How did a sign-making apprentice end up in showbiz? Award-winning actor Johnny Ng shares his story.
BY JO TAN
Published on 27 September 2016
BY JO TAN
HEARING JOHNNY NG’S MANDARIN WHICH IS FAMOUSLY FAULTLESS AND CRISP-AS-CHILLED-CHAMPAGNE, you might think it inevitable that this well-educated posh kid would have fallen into Chinese radio, theatre and TV. The truth is completely opposite.
“I never attended secondary school because my family was too poor. Instead, I apprenticed myself to an advertising firm to make signboards,” he reminisces. “I didn’t speak well. But I loved listening to stories on the radio, told by deejays who did. One day, while working late in the exhibition hall that was next to Victoria Theatre, I wandered into the theatre to look for a bathroom. I opened a door and saw bright lights and youngsters my age — 14 or 15 — singing perfectly onstage in neat costumes and with rouged cheeks. It was like a dream. I forgot about the bathroom. I told myself, I want this life.”
Ng’s chance came when he was 21. After watching a play by the late playwright/director and Cultural Medallion recipient Kuo Pao Kun, Ng heard that applications were open for Kuo’s Practice Performing Arts School (PPAS). He signed up for all the courses. “Acting, piano, ballet… I was determined to be part of them. I told them, ‘I can even sweep your floor.’ ”
Eventually, Ng was assigned to the acting class, which he attended religiously after work. Thanks to his dedication, he was given role after role, both in the school and later, beyond. He sang, performed traditional Mandarin cross-talk and hosted, continually improving himself until his language ability attained its current level. He even became one of the radio personalities he so admired, performing radio dramas under the stage name Wang Tian, all while running his own signage business.
Ng, now 62, is so entrenched in showbiz that even his son, Jing, has become a respected theatrical sound designer. And the learning doesn’t stop. Shares Ng, “I’m now the chairman of the Xin Feng Xiang Sheng Society, and we’ve been continually experimenting with cross-talk. It used to be wearing a changpao [traditional Chinese men’s robe] and reciting old scripts. But we’ve been modernising it with contemporary outfits and content — even staging it sitcom-style — to stay current.”
Of course, Ng’s roles have changed with time: he’s one of several silver-haired Singapore stage veterans starring as retirement-home inhabitants in Nine Years Theatre’s upcoming Red Sky. “It’s wonderful to work with all these friends… some went to PPAS too! But sometimes, it’s strangely sad. Over the years, we’ve experienced many different lives together through theatre, and now we’re all old. Some of our friends have left this world, and one day, we’ll go too.”
Ng composes himself. “Some of this sentiment emerges in the story, but there’s still lots of life in the characters, and the actors themselves. Because whether you’re playing a young hero, or someone older than myself, you need that childlike excitement to dream of being someone else.”