Profile: Joanna Wong

Published on 6 January 2015

Acknowledged as the doyenne of Cantonese opera in Singapore, Joanna Wong is tireless in bringing the art to new audiences.

BY pamela ho

Joanna Wong, 75, grew up with Shakespeare and English poetry in a convent school in Penang. But when she stumbled upon the elaborate costumes and grand theatrics of Cantonese opera at an amusement park, she fell in love with the art form.

At 14, Wong joined a clan association opera troupe to learn the ropes while diligently memorising songs from gramophone records, tapes and programmes on Rediffusion. When she came to Singapore in 1959 to pursue a Science degree, she brought her passion to our shores.

“It’s impossible to count the number of performances I’ve done,” she chuckles. “But some memorable ones include A Costly Impulse, which I performed in Cairo, Berlin, Bucharest, Belo Horizonte, Beijing and Guangzhou. There was also Woman Emperor Wu Ze Tian, an opera written specially for me which I performed here, in Shanghai and Guangzhou.” Wong even performed for Queen Elizabeth II when the Royal visited Singapore in 1972.

In 1981, Wong and her husband Leslie founded the Chinese Theatre Circle (CTC) and have since then, led over 2,000 performances in Singapore and overseas.

Effectively bilingual, Wong has been known to conduct workshops in English after shows, explaining common opera gestures and demonstrating the art of opera makeup.

In 1974, she was conferred the Public Service Star and in 1981, the Cultural Medallion. But not for a moment has Wong rested on her laurels. When the use of Chinese dialects began to wane in the ’70s, she responded by introducing English surtitles in 1976 — a first for Chinese opera.

Another first was incorporating English into Chinese opera. “My husband wrote Intrigues in the Qing Imperial Court, where the dialogue and songs were in English, but it’s performed completely in Cantonese opera style,” she explains. “The aim is to get the English-speaking to attend and appreciate Chinese opera.”

Today, Wong still conducts opera classes with CTC where she serves as artistic director. “The biggest challenge is the dwindling audience support. Younger audiences are not interested in traditional theatre,” she laments. “There’s also a lack of younger artists. Most are too busy with work and studies, and one must be willing to sacrifice and put in hard work into mastering the art.”

Still, there is hope. “Chinese opera has been labelled a ‘dying art’ since the ’70s. But it’s not yet dead,” she declares. “I have hopes it will survive as there are still some people who — like me — are keen to keep it alive, and will continue to promote it.”

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