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Lee Ngoh Wah is a musician, conductor, instructor and composer of Chinese orchestral and choral music. A founder of the TAS Theatre Company Singapore, he has spent decades keeping Chinese traditional and folk music alive in Singapore through his tireless work in community centres, with schools and local Chinese orchestras, as well as with TAS’s choir, orchestra and arts festival performed by and for senior citizens.
Lee Ngoh Wah was born on 3 June 1944 in Singapore. His uncle was the conductor of the Hokkien Association's Chinese orchestra and introduced Lee to music from a young age. Lee loved it so much that he attended every performance his uncle conducted. He also enjoyed music lessons in primary school.
After graduating from primary school, he joined the Ai Tong Old Boys' Association Chinese Orchestra where he learnt to play the dizi (Chinese flute). A passionate musician, he practised for hours daily and by 1961, had grown so proficient that he won the "Best Performance Award" at the National Music Competition that year. Lee played with the orchestra from 1958 till 1965. At the time a student of the Chinese High School (1958-1962), he became in 1960 the organiser of the school's Chinese orchestra as well as a music and flute instructor at the Queenstown Youth Club.
After Lee graduated from high school, he focused on earning a living. As his family was poor, he worked concurrently at three jobs for some time, as a school bus driver, a bookkeeper in a trading Kim Sens Hong company, and a manager in a store selling musical instruments Tong Hock Enterprise. At the store, Lee learnt to tune pianos. Years later, with the help of a friend who had been trained in piano tuning in England, he set up a business tuning pianos. "I was very happy to have found a career related to my interest in music", recalls Lee.
In 1969, Lee became a conductor by chance when the Chinese ensemble he was performing with lost its conductor and asked Lee to replace him. Despite lacking formal training in conducting, he agreed and remained in the role for around two decades, and in 1982, was concurrently the conductor of the Leling Beijing Opera Troupe. By then, he had also become a prolific composer, creating Chinese orchestral works including Love of the Sea for the 1982 Singapore Arts Festival.
Then in the mid ’80s, a newspaper review criticising Lee's conducting of his orchestra at the Chinese Orchestra Festival made him stop in his tracks. Greatly affected, Lee decided to pursue formal training in conducting and approached the Singapore Cultural Foundation (SCF) for assistance. In 1988, he won an SCF Arts Scholarship and enrolled in Beijing’s prestigious Central Conservatory of Music to take a condensed course in Orchestral Conducting.
After six weeks of intensive study under an exceptional professor, he completed his Orchestra Conductor Training Course and returned to Singapore. Three years later, Lee went back to the Conservatory, this time to take its Opera Conductor Course. "It was thanks to that critic", says Lee with a laugh. "If not for him, I would never have had this opportunity". Upon his return, he was appointed Composer, Music Director and Artistic Ambassador representing Singapore in the 1991 Singapore – Scotland Cultural Exchange Programme. Collaborating with his Scottish counterparts, Glasgow’s TAG Theatre Company, Lee created the music for The Dance and the Railroad successfully.
The ’80s and early ’90s also saw Lee becoming involved in music administration. He was a committee member of COMPASS (Composers and Authors Society of Singapore) (1981-present), the coordinator of the National Music Competition (1981-1986), a committee member of the National Theatre Trust Composer Circle (1983-1993), a member of the Singapore Performing Rights Society (1984-1991), and a committee member of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Administration and the Chinese Music Graded Examinations (1989-1996), which he had helped to establish in Singapore. He took part in the Asia and Pan Pacific Composer League Conference in Singapore (1983), New Zealand (1984) and Taiwan (1986), and represented Singapore at the ASEAN Composer Forum on Traditional Music in the Philippines (1989) and Thailand (1995). In 1985, the Singapore Action Group of Elders (SAGE) honoured Lee with a Long Service Award in recognition of his work with senior citizens.
Then in 1993, Lee entered a new phase in his musical journey. That year, he founded the TAS Theatre Company Singapore with two musical colleagues, Chong Kah Hoo and Goh Siew Geok. By then, he had already conducted four community centre Chinese orchestras and six Chinese orchestras including those of the Hokkien Association, Leling Beijing Opera Troupe, Shinghai Arts Association, Chi Dao Arts Association, Chun Lei Arts Organisation and Equator Arts Association, and would go on to guest conduct the North America Elite Symphony Orchestra, Beijing University Wei Xing Symphony Orchestra, Beijing Jing Fan Shi Er Secondary School Chinese Orchestra and Beijing Central Music Institute Chinese Orchestra.
A non-profit company dedicated to developing the Chinese performing arts in Singapore, TAS’ core units were its choir, drama and Chinese orchestra. Lee was the choir and orchestral coordinator, conductor, composer and instructor. He taught classes, organised activities and concerts, rehearsed for performances, conducted his orchestra and choir and, most of all, composed music. One of the company's earliest concerts was 1995's Works of Lee Ngoh Wah, performed at the Victoria Concert Hall by the TAS Chinese orchestra with Lee at the helm.
With the company, he struck up an unlikely friendship with North Korea when in 1999 they participated in North Korea's April Friendship Arts Festival and received an award for "Best Song Composition". Three years later, he contributed another song to the same festival and won the gold medal. In 2005, he took part in the festival again and received a Performance Award for Overture of the Sun God.
While Lee also conducted the SAGE choir (1995-2003), and taught Chinese opera at Telok Blangah Primary School (2003), Poi Ching Primary School (2003, 2004) and Ahmad Ibrahim School (2005) in the early 2000s, he started a performing arts festival under TAS performed by and for senior citizens. Since then, the International Festival of Active Lifestyle has become a yearly event for TAS, an event that Lee cherishes for its ability to reach out to seniors and get them involved in the performing arts. He has even taken his love for music beyond the classroom and performing venues. In 2007, The New Paper reported that for the past eight years, Lee had been conducting vocal classes free-of-charge at the Botanic Gardens to anyone who was interested. His classes have since attracted singing enthusiasts from all walks of life.
Lee has also continued to compose music—including works for the Chinese orchestra, songs for choral singing and Chinese opera arias. Many have appeared in his Masterpiece of Lee Ngoh Wah series of concerts performed at the Asian Civilisations Museum's Ngee Ann Hall (2003) and the Singapore Conference Hall (2010). Others have been performed at TAS' concerts. Often taking inspiration from Singaporean folk songs, Chinese folk music, Chinese classical music, Beijing opera and Hokkien street opera (歌仔戏), his compositions are lively, meaningful, and resonate with Lee's local audiences deeply.
In recent years, TAS has struggled with its finances but is buoyed by its dedicated founders and core members, who remain committed and passionate. For them and the many that TAS' performances have touched, Lee's work is invaluable in keeping traditional Chinese music alive and providing them with a lifeline to the Chinese musical community in Singapore. "Now my dream is to develop TAS into a professional performing arts company", says Lee. "In spite of many difficulties, I've gone ahead with what I wanted to do… I want to do my best."
Attended Chinese High School and graduated with 'O' Level certification.
Member of Ai Tong Old Boys' Association Chinese Orchestra.
Queenstown Youth Club Music Instructor. Flute instructor of Queenstown Youth Club.
Organiser of Singapore Chinese High School Chinese Orchestra (flute instructor).
Won Best Performance Award in Flute and Sheng at the National Music Competition.
Music and dance instructor of Queenstown Community Centre.
Queenstown Youth Club Music and Dance instructor.
Coordinator for the National Music Competition.
Conductor of Leling Beijing Opera Troupe.
Committee member of COMPASS.
Composed music titled Love of the Sea
Participated in Asia and Pan Pacific Composer League Conference (Singapore).
Composed music Soaring Pigeon for the Soaring Dove Dance Group.
Committee member of National Theatre Trust Composer Circle.
Composed music for a dance titled . Participated in Asia and Pan Pacific Composer League (New Zealand).
Member of Singapore Performing Rights Society.
Conducted a forum on 25 Years of Chinese Orchestra activities in Singapore during the Chinese Music Festival.
Composed music for Merlion Island Dance performed by Nan Hua Secondary School.
Composed music for Monkey God Dance performed by Boon Lay Secondary School.
Received the Long Service Award from SAGE.
Participated in Asia and Pan Pacific Composer League Conference (Taiwan).
Awarded the SCF Arts Scholarship for the Orchestra Conductor Course in Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, China.
Completed a six-week Orchestra Conductor Training Course in Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, China.
Represented Singapore at the First ASEAN Composer Forum on Traditional Music in the Philippines.
Composed music Ifugao Love Song in Manila.
Committee member of the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts Administrative.
On the committee for Chinese Music Graded Examinations.
Composed music for M Butterfly and The Moon is Darkness.
Awarded The Rotary Club of Singapore/SCFArts Scholarship for the Opera Conductor Course at Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, China.
Completed the Opera Conductor Course at the Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, China.
Appointed Composer/Music Director and Artistic Ambassador representing Singapore in Singapore – Scotland Cultural Exchange Programme.
Participated in the Jakarta Festival, Indonesia.
Vice-Chairman of Singapore Chinese Football Club.
Invited by Teck Ghee Community Centre to be the judge for the Chinese Orchestra Competition.
Represented Singapore at the ASEAN Composer Forum on Traditional Music in Thailand.
First Works of Mr Lee Ngoh Wah concert held at Victoria Concert Hall, Singapore.
Conductor for SAGE Choir.
Participated in April Friendship Arts Festival in North Korea and received an award for Best Song Composition.
Composed a song about friendship and won the gold medal at the April Friendship Arts Festival, North Korea.
2003 Chinese Opera Instructor at Telok Blangah Primary School.
Chinese Opera Instructor at Poi Ching Primary School.
Second Works of Mr Lee Ngoh Wah concert held at Asians Civilizations Museum, Singapore.
Conductor for the International Festival of Active Lifestyle 2004 which was organised by TAS Theatre Co. (S) Ltd.
Chinese Opera Instructor at Poi Ching Primary School.
Participated in April Friendship Arts Festival in North Korea 2005 and received a Performance Award for their Overture of the Sun God performance.
Conductor for International Festival of Active Lifestyle 2005, which was organised by TAS Theatre Co. (S) Ltd.
Chinese Opera Instructor at Ahmad Ibrahim School. Third Works of Mr Lee Ngoh Wah concert held at DBS Auditorium, Singapore.
Conductor for International Festival of Active Lifestyle 2006, organised by TAS Theatre Co. (S) Ltd.
Composed song titled Plucking Flower for Mr Peh Chin Wah.
Participated in Fourth Masterpiece of Lee Ngoh Wah held at the DBS Auditorium, which was supported by Arts Funds and National Arts Council for the public as well as members of COMPASS.
Fifth Works of Mr Lee Ngoh Wah concert held at Singapore Conference Hall.
Composed a song titled My Heart for Mr Peh Chin Wah.
Sixth Works of Mr Lee Ngoh Wah concert held at Jubilee Hall in Raffles Hotel, Singapore.
Compass artistic Excellence Award by COMPASS.
Seventh Works of Mr Lee Ngoh Wah concert held at Jubilee Hall in Raffles Hotel, Singapore.
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Lee Ngoh Wah (extreme right), and Madam Goh (second from left) with the two directors of The Dance and the Railroad at Scotland Theatre. 1991.
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Lee Ngoh Wah conducting the Singapore Action Groups of Elders choir at Victoria Theatre, Singapore. 1995.
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Lee Ngoh Wah conducting the North American Elite Youth Orchestra at Victoria Concert Hall, Singapore. 1999.
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Lee Ngoh Wah singing with the TAS choir at the International Festival of Active Lifestyle held in Victoria Theatre, Singapore. 2006.
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Lee Ngoh Wah and important members of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra at an appreciation dinner held in Conrad Centennial Hotel, Singapore. 2006.
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.