Singapore opera doyenne Joanna Wong tells us about her journey in Chinese wayang and how she’s not letting the curtain come down on this cultural treasure.
Saving the Future of Chinese Opera: Joanna Wong
A common sight in Singapore during the 1980s, particularly during Seventh Month festivities, Chinese opera performances were a distinct part of family entertainment during that era. Affectionately known as Chinese wayang to some, these spectacles of colour, sound and culture drew grannies, adults and young children alike – never mind if they didn’t understand a word of what the performers were saying.
The whole carnival feel of the experience – there were vendors peddling all manner of snacks and toys nearby – made an evening at the opera such a thrill, whether you caught it at a theatre, a community club or an open-air space, where characters were played out on a makeshift wooden stage.
Alas, three decades later, Chinese opera has become an “endangered” art form. With dwindling audiences and even fewer youths expressing interest in it, this intrinsic part of Chinese heritage is on the verge of becoming the next casualty in a city consumed by globalism.
Joanna Wong Quee Heng, a veteran of Chinese opera in Singapore who rose to fame in 1968 after her debut performance in a modern adaptation of Madam White Snake, has personally witnessed the changing face of Chinese opera here over the decades.
The science graduate and former registrar of the National University of Singapore founded the Chinese Theatre Circle with her husband Leslie Wong in 1981 to preserve Cantonese opera in Singapore. That same year, she received a Cultural Medallion, the first ever awarded to a Chinese opera artiste. To mark her 60th year in Chinese opera, the 74-year-old recently released her biography, Joanna Wong: An Indomitable Life, An Operatic Legacy.
Wong tells Melissa Gail Sing about her journey in Chinese opera and how she’s not letting the curtain come down on this cultural treasure.
Singapore Tatler: Describe Chinese opera...what it means to you, and what you enjoy about it?
Joanna Wong: Chinese opera is "Total Theatre". It is a harmonious combination of music, song, dialogue, drama, literature, visual art, dance, mime, martial art, and acrobatic display. I enjoy Chinese opera because it is such a wholesome display of artistic elements.
As a toddler, my aunt would bring me to the theatres in amusement parks to watch Cantonese opera. I would be mesmerised by the beautiful costumes worn by the actors and the lovely melodies of the operas. Then at the age of 14, I decided to take up Cantonese opera. In those days in Penang, my hometown, there were no formal Chinese opera teachers, so I learnt the art the hard way, by listening to records and radio broadcasts of Cantonese opera songs. I also watched Chinese opera stage performances and films. I did not have a proper teacher until the late 1960s. From then on, I would seize every opportunity to learn about the intricacies of Chinese opera from professionals and masters of the art form whenever overseas troupes were in Singapore.
I began performing professionally in a Singapore opera troupe in 1967 and have performed at least 50 full-length Cantonese operas, many of which have been staged over and over again. For example, Chinese Theatre Circle's signature opera A Costly Impulse has been staged a dozen times in Singapore as well as in Cairo, Romania, Brazil, Beijing, Guangzhou and Hong Kong. My favourite operas are Woman Emperor Wu Ze Tian and Women Warriors of the Yang Family.
Joanna Wong (right) performing in "Woman Emperor Wu Ze Tian"
Singapore Tatler: You and your husband Leslie Wong (opera playwright and composer) founded Chinese Theatre Circle (CTC) in 1981. What was your vision then and how has it evolved?
Joanna Wong: The aim was to preserve and promote the traditional art of Chinese opera, dance and music locally and overseas. After delivering more than 2,000 performances in Singapore and overseas, Chinese Theatre Circle’s vision remains the same, as traditional art continues to require enthusiasts to keep it alive.
Singapore Tatler: What changes have you observed about Chinese opera over the decades?
Joanna Wong: Chinese opera has had its ups and downs. In early 1960s there was a sharp decline in audienceship. This was due to the advent of television and many other types of entertainment becoming available in Singapore. Audienceship picked up slowly after 1968 and its hey days were from mid-1980s till late 1990s. After 2000 however, audience figures started to decline as many of the older supporters of Chinese opera are no longer around or are too old and frail to go and watch a three-hour opera show. Meanwhile, the younger generation is just not interested in this art form.
Singapore Tatler: Chinese opera has been described as an endangered form of cultural art. Why is it crucial to preserve the art in Singapore and what can audiences get from it that they cannot get from any other kind of performing arts?
Joanna Wong: Youth today have either no interest or time to watch opera. Many young people also say that they do not understand the dialect sung and spoken in the opera, so I pioneered the use of English and Chinese subtitles in order to help younger ones appreciate and follow the operas. This has helped to increase the young audience minimally.
In order to prevent the decline in the art, it is crucial to increase the audience numbers, especially among the younger age group. Many of its tatler_tatler_stories teach the virtues of Chinese culture, filial piety, loyalty, love for the family, truthfulness and so on. Many of the tatler_tatler_stories are also historical, so audiences can learn about the past through them.
A Chinese Theatre Circle rendition of "The Patriotic Princess"
Singapore Tatler: How big is the CTC and what are some of the key activities you organise to promote appreciation of Chinese opera?
Joanna Wong: CTC has about 50 active participants and many supporters from other opera troupes. CTC participates in the Arts Education programme where CTC members visit schools and colleges to give talks and demonstrations on Chinese opera – this allows students to get exposed to, and appreciate Chinese opera. Besides schools and colleges, CTC also gives talks and demonstrations to groups such as the Museum, French Women's Group and Japanese Women's Association, upon request. Such talks and demonstrations are given every Friday and Saturday evenings at the Chinese Opera Teahouse run by CTC. I teach Chinese opera to drama and performance students at the National Institute of Education and LASALLE College of Arts.
To learn Chinese opera, one must join an opera group like CTC or other opera groups in Singapore, often found in Community Clubs and Community Centres as well as clan associations and the Chinese Opera Institute. Participants will learn how to sing, as well as learn the movements and gestures, and the basics of Chinese opera.
Singapore Tatler: Do you think cross-music collaborations (for instance, combining Chinese opera with modern jazz or Western instruments) will help its survival? Or will it dilute what is real Chinese opera and take it into oblivion?
Joanna Wong: CTC has tried combining western music and Chinese opera. CTC's production of Intrigues in the Qing Imperial Court, a Cantonese opera sung in English with dialogue in English, was staged in 2007 at the Drama Centre. Western music was played by the Anglo Chinese Junior College (ACJC) Ensemble and conducted was Joshua Tan Kangming. The feedback from the audience, all of whom were English speaking, was very positive. However, it proved to be too tough to continue with such a fusion as it does take away some of the flavour of the real art form.
Singapore Tatler: Your newly released biography records your pursuit of Chinese opera. How long did it take you to write and what is the book’s key message?
Joanna Wong: It took me more than the years to produce the biography. My message to readers is this: If you want to pursue Chinese opera or for that matter any other artistic pursuits, you must have the love and passion for it, and persevere in spite of any difficulties and problems you may encounter.
Wong's biography: An Indomitable Life, An Operatic Legacy
Singapore Tatler: How has Chinese opera changed your life?
Joanna Wong: If I had not gone into Chinese opera, I am sure my life would have been quite different. The past 60 years have not been easy, as opera has kept me very busy and with hardly any time for leisure. My proudest moment was performing before an exceptionally enthusiastic and appreciative audience in Berlin and several other foreign countries. There have been low points too, like sometime around 1993 when we almost had to give up Cantonese opera because of a lack of musicians.
Singapore Tatler: Do you still perform as regularly as before? What’s your big wish for Chinese opera in Singapore?
Joanna Wong: My last full-length Cantonese opera performance was Woman Emperor Wu Ze Tian at the Drama Centre on 12 January 2013. I perform much less now, preferring to leave my students and disciples to perform on stage. My focus now is on teaching and directing performances.
Chinese opera has been labelled as a “dying art” since the 1970s. However this so-called “dying art” is not yet dead. I have hopes that it will survive as there are still some people, who like me, are keen to keep it alive and will continue to promote it.
Singapore Tatler: What do you enjoy doing outside of Chinese opera? I’m curious – did you meet your husband through Chinese opera and are your two daughters also passionate about the art?
Joanna Wong: I met my husband while studying in university. We were both involved in Chinese opera productions for a student society in the university. He became a policeman and we married in 1965. We shared a passion for traditional arts, particularly Cantonese opera, and he was a great influence on my opera career. My two daughters are not performers but they love and appreciate the arts. My younger daughter, Audrey, was Artistic Co- Director of the Substation, an independent non-profit arts centre. In 2009, she was selected by the arts community to be their candidate as Nominated Member of Parliament (July 2009-April 2011).
Although my two daughters are not performers, they appreciate the arts and attend regularly drama, dance, ballet, musicals and other performances and attend numerous visual art exhibitions and museums locally and overseas.
Singapore Tatler: If you could write your own Chinese opera script, what would the storyline be?
Joanna Wong: I would probably create my own adaptation of the Greek play Medea (a mythical story about the revenge of a woman betrayed by her husband), a very dramatic play with a very strong character as the leading lady.
These days, Chinese opera performances can still be watched at many Community Clubs and Centres, at the Kreta Ayer People's Theatre and NAFA Lee Foundation Theatre. There will be shows at the Kreta Ayer People's Theatre from August 22-25, and at the Esplanade on 14 and 15 September. The Chinese Opera Teahouse at 5 Smith Street holds shows every Friday and Saturday night at 7pm (including dinner and Chinese tea at $40 per pax), and at 8pm (including snacks and Chinese tea at $25 per pax). For more information, visit www.ctcopera.com.sg
Photos: Chinese Theatre Circle, Joanna Wong