House, hotel or sheer hell — set designer Wong Chee Wai has created them all.
BY JO TAN
Published on 12 April 2016
BY JO TAN
In one year alone, Wong Chee Wai dreamed into existence an opulent hotel, an ancient Chinese inn frequented by martial artists, a stark glass building and a capacious British house. And these diverse creations have earned him four nominations (out of five) in the Best Set Design category at the Life! Theatre Awards 2016.
It’s hard to believe the multiple-award-winning Wong has had no training in set design, engineering, architecture, or any field related to creating his superb structures onstage. Instead, this creator of complex spaces was a trained graphic designer.
In 2000, he was asked by director/playwright Kok Heng Leun to try designing a simple set while volunteering his graphic-design services with Kok’s company, Drama Box. “I don’t remember much about it except it was for a double-bill, so it was very simple, it could be set up in 10 minutes, during interval,” Wong recalls.
“After that, more set design jobs came in, which got more complex and I just had to keep learning on the job. My career became a mix of graphic design and set design. Then in the past 10 years, it was just set design.”
Wong has since chalked up a prolific and impressive body of work. Yet he is loath to attribute it to himself. “I had to practice a lot of trial and error, so I should be thankful nothing collapsed! It was senior set designers like Hella Chan who guided me, or contractors who told me when something wasn’t realistic to build, or even the lighting designers who made my sets look good. Sometimes, under natural light, the set looks completely different, not very attractive. Others, like the sound designer and the multimedia designer, also helped to create a completely new realm.”
Wong’s realms onstage come in various shapes and forms. “I think designers are supposed to have a certain style, but I don’t know what mine is, everything needs to change with the production and budget. I’ve done sets that are very simple and clean, like with the chalk outline in Drama Box’s Cemetery, or very detailed and realistic.”
It is, perhaps, thanks to Wong’s versatility that he is always working on a show or three each time. When we spoke to him, he was supervising the bump-in of his set design for Lord of the Flies while working on the design of hell for supernatural musical Liao Zhai Rocks!
“I find it difficult to turn down directors who are friends, but I’m often stressed by all the work for each set. Things will keep changing up to the day the show opens: actors may realise that what they’ve been doing in rehearsal is hindered by something in the set and so on.
“But the reason I keep doing it is because there is always a new world to create. And it’s amazing to see what you dreamed up and drew turn into real spaces.”
Liao Zhai Rocks! is on till 17 April.