according to the audience's reaction.
Mr Khong, who has been performing for 12 years, says: "It's important to adapt. If I see someone who is scared, I'll keep my distance first. Once they get comfortable, I'll go closer."
He worked as a part-time magician's assistant during national service, and discovered that he enjoyed performing.
Much of his time in university was spent learning and practising tricks. He also joined his school's juggling club and performed at small events.
But being a magician was not enough for him. Mr Khong wanted to stand out and interact more with his audience, which spurred him into picking up clowning for children.
"I liked how immediate the children's responses were, and how receptive they could be to my performance," says Mr Khong.
Upon graduation, he made the decision to pursue clowning full-time.
"It was a very different career path for someone with a history degree, but I really wanted to do it," he says.
"I'm quite lucky - my parents supported this choice. I'm very grateful."
Currently, Mr Khong runs Star Dazzle Concepts, an entertainment company that organises performances for family events.
He has five entertainers working for him, and his wife manages the scheduling. All of his clown costumes are tailor-made and shipped in from the United States.
His pair of clown shoes, for example, cost around $1,000.
Mr Khong regularly goes overseas to attend clowning courses to improve his skills.
He cheekily admits to using a mix of professional clown make-up and commercial ones available in shops such as Sephora.
He says: "When I buy make-up, I drag my wife along because it looks weird if I go alone. It's funny how she ends up being the one who gets bored when I take too long."
When asked how hectic his schedule can get, Mr Khong says: "It's busy but that's good. I'm usually booked for most weekends in advance. On weekdays, I go to schools to teach."
With creepy clowns taking to the streets and the screens, he says it is understandable that some children would be afraid of him when he is performing.
"I ask the children, not the adults who hire me, for permission before entering. It makes them feel in control, and therefore more comfortable around me," he says, as his gloved hands instinctively do a knocking gesture.
But Mr Khong acknowledges that opinions about clowns can be divisive, which is why he has two clown personas. Captain Dazzle wears just the costume and is a "comedy magician", while Bubbles is a "magical clown" complete with make-up and a wig.
Mr Khong says: "It's important to give my customers options. They know the audience best, so I can adjust my look and routine accordingly as either of the two."
When TNPS took Mr Khong to a crowded coffee shop during lunchtime, it was clear that people still find clowns entertaining.
Dressed as Bubbles, he waved to curious onlookers who stopped eating to observe him.
After a few minutes, Bubbles proved to be a hit. A small crowd formed, all waiting to snap pictures with him as he pulled tricks from his bag.
"See, some people just don't realise how fun clowns can be," says Mr Khong, flashing a wide, ear-to-ear smile only a clown could pull off.
Send in the scary clowns
Pennywise from Stephen King's It
Stephen King's horror novel "It" introduced a clown character who came from another world to prey on children and murder people.
The Joker from Batman
Batman's greatest villain is the Joker, a criminal who employs gags and tricks reminiscent of clown performances.
Clown doll from Poltergeist
While technically not a clown, the poltergeist possess a creepy clown toy in the movie, causing many to cite it as a source material for their own fear of clowns.
Clown zombie from Zombieland
After navigating through a bunch of challenges, the protagonist of the movie comes face-to-face with a zombified clown.
John Wayne Gacy
Perhaps the scariest of them all is John Wayne Gacy, a real-life American serial killer and rapist who dressed up as a clown. He sexually assaulted and murdered at least 33 teenage boys and young men.