July 13, 2020
Photos by: Bryan van der Beek | Words by: Serene Goh
(Photo above) Kumar is a master at turning his disadvantages into strengths. Away from the spotlight, he spends his time working with charity groups, supplying humour to reach out to those with depression on It’s Ok 2 Be Not OKAY.
Mr Kumarason Chinnadurai, 52, checks off a list of abuses in his past.
Raped twice before he turned 20. Barbed with racist remarks in primary school like “don’t sit next to him you’ll become black too”. Secondary school brought an onslaught of catcalls and derogatory labels in Hokkien — “‘Ah Kua’ was used more than my surname”. The army was more of the same. And, beatings at home meant wearing bruises to school the morning after.
Singapore knows him as Kumar, a name synonymous with humour. Clips of his older jokes are still regular fodder of WhatsApp shares and Facebook reposts.
That comedy is forged in pain. But there is no bitterness. Speaking with him, it’s clear he’s made an artform of turning disadvantages into wins. He is fluent in resilience, and he speaks with kindness and empathy.
As the youngest of four children, he witnessed his father’s inability to accept that his first wife had walked out on him. He was four then. He and his sisters were raised by their stepmother, the younger sister of his biological mother.
“I was blamed for their divorce,” he said, and beaten because of a superstition. “Indian boys cannot be born in August. Parents will divorce.”
“Find something that makes you happy. Even if it’s less money, at least you’re satisfied, and you’re happy.”
His only solace were the dogs at the Society of Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA), where his father worked, and the family lived at its quarters. “Every day after school, I played with the dogs there. Comfort was them.”
Turning Hate to Dance
“I could’ve gone the other way… All this bitterness. I’d go to school and keep hearing these things over and over again. It was damn tiring.”
But the defence he used to silence the haters was excellence.
At 10, he danced on a stage; so well in fact, the bullies stopped picking on him. In the army he maintained an unbeatable timing of under 8 minutes for his 2.4km, becoming a star.
“I’m a fighter cock. I don’t give up,” he said. “I decided I would do what they all cannot do. So in school I joined Indian dance. I excelled in it. First time I went on stage, everybody stopped calling me names.
“It’s very sad when you have to prove to people what you can do so they don’t call you names. But the more you respond, they win.”
Reflecting on current attitudes towards LGBTQ issues compared to his years growing up (he only told his mother when he was 35), he said: “I realised here, when it’s my neighbour’s son, gay is okay. But when it’s your own, it’s totally different. They (parents) always think there’s hope. My mother thought, just get married lah. It’ll be okay.
“But you’re not okay.”
Then the Funny Thing Happened…
At 22, 30 years ago, he was performing shows with fellow comedians Gurmit Singh and Joanne Kam at Haw Par Villa theme park.
“I wanted to moonlight because I didn’t have enough money. So Lim Siauw Chong, from TheatreWorks, wrote the script, and said I’d get $30. He said ‘you want to standup or not? Just memorise.’”
Because he also enjoyed experimenting with makeup at home, he thought: “I loved to dress up behind locked doors, when my mother was not at home, and wear my mother’s sarees, so I thought why not just go to Boom Boom Room in drag? Make that into a career.
“I realised when people see a tranny, they always do a double take. So I already got their attention. So I worked on it. So take your disadvantage and make it into an advantage. Don’t just sit there and say you’re depressed.”
“Take your disadvantage and make it into an advantage. Don’t just sit there and say you’re depressed.”
He could have kept up the fame and pursuit of fortune too, as over the course of 30 years, he’s proven fluent across any type of platform, be that theatre, TV, film, and everything in between.
But at 40, he shed the trappings of celebrity. Seeking to balance showbiz with purpose, he decluttered, removing moochers and users to create space to help others.
Today, home is an HDB apartment in Serangoon North, where he lives unencumbered by debt. He keeps a close circle of friends he can count on his fingers.
At one point, he’d applied to be a counsellor at the Serangoon Community Centre and was rejected (“they had their doubts”). Undeterred, he went on to fund the school fees for a young man whose family could not afford further education. He’s lent his shoulder to cry on more times than he can count. And, over the years, he’s been an active contributor to any number of causes.
It’s Okay to Laugh
He’s currently working with the Singapore Cancer Society, and he holds a free “live” performance every two years to benefit Beyond Social Services. To reach out to depression sufferers in the Indian community, he hosts a ‘live’ stream for It’s ok 2 Be not OKAY. The programme has been running for two to three years, and offers an outlet for those who are depressed to open up.
Over social media, It’s ok 2 be Not OKAY has been more popular than ever, thanks to Covid-19’s forcing people indoors. A session originally planned for about 30 minutes stretched to 90, because people started to address issues as Kumar’s jokes and banter set them at ease.
“We started a Facebook ‘live’ event and it really worked. They all talked back. We had over 6,000 participants. On social media — we don’t see their faces, they can ask any questions they want, and it’s a distraction for a while.”
Now, he plans to host these sessions weekly.
“I believe that god or a higher power has already put you on a path. If you divert to what you’re not supposed to do, you’ll be a very frustrated person. So find something that makes you happy. Even if it’s less money, at least you’re satisfied, and you’re happy.”
Read more about how Social Service charities, volunteers and beneficiaries are coping during Covid-19 in Singapore:
Catch Kumar on The City of Good Show: Saving Our Charities Episode 3, July 15. Kumar! The Queen of Comedy, will be supporting Social Service charities with the Dream Academy gang on HOME IMPROVment! The sector enhances the well-being of the community, with its professionals and volunteers working relentlessly to help families and individuals overcome issues. Play your part and support the charities at Giving.sg – The City of Good Show: Social Services