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All the King's men

Being an Elvis tribute act isn't as lonesome as you might think, writes an all-shook-up Fionnuala McHugh

 

August is a tricky month if you're an Elvis Presley fan. Naturally, the air of gloom deepens as the anniversary of his passing, the 16th, approaches; and in the fourth decade since he was found on his bathroom floor, dead from drug abuse at the age of 42, the crowds still gather at his Graceland mansion, in Memphis, Tennessee, clutching candles for the weep-fest that is their annual vigil.

On the other hand, the spirit of Elvis clearly hasn't left the building. Whatever happened to his too, too solid flesh (and this is still open to debate in the furthest swamps of the internet), there is no shortage of individuals only too delighted to pay homage in and to his absence every year by climbing into spangled jumpsuits and - in a mournful yet upbeat sort of way - crooning into a microphone. Frankly, what better time to gather one group of people in an air-conditioned room to watch another group of people pretend to be the King than in the (hound) dog days of summer?

By happy coincidence, Tommy Ooi, former president of the Elvis Presley Fan Club (Hong Kong) and founder of the Elvis Presley Alliance of Asia, has his birthday in August, and has just turned 65. And as it was also the 11th anniversary of the alliance's founding, on August 16, 2002 - that date itself the 25th anniversary of Elvis' demise - he decided to mark both occasions with an All Asian Mega Elvis Tribute Artists Concert in the ballroom of the Novotel Century in Wan Chai. Eleven is not an especially significant figure, even in the fevered numerology of Presley-mania - although Andy Warhol did do a silk-screen painting entitled Elvis (Eleven Times) in 1962 - but Elvis' acolytes need little excuse for a party, especially if it involves major quiffs and rhinestone.

The alliance is Ooi's vision of an Asia united by love under a Presley parasol. The 2002 inauguration was a four-day event in Tokyo that included the Forever Elvis in Asia Mega Concert - at which your reporter happened to be present. Participants came from the Elvis fan clubs of Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines, as well as Hong Kong and Japan. Certain moments from that August trip are still printed on the memory: the averted faces of Japanese salarymen on the subway, sharing a carriage with exuberant early and middle-era Elvises (nobody does late Elvis); the Thai Elvis, Vasu Sangsingkeo, who'd read international relations at Britain's Oxford University and was a member of Thailand's diplomatic service, belting out Suspicious Minds while attempting the splits in a jumpsuit more studded with emeralds than Bangkok's Grand Palace; the jostling at the karaoke club in the wee hours as a dozen Elvises all tried to grab the microphone (Ooi, for reasons best known to himself, sang Puff, The Magic Dragon); and, by the end, the surreal sense, while watching some of the sad, late-era videos on a loop at a mini-exhibition in Ginza (which included artefacts such as a Remington De Luxe razor, some exceedingly creased shirts and a knife and fork Elvis bought in Germany), that the King himself had become an Elvis impersonator, and not a very good one at that.

 

SEVERAL THINGS HAVE CHANGED in the intervening years but not Ooi's sign-off in correspondence ("Yours Elvisly"), nor his commitment to what now sounds like an international franchise. The week before the event, he could be found at the American consulate here in Hong Kong with an American Elvis who was having a little passport difficulty en route to the Philippines, something of a twist on the word "rendition". Asked if American Elvis was going to be performing in Wan Chai, Ooi said no, that the event was only for Asian Elvises; so the arrival at lunch in the hotel, some days later, of an Italian Elvis and another American Elvis, comes as a surprise.

"What can I do?" wails Ooi, who has added blond badger stripes to his Astro Boy haircut since we last met, and despite some stressful close-calls - he narrowly escaped being caught by the tsunami in Phuket on Boxing Day, 2004 (he'd cancelled a boat trip that morning) and his export business went through a rocky time during the 2008 financial crisis - isn't looking a day older than 45. "They all want to perform."

In fact, both men could plead Asian-ness: although Italian Elvis - Eddie Lombardo - was born in Sicily, 55 years ago, he moved to Australia aged eight and has been living in Manila for five years; while the other American Elvis, San Francisco-born Martin Loo, is third-generation Chinese. Meanwhile, one of the Japanese Elvises, Douglas Masuda, was actually born in Arkansas ("of 100 per cent Japanese parents", though he doesn't speak Japanese), but has also been living in Manila, for 25 years.

Masuda, incidentally, is 70, only eight years younger than the King would be had he lived; it's a poignant irony that while being Elvis killed Elvis, imitating him seems to bestow unusual vigour.

The Philippines is, clearly, a global magnet for "Elvis tribute artists". (One of the past decade's shifts is that nobody's an impersonator any more: they're an ETA. Any group discussion of the business, with its references to ETA behavioural patterns, is like being in an air-traffic-control tower at rush hour.) Lombardo gives the impression that the whole notion of being Elvis miraculously befell him one day three years ago, when, out strolling with his second wife, he saw a billboard advertising an Elvis show in Manila. He "went to have a look", had dinner and met Masuda, who encouraged him to enter an Elvis contest, which he jointly won with a Philippine Elvis, Jun Espinosa.

A quick Google check, however, shows that he left Sydney for the Philippines in February 2008 specifically to perform as Elvis at a nightclub owned by his brother. His youngest daughter revealed this to an Australian court that same month while trying to avoid a driving ban after being found guilty of drink-driving. Her lawyer described the family as "dysfunctional" because Lombardo, then a concreter, was more focused on being an entertainer, adding his legal opinion that "Elvis had overtaken his life".

"My three children would say at weddings, 'Don't sing Elvis!'" says Lombardo, blithely, through his sideburns (he used to glue them on but in the follicular flush of success he has grown a pair so luxuriant they almost obscure his lips). "Now my daughters say, 'Jeez, Dad, I used to hear you for nothing, now I have to buy a ticket.' I love Elvis! A lot of people try to imitate the person. I think people should sing from the heart and maybe put a bit of essence of Elvis inside."

Seeing as they're all based in Manila, Lombardo, Espinosa and Masuda have decided to pool their essence, and have called themselves The Three International Elvises Experience. Something similar to The Three Tenors, perhaps? "We don't do harmony," Masuda replies, with the immediate, and pious, pedantry that's the hallmark of a true ETA. "Elvis never did harmony."

They've just taken part in an advert for Toshiba, singing You Ain't Nothing but a Hound Dog. Apparently Toshiba's president is an Elvis fan, as is former Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, who visited Graceland with president George W. Bush and the Presley First Family - Priscilla and Lisa Marie - in 2006, and whose brother, Masaya Koizumi, is senior consultant to the Elvis Presley Fan Club (Tokyo chapter).

Koizumi coyly sang a few bars of Love Me Tender to his hosts on that Memphis trip, and such talent for diplomacy is useful in the ETA world. Lombardo, possibly channelling his Sicilian heritage, remarks darkly: "I've a few friends but a lot of enemies. Everybody thinks they're great, everybody thinks they sound like Elvis."

In 2006, Ooi resigned as president of the fan club because he "needed a break from all the pettiness and quarrels". And where two or three ETAs are gathered in Elvis' name, there's the inevitable jostling for supremacy in the knowledge stakes - the design and the name of each of their idol's 185 jumpsuits, for example; the titles and dates of his B sides; his army serial number (53310761); and the exact timescale of his various stages of hirsuteness.

Eric Alvarez, winner of a 2009 Elvis competition in Manila, has three wigs. He is wearing the 1950s one - quiffy and sleek, you really can only see the tape attaching it to his forehead in certain lights - at lunch. "The 60s one is a little bit loose. It's longer and it's wider, with sideburns," he explains, after proper thought, when asked to distinguish between them. "The 70s is also longer, it bounces naturally but when you move it messes up real fast."

This might explain what happened to the wig that another Thai Elvis, Jaruek Viriyakit, 63, was wearing the night it blew away on a river cruise. "I thought, 'What will I do?'" he recalls. "So I said, 'Ladies and gentlemen - Tom Jones!'" He can also impersonate Engelbert Humperdinck - in Bangkok, where he performs two sets nightly at the Asia Hotel, he's known as the "Three in One" - but Elvis is the global phenomenon guests most want to hear. What about, say, Michael Jackson?

"My son-in-law," replies Jaruek, gamely. (It's testimony to Lisa Marie Presley's varied love life that a member of the alliance was able to make exactly the same joke in 2002 when he noticed a film poster of Nicolas Cage on the Tokyo subway.)

Jaruek has brought a birthday present for Ooi from Dr Nitaya Kanchanawan, president of the Elvis Presley Information Center of Thailand: a copy of her latest book, Chronology of the Elvis Presley Aura in Thai Society 1957-1973, a heftier tome than one might expect but, alas, completely in Thai. In fact, apart from in song, Jaruek himself speaks hardly any English; our conversation is translated courtesy of Pamela, the Thai wife of (American Elvis) Loo.

Although it is supposed to be an Elvis evening, Jaruek has agreed to do a Tom Jones number and is mulling over whether it should be Sex Bomb or Delilah. As he's Muslim, and is observing Ramadan (he's up much of the night praying), Sex Bomb doesn't seem an ideal choice, on several fronts, but when this is pointed out, he grins and gives the rallying cry, in English, of every true ETA: "It's entertainment!"

 

IT'S 6PM ON SATURDAY, August 3, and guests and media are arriving in the Novotel's ballroom to be greeted by a life-size photo of Ooi, wearing a cloth of gold. Everyone gets a key-ring featuring All Saints Church in Taiping, Malaysia, Ooi's hometown, and a copy of Alliance, the first newsletter of the Elvis Presley Alliance of Asia. It contains declarations of praise and thanks from Elvis fan clubs across the region for Ooi's generosity in starting the organisation. Singapore and India have just joined, Indonesia is about to come in - can North Korea be far behind?

"Though your looks and singing are miles apart from Elvis, there are a lot of similarities," writes Dr Aron Young, vice-president of the International Elvis Presley Fan Club (Hong Kong) and a man of forth-right honesty, in the pamphlet. "Needless to say this party to bring so many ETAs from abroad is going to make a huge dent in your pocket but, so far, I have not heard a single 'ouch' from you."

Aron, as any fan will tell you, is the middle name recorded on the King's birth certificate. (Scholarly debate rages about the spelling; "Aaron" appears on his tombstone.) Although Young is ethnically Chinese, he was born in British-era India ("like Cliff Richard" as he puts it - and, indeed, like Humperdinck) and in ETA circles he's known as Burmese Elvis, having grown up in Rangoon, as Yangon was known. He came to Hong Kong in 1969, where he now has his own obstetrics and gynaecology practice and is, therefore, one of the few ETAs in the world qualified to comment on that royal birth in Mississippi and its unexpected side-effect.

"Elvis' twitchy mouth, you know what happened?" he says, in the ballroom, after scrolling through his phone to display photos of a pleasantly crumpled baby he delivered the previous day. "The doctor used forceps and pinched his nerve. One side is a little paralysed." So is that where the famous sneer comes from? "Elvis is the only one who can do it!" cries Young.

No wonder, therefore, that no ETA can truly capture the magnificent moue, the petulant pout, the sexual sulk that is the essence of Elvis. Leaving aside the advantages of medical malpractice, however, there's a fundamental stumbling block in this part of the world. As Ht Long, who's both a Gospel preacher and Malaysian Elvis, put it sadly, yet somehow intuitively, in Tokyo all those years ago: "It's difficult in Asia because we don't look like him."

Still, Long is in Hong Kong for the concert with his young Elvis protégé and fellow Christian Alex Wong in tow. "I was trying to find someone real good because I know my time is gone," says Long, not that you'd notice it given the energy with which he belts out his numbers, including a duet with Ooi of Cliff Richard's Summer Holiday.

The audience loves it. The audience loves everything. Ooi has gathered together family, friends and fans for an entertaining dinner; discriminating analysis isn't on the menu. When Jaruek, having consulted with Ooi, sings Delilah, everyone joins in the chorus and waves their napkins, the international semaphore for having a great time. When Young appears in a yellow lei and a jumpsuit (kindly identified by Lombardo as the one Elvis wore when he did Aloha from Hawaii via Satellite), the thrilled woman next to me cries, "He's my gynaecologist!" When Mori "Jelvis" Yasumasa of Japan, 1992 World Champion Image of the King and Honorary Citizen of the State of Memphis, performs, you could almost believe, if you lean back and half close your eyes, that the King himself is in the room.

Perhaps the last word should go to Loo, who used to be a cop in San Francisco, and is wearing a silver ruffled shirt, circa 1968, the collars of which alone are probably wide enough to conceal several weapons. Loo is fairly new to the ETA circuit and the previous day, in preparation for his appearance, he shaved off his moustache.

"I look in the mirror and I think, 'Am I Martin or am I Elvis?'" he says. "I know it's small-scale but I'm used to seeing my moustache every day. I look different. I saw a photo once of Elvis, and he was looking at a tribute artist who'd had surgery and I thought, 'Gosh … what is Elvis thinking?'"

 

 

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jove.pascual.1
These clowns need to get a life.

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