Joanna Wong Quee Heng



Joanna Wong Quee Heng (b. 1939, Penang, Malaya–)1 is a leading exponent of Cantonese opera in Singapore. Although an amateur artist, Wong’s artistic skills have won her praises from Beijing opera scholars. She has also pioneered many novel ideas to promote Cantonese opera among the young and non-Chinese speaking audiences. Her promotion efforts have not only revived Cantonese opera in Singapore, but also elevated it to a respectable art form. For her tireless dedication in promoting the art form, Wong was awarded the Cultural Medallion for Chinese Opera in 1981.2
Early life and career
Born in Penang, Malaya (now Malaysia), in 1939, Wong had a relatively comfortable early childhood as her father owned a business selling paper products. Two years after she was born, the Japanese invaded Malaya. Though times were difficult, her family managed to survive the occupation.3

After the war ended in 1945, Wong’s father enrolled her in the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus missionary school on Light Street, Penang, as he felt that an English education would be more beneficial for her. Wong received her primary and secondary school education at the convent. Her acting abilities were evident even at the tender age of six as she was often asked to recite poems and act them out for her classmates and other students at the convent.4

When she was 12, Wong’s father passed away from an illness. Her family subsequently fell into financial difficulty. Wong was left with her aunt; her elder sister and brother were sent to relatives in Kuala Lumpur while her mother left Penang to look for work.5

When Wong was in secondary two, her uncle fell ill. Believing that the reason for the illness was caused by a conflict in horoscopes between Wong and her uncle, she was asked to leave. Fortunately, a dentist named Ho Fai Dow took her in.6 One-and-a-half years later, Wong’s uncle passed away and she returned to live with her aunt.7

Through these hardships, Wong learnt to be resilient and frugal. She gave tuition to earn money for her own expenses and also to save for the future as she knew her aunt did not have the means to send her for further studies.8

Upon completing her ‘A’ level examinations in 1958, Wong gave up her interest to pursue drama studies in England due to a lack of finances. Instead, she applied for the Penang State Scholarship to study at the University of Malaya. While waiting for the outcome of her scholarship application, Wong was offered a place at the Singapore campus of the University of Malaya. Determined to pursue a university education, Wong headed for Singapore without confirmation of a scholarship. She registered for a science degree course and received news that she had been awarded a scholarship just after the course had started.9

It was at university that Wong met her husband, Leslie Wong Sze Ying.10 Though they were from different faculties, both of them shared the same passion for Cantonese opera and worked together on various performances. The couple married in 1965.11

Wong graduated in 1963 with a Bachelor of Science (Honours) degree and continued to work at the university as an administrative assistant.12 She became the University of Singapore’s (later the National University of Singapore, or NUS) deputy registrar in 1975.13 In 1977, she moved to Nanyang University to take on the post of registrar.14 She returned to NUS in 1995 to serve as its registrar and eventually retired in 2001.15

Despite having a full-time job, a family and heavy involvement in Cantonese opera, Wong was also actively involved with the community. She was the chairman of the Kreta Ayer Community Centre Women’s Executive Committee for 35 years, until 2006. For her community service, Wong was awarded the Public Service Star (BBM) in 1974 and appointed a Justice of the Peace (JP) in 1998.16

Artistic career
Wong’s love for Cantonese opera was nurtured as a child by her family. She watched Cantonese operas with her aunt17 and followed her father to the Pan Yu Clan Association Cantonese opera group’s singing practices. She also listened to Cantonese operas from her father’s collection of vinyl records and followed the lyrics from an encyclopedia of Cantonese operas. Soon, she was able to commit various opera songs to memory.18 Joanna did not study Chinese formally.19 In fact, her second language in school was Latin.20 However, Wong had a photographic memory and she learned to read and write Chinese on her own.21


At 14, Wong made her stage debut as a ma dan (an actress impersonating a horse) at a performance staged by the Penang Ladies Chin Woo Athletic Association.22 Wong went on to take on various roles in different opera stage performances. She progressed from the position of third actress to lead actress in the Pan Yu Clan Association Cantonese opera group.23

In 1959, Wong joined the Chinese society of the University of Malaya in Singapore.24 To gain the interest of an essentially English-speaking community, Wong translated famous Chinese operas such as The Cowherd and the Fairy (1960), Goddess of Luo (1961) and Madam White Snake (1962) into English for performance. These performances generated wide interest among theatre enthusiasts.25

In her university days, Wong met another Cantonese opera enthusiast, Leslie Wong, who later became her husband. He would write Cantonese opera lyrics for her and played the flute while she sang.26

In 1967, after their marriage, Wong and Leslie joined the Singapore Kong Chow Wui Koon clan association’s music and opera division.27 Together, they put up a major opera production, Madam White Snake. The performance was a great success and was re-staged three months later. It was so well received that the television department of Radio Television Singapore invited them into the studio to record the performance for telecast.28

The reason for the production’s success was that it was very well made compared to the other amateur Cantonese opera productions of the time, which were usually of a low standard. The script was improved with new musical arrangements, and the costume, stage and lightings were well designed. Madam White Snake raised the bar for Cantonese operas and Wong, who played the lead role, shot to fame.29 Following the success of the production, Wong performed every year at the clan association’s anniversary celebrations. All her performances attracted overwhelming responses.30

In 1972, Wong and her fellow artists from Kong Chow Wui Koon were invited to perform for Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, the Duke of Edinburgh.31 In subsequent years, she led the group overseas to perform in countries like Hong Kong, Malaysia and West Germany. All the performances were very well received.32

In 1981, Wong started the Chinese Theatre Circle (CTC), an amateur Cantonese opera group, with a few other Cantonese opera enthusiasts. Wong became the group’s leading actress and artistic director.33 Under her leadership, CTC performed over 2,000 shows in Singapore and in 20 other countries. They also took part in many prestigious arts festivals, including the Edinburgh Festival (1988), International Theatre Festival, Tokyo (1990), Budapest Festival (1998), and International Theatre Festival, Brazil (2000). The CTC also collaborated with well-known opera troupes from China and staged a number of mega opera productions.34

Stylistic conventions
Wong specialises in female roles, from warrior princesses to female scholars. Her clear and beautiful singing voice, subtle and graceful movements, and ability to express the feelings of her characters through her singing, facial and body movements have won her much praise. In particular, she has received praise from Beijing opera scholars for her interpretation of the tragic opera characters Empress Xiao Zhou and Empress Xiao.35


Wong is always looking for ways to improve the standard of her performances. She would incorporate original elements into her performances such as choreographing a sword dance that combined martial arts with dance – something new for the audience at that time.36 In another performance, in her role as a ghost who could breathe fire from her mouth, she tried putting kerosene into her mouth.37 In order to achieve the swaying gait of a beauty for one of her opera roles (as maid Choon Lan in Errors at Huan Tian), Wong would squeeze her feet into shoes only 7.5 cm long.38

Wong pioneered various methods to promote Cantonese opera to a general audience that increasingly did not speak the dialect. She introduced the use of English subtitles in 1976, condensed opera scripts,39 and produced Cantonese operas that were sung in English.40

As part of her promotion efforts, Wong gave talks, workshops, and demonstrations of Cantonese opera.41 She would lead the CTC group to give regular performances in Chinatown, Hong Lim Park, the Chinese Garden, and even at Chinese restaurants.42 Wong also led the group overseas to Europe, the United States, China and even Egypt to perform so as to promote Cantonese opera internationally.43

Wong herself did not study Cantonese opera under a particular teacher. She said that her teachers were veteran artistes, records, movies, tapes, compact discs, DVDs, films, stage performances and the library.44 She has also raised many outstanding students, one of them being Lou Mee Wah, who is also a Cultural Medallion recipient.45

Family
Husband:
Leslie Wong Sze Ying.

Daughters: Mary Wong Wai San, Audrey Wong.46

Selected awards47
1974:
Public Service Star (BBM).

1981: Cultural Medallion for Chinese Opera.
1998: Justice of the Peace.

Selected opera roles
1968:
Madam White Snake in Madam White Snake.48

1970: The Princess Chang Ping in The Patriotic Princess.49
1983:
Choon Lan in Errors at Hua Tian.50

1997: Wang Bao Chuan in Ping Gui Bids Farewell to His Wife.51
2001: Wu Ze Tian in Women Emperor Wu Ze Tian.52



Author
Chor Poh Chin




References
1.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 22. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
2.
Purushothaman, V. (Ed.). (2002). Narratives: Notes on a cultural journey: Cultural medallion recipients 1979–2001. Singapore: National Arts Council, p. 22. (Call no.: RSING 700.95957 NAR)
3.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 11. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
4.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 13. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
5.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 16. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
6.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 18. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
7.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 19. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
8.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, pp. 16–17. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
9.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 32. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
10.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, pp. 35–36. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
11.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, pp. 15-37. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
12.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 37. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
13.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 98. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
14.
Joanna Wong is new Nantah registrar. (1977, November 4). The Straits Times, p. 17. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
15.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 98. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
16.
Tribute.sg. (2012). Joanna Wong Quee Heng. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Joanna+Wong+Quee+Heng
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胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 11. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
18.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, pp. 14–15. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
19.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 15. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
20.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 13. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
21.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 15. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
22.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 22. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
23.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, pp. 22–26. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
24.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, pp. 22–26. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
25.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, pp. 35–36 (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
26.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 36. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
27.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 36. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
28.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, pp. 41–42. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
29.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, pp. 41–42. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
30.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 44 (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
31.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 46 (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
32.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, pp. 156–157. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
33.
Tribute.sg. (2012). Joanna Wong Quee Heng. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Joanna+Wong+Quee+Heng; Chinese Theatre Circle. (2014). Joanna Wong. Retrieved from http://www.ctcopera.com/artist/mrs-joanna-wong-jp-bbm/
34.
Purushothaman, V. (Ed.). (2002). Narratives: Notes on a cultural journey: Cultural medallion recipients 1979–2001. Singapore: National Arts Council, p. 22. (Call no.: RSING 700.95957 NAR)
35.
Purushothaman, V. (Ed.). (2002). Narratives: Notes on a cultural journey: Cultural medallion recipients 1979–2001. Singapore: National Arts Council, p. 22. (Call no.: RSING 700.95957 NAR); 胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁  [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, pp. 15, 29. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
36.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 44. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
37.
News. (1988, June 15). The Straits Times, p. 35. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
38.
Chan, E. C. (1983, June 8). Carrying on tradition on ‘lotus feet’. The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
39.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 51. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
40.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 92. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
41.
Lunch crowd gets taste of fun fare in Chinese opera. (1985, February 9). The Straits Times, p. 21; What you need to know about Chinese opera. (1985, April 26). The Straits Times, p. 2; Chong, W. H., & Goh, B. C. (1986, July 10). The opera goes out to the junior colleges. The Straits Times, p. 5. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
42. 胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 116. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
43. 胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 156. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
44. 胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 148. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
45. 胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 109. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
46.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
47.
Tribute.sg. (2012). Joanna Wong Quee Heng. Retrieved from http://www.tribute.sg/artistprofile.php?displayname=Joanna+Wong+Quee+Heng
48.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 41. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
49.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 44. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
50.
Chan, E. C. (1983, June 8). Carrying on tradition on ‘lotus feet’. The Straits Times, p. 18. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
51.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 67. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)
52.
胡桂馨 [Hu, G. X.]. (2013). 红氍毹上之不倒翁 [Joanna Wong: An indomitable life, an operatic legacy]. 新家坡: 敦煌剧, p. 67. (Call no.: Chinese RSING 792.5092 WJ)




The information in this article is valid as at 6 February 2014 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.

Subject
Personalities
Arts