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Joanna Wong Quee Heng

One of Singapore’s leading Cantonese opera artists and advocates.

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Published: 12 Oct 2016


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We have a multiracial culture here in Singapore that is our own. Find some time to learn about our traditional arts either as a performer or as part of the audience. This helps the arts to grow.

Joanna Wong, born in 1939, is one of Singapore’s leading Cantonese opera artists and advocates. The science graduate and former registrar of the University of Singapore established the Chinese Theatre Circle in 1981 to preserve, present and develop Cantonese opera in Singapore. The first Chinese opera artist to receive the Cultural Medallion, she has groomed many aspiring artists including fellow Cultural Medallion winner Lou Mee Wah, together with whom she has been dubbed “Singapore’s Chinese Opera’s most well known duo”. Today, the renowned huadan (vivacious young female role-playing actress) remains the troupe’s artistic director and leading actress, and has led it to give more than 2,000 performances in Singapore and overseas to acclaim.

Born in 1939 in Singapore, Joanna Wong Quee Heng was introduced to Cantonese opera at a young age as her aunt used to regularly bring her to Cantonese opera performances. Intrigued by the intricate costumes and opera songs, a young Wong decided that she wanted to be an opera performer when she grew up.

In her teens, Wong followed her passion and started learning Chinese opera in earnest by joining a clan association. She began her stage career performing in the role of the maid, learning all she could and honing her skills as an opera performer.

At the same time, Wong continued her studies and in 1963, she graduated from the National University of Singapore with a Bachelors of Science (Hons) in Chemistry. After this, Wong went on to work in the administrative offices at the university, eventually becoming registrar of the university.

While at university, Wong met Huang Shiying (Leslie Wong), a policeman who she would marry in 1965 as well as a great influence on her opera career. They shared a passion for traditional arts, particularly Cantonese opera. Together, they laid the foundations of a Cantonese opera legacy. Encouraged by Huang, Wong began performing professionally in a Singapore opera troupe in 1967. Besides this, the couple also organised informal Cantonese opera performances, with Wong performing roles in plays that were written by Huang. These amateur collaborations would bear fruit years later when they decided to form their own performing troupe.

Through her regular performances, Wong built up a reputation as a strong Cantonese opera performer, specialising mainly in huadan (vivacious young female) roles such as those of warrior princesses, and became known for her role as Bai Suzhen in Madam White Snake. She received much acclaim for her high, clear voice and high standards of performance, and became the leading huadan in her troupe.

In 1981, Wong received a Cultural Medallion for her contributions to Chinese opera in Singapore, becoming the first Chinese opera artist to receive the award. That same year, she and Huang fulfilled a longtime dream and established the Chinese Theatre Circle (CTC) to preserve, present, develop and promote Cantonese opera. In the beginning, the couple’s presentations with CTC were largely self-funded. Wong and Huang bought and made their own costumes and props, and moved from venue to venue as the troupe did not have a permanent home. However, over time, through many seminars, community and school tours, community performances, full-scale performances and other events, CTC grew to become one of Singapore’s leading Cantonese opera groups.

Today, CTC has presented more than 2000 performances in Singapore and in other countries including China, Australia, Brazil and Japan. It has also performed at international festivals such as the 1988 Edinburgh Festival in Scotland; the International Children’s Festival; Montage ’89 in the USA; the 1998 Budapest Festival in Hungary; the 1990 Tokyo International Theatre Festival in Japan; the Guangdong International Cantonese Opera Festival in China; and EXPO 2000 in Hannover, Germany.

Wong and CTC have had many high points in their shared history. One was an invitation extended by the Chinese Theatre Association in 1993 to perform the group’s signature works The Poet Li Yu and A Costly Impulse in Beijing. This was an honour which had not till then been extended to any other Chinese opera ensemble. The presentations were recorded by Beijing television stations and later broadcast to a huge audience. Wong, who played the lead roles in both productions, received a commendation from the Ministry of Culture in China for her contributions to the promotion of Chinese opera. Another high point was in 1999 when CTC, together with the Zhejiang Qu Zhou Qu Opera Troupe jointly presented a mega opera production Warriors of the Yang Family. Featuring a cast and crew of 200 from both troupes, this was the largest Chinese opera production ever staged, and ushered in the millennium with great success.

Yet another milestone was a 2001 collaboration between CTC and the Guangdong Academy of Cantonese Opera and the Guangdong Hong Dou Cantonese Opera Troupe, both of which were from China. This was for another large-scale production The First Woman Emperor Wu Ze Tian, in which Wong played the lead role partnering Plum Blossom Award-winner Ou Kai Ming. Presented at the Singapore International Cantonese Opera Festival, the groups as well as Wong herself received much acclaim. When they took the production to Sydney, Australia, and to China for the 4th Shanghai International Arts Festival, it was also met with a warm reception and much acclaim.

Since the 2000s, the effectively bilingual opera artist, together with her husband and CTC, has embarked on projects aimed at forging a wider and younger audience for Cantonese opera. Wong and Huang incorporated the English language into Cantonese opera and created Cantonese opera versions of English language plays. She has performed some of these English-Cantonese opera hybrid presentations with success, such as at the Chinese Huaguang Festival. The couple has also introduced modern and Western elements to their Cantonese opera presentations. She also continues to accompany CTC’s presentations with English subtitles, a first for Chinese opera when she introduced English subtitling in 1972. Wong also brought Chinese opera to the communities by holding performances in community centres around Singapore.

In addition to contributions to Cantonese opera, Wong is known for her community service. She has served on committees and boards of the National Theatre Trust and the Ministry of Health. Wong was also chairman of the Cultural Medallion Awards Advisory Panel, the People’s Association Women’s Executive Committee Co-ordinating Council, and the co-chairman of the National Sports Carnival for Women. On top of all this, Wong is also an adjunct lecturer at LASALLE College of the Arts and the National Institute of Education, and a Justice of the Peace. In 1974, Wong received the Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star) for her contributions to community service.

Today, Wong remains committed to her love of Cantonese opera. Besides serving as chairman of Part Woh Wui Koon (Cantonese Opera Artistes Guild), she continues to present works throughout the year as artistic director of CTC, promoting Cantonese opera in Singapore and around the world.

Timeline

29 Jan 1939

Born in Singapore

1962

Graduated with Bachelors of Science in Chemistry from the University of Singapore.

1963

Graduated with Bachelors of Science (Hons) from the University of Singapore.

Received All-Round Gold Medal, University of Singapore.

1963 to 1965

Administrative Assistant, University of Singapore.

1965 to 1975

Assistant Registrar, University of Singapore.

1972

Performed in Madam White Snake for H.M. Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh during their visit to Singapore.

1974

Received Bintang Bakti Masyarakat (Public Service Star).

1975 to 1995

Deputy Registrar, University of Singapore.

1977 to 1980

Registrar, Nanyang University (on secondment from the University of Singapore).

1981

Founded Chinese Theatre Circle with husband Huang Shiying.

Received Cultural Medallion for contributions to Chinese opera.

1981 to Present

Artistic Director and Leading Actress, Chinese Theatre Circle.

1983 to 1991

Member, National Theatre Trust Board.

1985

Represented Singapore, performing in the Annual Rose Parade, Pasadena (USA). Singapore awarded the Special Trophy Award.

1989

Performed at the official opening of the New Opera House in Cairo, Egypt.

1990

Performed at the Tokyo International Theatre Festival, Japan.

1991

Performed at the Guangzhou International Cantonese Opera Festival, China.

1992

Performed in San Francisco and Minnesota, USA.

1993

Performed in Berlin and Bremerhaven (Germany) and in Beijing (China) as Singapore’s ambassador to China.

1995 to 2001

Chairman, People’s Association Women’s Executive Committee Co-ordinating Council.

1995 to 1996

Acting Registrar, National University of Singapore.

1996 to 2001

Registrar, National University of Singapore.

1996

Performed at the Guangzhou International Cantonese Opera Festival, China.

1998

Appointed Justice of the Peace by the President of Singapore.

1998 to 2001

Co-Chairman, National Sports Carnival for Women.

2000

Performed at the Brazil International Theatre Festival.

2004

Performed at the Guangzhou International Cantonese Opera Festival, China.

2008

Performed at the Guangzhou International Cantonese Opera Festival, China.

2009

Opera instructor, Landestheater Linz, Austria.

2010

Performed at International Theatre Festival, Yaltra, Ukraine.


TributeSG

TributeSG celebrates the arts community’s most senior members, and those who have made a lifetime of contribution to the arts. These artists, administrators, educators, patrons, and champions include many Singapore arts pioneers who laid the foundations of the vibrant arts and cultural scene we enjoy today. The many profiles in TributeSG let us into the minds and worlds of these pioneers, and help us understand our shared arts heritage. When we revisit their works and rediscover their journeys, we learn where we came from and how we came to be. Collectively, their stories tell the tale of the making of a nation’s artistic identity.

In putting together this collection, the TributeSG team consulted an external advisory panel, consisting of Arun Mahiznan, Choo Thiam Siew, J. P. Nathan, K. K. Seet, Kwok Kian Chow, and Iskandar Ismail. Those selected to be profiled in TributeSG met one of the following criteria: they were at least 60 years of age as of 12 Oct 2016, or deceased, or had received national recognition in the form of the Cultural Medallion. This journey of arts archival officially came to a close on 12 Oct 2016, after four years of extensive research, interviews and collation of information graciously provided by the TributeSG pioneers, their families and peers. TributeSG also benefited from enthusiastic help from like-minded friends and organisations who supported Esplanade’s cause—to remember, honour and celebrate Singapore’s arts pioneers.

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