Canto-pop queen Ivana Wong has forged a career in singing, acting and the theatre. Now, she is setting off a new career path as a visual artist
Canto-pop star Ivana Wong’s music room at home is, to put it bluntly, a mess. During a video call with Tatler in February, she sat in the tiny room, barely able to turn on her swivel chair amid the items that engulfed her: a synthesiser, piles of book, and paintings slotted into the crevices of the cliff formed of the boxes large and small that house her childhood toys. “My piano and painting tools are in the living room outside,” she says in her high-pitched, almost childlike voice.
Her room reflects her versatile interests: although Wong has forged a name for herself as the queen of Canto-pop throughout her 17-year career as a singersongwriter—she won the Commercial Radio Singer-Songwriter Award for seven consecutive years—and then also as an actor, receiving two Hong Kong Film Awards for Best Performer and Best Supporting Actress in 2015, her artistic ambitions have recently become more visual.
She had her first solo art exhibition, The Pink Room Experience, last March in Causeway Bay’s Fashion Walk, and followed up with The Singing Canvasses last December in Quarry Bay’s Artistree. Both exhibitions were part of a broader project called The Missing Something, Wong’s ongoing initiative that uses multimedia art and installations to comment on what Hong Kong society today is lacking.
“I’ve always been interested in visual arts, but I didn’t have the knowhow or confidence until now,” Wong says. “I just learnt this and that [random art techniques] here and there, but I didn’t know how to consolidate my ideas and knowledge and use them as a tool to express a solid message in a piece of art.” The singer says that it is through her music and theatre experiences—learning about music video direction and lighting design from the crew involved in her annual stage productions; either a play or musical, for example—that she can fulfill her artistic goals.
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The resulting exhibitions had a trace of her singer identity. The Pink Room Experience was originally conceived as a music video for Wong’s song The Pink Room, which explores Hong Kong’s labelling culture: how a person’s identity is condensed into labels such as “princess syndrome” and “control freak”. Wong later expanded the concept into a live art experience: visitors entered a womb-like pink tunnel which led to a corridor lined with still shots from music videos lit by a particular light that served as a metaphor for how one’s inner self is often filtered and masked by external labelling. The final stage was an interactive area where they could write the labels others had used to describe them on stickers and add them to the display wall.
“The whole experience was about the lack of compassion in our society,” Wong says. “In a fast-paced city like Hong Kong, it’s common to identify things quickly through categorisation and labelling. But labels should only be for inanimate objects, such as when you have to name food and modes of transport. When labels are applied to human beings, it’s problematic.” She adds, “I’ve been labelled many times. Some labels are hurtful and disappointing. As a public figure, I just need to accept them and try not to dwell on them.”
The Singing Canvasses exhibition was inspired by her guilt at forgetting the face of a stranger who treated her to hot chocolate when she travelled to Iceland more than a decade ago, and represented “the ‘missing frames’ in my head”, Wong says. “I remember the hot chocolate, the contrasting temperatures and the location, but I’ve forgotten the face of the stranger, which I should remember the most. If it wasn’t for his kindness, I would have been frozen. I wanted to encourage people to be kind.” She translated the experience into a series of handwritten poems—her confessions—which were displayed on the walls of a dark tunnel. Visitors walked through the tunnel into a foggy room containing an installation that featured a snowman in a winter scene, accompanied by orchestral music and light bulbs twinkling in a pattern designed by Wong.
She is currently looking for funding and space for her third exhibition which, again, fans can expect to be far from a typical gallery experience. “Instead of just displaying sculptures, paintings or installations in a space, I want to create a journey for visitors where I magnify and present my most personal feelings as a pop star,” she says; she sees her exhibitions as being more about stimulating visitors’ sensory experiences and evoking their memories than the artworks or writings themselves.
This exploration of visual arts does not mean Wong is turning her back on her music; in fact, she means to infuse art into her future performances. When we spoke, she was busy planning a concert dedicated to mothers, which has now been postponed due to Covid-19 restrictions. Wong had invited Hong Kong multimedia artist Chu Fung to create a video work, which will be played at The Box theatre in West Kowloon, while vocalists, a string quartet and a flute player perform the same piece of music, accompanied by a performance by contemporary dance artists, in different corners of the room. Visitors will be able to walk around the space to watch different parts of the performance up-close.
The concert is inspired by the Canto-pop singer’s mother, Esther Fung, who is an opera singer herself. Wong says, “I grew up in a classical music family. Both my parents are opera singers; my mother is the active one, who teaches people in her church to sing since she retired.” Under their influence, Wong has always included classical elements in the arrangements of her music, their chord progressions and the use of orchestral instruments.
Wong’s long-time love of blurring boundaries in music—she says, “I’m not trying to break rules but simply laying out my feelings in my melodies and composing what naturally flows in my head,”—is now spilling over into her visual art. “For art and music alike, I don’t like having boundaries. There’s already so many boundaries, categorisation and labelling in this world—I don’t think they should be applied to the creative world.”
Now 42, Wong has no plans to stop experimenting in all aspects of her career. “As my voice matures, there are more possibilities to my music. This has inspired me to write more songs with rock band sound qualities that require powerful singing,” she says. But she will also collaborate with the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra next spring, and has plans to return to the stage to play the lead role in an adaptation of Proof, the 2000 play by American playwright David Auburn.
Two decades in, and it seems that nothing will prevent Wong from pushing her limits and trying new things, whatever field of art she’s exploring. “The most exciting thing for me is not knowing what possibilities I can come up with the next day, no matter whether it’s through music, art, film or the theatre,” she says. “I’ve always loved what I do; keeping this passion is difficult, but as long as I can, I’ll keep breaking boundaries."
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