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So here she is: a bilingual, multi-faceted local talent who took the long way around to success. Joanna Dong is an actress, singer and television host whose career spans decades (she's only 36) but who didn't really qualify as a household name until recently, after she sang her way to a podium finish on top-rated reality show Sing! China. Her third-place last year (with Mandopop star Jay Chou as mentor) came on the heels of fellow Singaporean Nathan Hartono's runner-up showing the previous season, making Sing! China a fruitful hunting ground for homegrown talent. Since then, a flurry of appearances here and abroad has helped to thrust her into the musical spotlight, culminating in two sold-out solo concerts last weekend at The Esplanade. Her jazzy renditions, dance moves and interesting vocal acrobatics - turning her voice into a trumpet, for instance - are key elements to her live performances.
The concerts - with the tagline So Here I Am - featured an original song Long Way Round, a recent release that is ostensibly a love song about late-blooming love but also an apt metaphor for Dong's own late-blooming success. One line of the (translated) lyric goes: "Only because I missed my exit, then was I able to meet you here." Dong doesn't miss much these days, except perhaps some Me Time. Every waking moment before the concerts is taken up by a string of commitments, including rehearsals, media interviews and a role as an ambassador in an upcoming singing competition on Channel Eight. She spoke to Weekend magazine from a hairdressing salon, where she was in the process of having her hair coloured. "I have had grey hair since I was 10 or 11 and I have to touch up my roots because it makes me look very tired," she says. Her head may have been covered in cling film but she was witty, engaging and not self-conscious in the least. Joanna Dong's time is now, and she's ready.
There are overnight successes, and then there's you. In 2004 you were eliminated relatively early on in Singapore Idol and spent subsequent years singing in hotel lounges, doing musical theatre, acting in films. Does it feel like you spent a lifetime preparing for this moment?
It's been a roller-coaster ride. The foundation was laid when I was very young. I began as a children's karaoke singer (at community clubs) when I was about six until I was 12. When I was in the choir at school and university, I was exposed to such a wide range of music and different musical genres. I was singing different things, making frog sounds, cat calls and doing acapella. My first pop star dreams were crushed by Singapore Idol, so I focused more on niche genres like jazz, theatre, experimental collaborations. My choral teacher at Victoria Junior College let us try all kinds of vocal arrangements, it was so exciting and invigorating for me as a young singer. I didn't think of my voice as a single instrument - as long as I produce a sound, it's part of my performance.
Is it fair to divide your career timeline into BS (Before Sing!) and AS (After Sing!)?
That was undoubtedly a milestone in my career. Before, I refused to give that weight to any one event because I want to acknowledge that every step is instrumental, but it's undeniable that it marked a big shift in my career. It didn't really hit me that it was such a dramatic change. Only later on in the contest when I received feedback on the growing interest from Singaporeans did it sink in that this event was life-changing.
The song Long Way Round was about your personal journey and how success eventually came about.
Its sentiments are about good fortune, how love and success came later than expected. From my perspective opportunity came not later but instead it was perfect timing. If it had happened a decade earlier, I probably would not have been psychologically equipped to cope with the stress and tension. Now that I am at a more grounded stage in life, it's less likely that I'm going to act all diva or go off my rocker. I've grown together with (local recording label) Red Roof Records through Sing! China. Ruth (Ling), my manager, is always there for me to bounce ideas off. I didn't do this competition on my own. It's been kind of incredible and a huge learning curve. Now, it's another adventure.
You project an old-school image. How is your private side different from your public one?
I'm not one of those teen idol-type celebrities who has rabid fans chasing them. Singaporean fans by and large are very respectful. They are warm and polite, they smile, say something encouraging, they give me strength. I always try and stop for a photo. At first, I was self-conscious - I can't be in pyjamas - but people in my local neighbourhood are used to seeing me walking around. I'm just trying to keep it real. The entertainment industry is a production. As a public figure, I still have to be aware that I'm a role model for some people. I try to find a balance where I can be myself, but I'm not the sweet wholesome lady next door: in reality I'm quite far from that. I don't want to lie or pretend but sometimes I do practise self-censorship.
Having paid your dues in the business, what advice do you have for someone who wants a singing career?
I remember starting out when I was 24 or 25, I was asked to sing a demo for a producer from America who was passing through town. He listened to my singing and told me, 'You're too young, you don't understand enough of life.' I was very offended because I felt I had the passion. To this day, I flashback to that moment. I still can't decide if he was right, I was so indignant at the time. Now, maybe I'm reaching my peak and maybe it is true, it's taken me this long to reach it. I took it really personally and to this day, I make it a point never to say the same thing to anyone.
How do you keep relevant in an always-evolving music scene?
I'm not a spring chicken but my job is to grow the scene so that there is room for all of us. That's what I'm trying to do now for the Chinese jazz scene - expand it so there's more work for everybody. China has so many competitions and TV shows. I feel like your popularity is short-lived unless you continue to work at it. What I'm doing now is pop music infused with a lot of jazz as a way to bridge genres. The true spirit of jazz is it was never meant to be elitist. I'm self-aware, effectively bilingual, good at making music approachable and with a warmth to my voice. I don't have a huge belting voice and there are limits to what I can do, but I'm not going to dwell on that. These are my strengths and I will focus on what I'm good at. I'll leave all the boundary-pushing to my friends - and I'll do what I do.