Muse
No Laughing Matter
 Choo Li-Hsian 
In full clown get-up
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Do you have a fear of clowns?  You are not alone. Many have mixed feelings towards clowns even though they are meant to be figures of fun that promote laughter and provide comic relief, often as children’s entertainment.

Unfortunately, a revamped film version of It, based on Stephen King’s novel, is bringing scary clowns back into the spotlight. The Hurts Donut shop in Dallas, Texas is even leveraging the trend by announcing that they can “have an evil clown deliver donuts to your friends.”

Pennywise, the child-eating, sewer-dwelling creepy clown in the film as well as the global “killer clown” craze (pranksters in fake clown masks scaring people) that started last year have hurt the clowning business. The World Clown Association (WCA) has even issued “The WCA Stand on Scary Clowns” to prepare clowns for the movie’s release.

Coulrophobia, a fear of clowns, is not an officially recognised phobia but has inspired its own diagnosis, showing us how common this fear is. Apparently, it may be due to a fundamental reflex called the uncanny valley effect, a phenomenon where we feel incredibly unsettled by things that look human but aren’t quite, like a highly realistic android or a ventriloquist dummy. One theory is that these make us think of death and corpses but whatever the reason, human faces that deviate from the norm seem to be upsetting on a deep subconscious level.

Clown faces exaggerate human features in elaborate ways with their huge painted-on smiles, loud colours and big, made-up eyes. Clowns are also unpredictable, and unpredictability causes knee-jerk distrust and apprehension in people.

Children, especially the very young, who are still figuring out the world and lack the experience to explain away what they see, may be particularly affected. It can also be caused by phobias learned from parents, or negative childhood incidences such as being forced by parents to interact with clowns before they are ready.

Elroy Ng Yoong Heng, 34, a professional clown and balloon artist, helps us put things into perspective. Ng believes that the negativity stems from a lack of exposure – children today do not have the fun, friendly experiences we used to have with circus clowns.

Clowns who do not make an effort (for example, bad make-up) similarly ruin the reputations of professional clowns. “There are good doctors and murderous doctors in the media, but does it mean you run from a doctor whenever you see one?” Ng reasons.

He likens good clowns to actors. “Like a mirror to society, they help us reflect on the funny side of life. They interact well with audiences, draw out their emotions and project these back, cheering people up in the process.”

Ng, a part-time clown for the past six years, finally took the plunge into full-time this year. His company, Supa Dupa Circus (www.facebook.com/supadupacircus), supplies private and corporate events with talent, carnival equipment and decorations.

For Ng, clowning is a passion and a serious business

Other entertainers in Supa Dupa Circus include his girlfriend Milly, his younger brother, Rocky, and Ross, their in-house magician. Ng also works with clown partners, Leon and Louis, on projects and events. Supa Dupa Circus now has three to four apprentices who are learning the tricks of the trade.

He started his clowning career rather serendipitously. “I‘ve done a lot of things over the years – kindergarten teacher, corporate trainer and graphic designer.”

He last worked as an in-house graphic designer for a local company that laid him off when he contracted dengue and had to take extended leave. By some divine chance, when he was down, out and slightly depressed during this period, he received a random phone call from a clown named Cephas who was looking for someone to train.

It later surfaced that Ng was not who he originally meant to contact but Cephas still generously taught him the basics of make-up, balloon-twisting and clowning. Cephas then threw him into the deep end, and Ng swam. He was inspired to take the leap with Cephas by an earlier encounter with Uncle Button, another local clown who does humanitarian and mission work.

“I attended a missionary workshop on teaching children, where Uncle Button shared what he did, what joy it was to bring joy to those who needed it. Immediately something clicked in me – somehow I knew this was something that I wanted to explore and become,” says Ng who calls Chaggy, a famous American clown originally from Puerto Rico, his clown idol.

It turned out to be Ng’s true calling. Of course, the road less taken is not always smooth. His parents and other family members were concerned about his new career choice.

“It’s been a roller coaster ride. Some people looked down on me. Who could blame them? The industry isn’t very forgiving, money wasn’t very lucrative and the image of clowning as a career seemed like a joke,” he recalls.

Luckily, he has encouraging friends and a supportive girlfriend who has since joined him in the business. “It’s not every day one can say that they date a clown!” he quips.

Today, his parents can see his potential when they watch him at work and feel comforted by the regular contracts he has managed to secure for weekly gigs with family-friendly restaurants like the Bucket B Café in Jaya One’s The School, Benbino in Publika, and The Workshop in Sri Petaling. He has done one corporate teambuilding workshop with balloons, and hopes to do more.

Ng’s satisfied clients will tell you that he is a clown of a different calibre – very cerebral and creative. He is well versed in children’s entertainment trends and he has elevated balloon creations into truly distinctive works of art, different from the balloon dogs or swords you typically see.

He is particularly proud of his signature “unicorn” headpiece, and the “lion dance head” he created for Chinese New Year. He was touched at how this simple balloon creation managed to help his extended family bond better over the festive period, when they would usually be just gambling and eating.

Speaking to him, you also realise that clowning is a real industry in its own right. Ng frequently reads related books and does online research to hone his craft. He attends clowning workshops as well as the WCA’s annual conferences. He points out that there is even a code of conduct on WCA website. And clowning requires investment – a pair of authentic clown shoes costs around RM1,000.

Although it is still an uphill battle breaking the stereotype and coping with challenges on the job, such as what he calls “Godzilla parents” (parents who fight in a balloon line) and those who “twist balloons till my arms have cramps!”

On what keeps him going, Ng replies without hesitation: “Being able to receive love across people from all races and having children look at you with awe and wonder.”

Ultimately, his vision is to become a brand like Disney: “To be an idea – an idea of fun, joy and friendship,” muses Ng.



This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 254.