Photo: Ng Sor Luan, Seah Kwang Peng
Long before she wowed the judges and the millions of television viewers of regional singing contest Sing! China, home-grown jazz chanteuse Joanna Dong was winning karaoke contests at neighbourhood community clubs (CC).
Her mother, a former Chinese teacher who taught at Nanyang Junior College and Serangoon Junior College, was active at the CCs and got her only child, who was then about six years old, to sing tunes such as Gao Shan Qing, a Taiwanese folk song.
"She noticed that I had an interest in singing and she was the one who cultivated the passion and interest," says Dong, 35, who was mentored by Mandopop star Jay Chou on Sing! China, which ran from July to earlier this month, and came in third in the finals.
"She would make these fabulous costumes for me and I would usually get extra points for them."
Photo: Joanna Dong
Dong won many of the CC contests, mostly because the judges were impressed by a child who could memorise the lyrics to seven-minute-long Chinese classics, she reckons.
"It was quite funny when you think about it, back then. When we competed, the things we were thinking about were, 'What would the judges like? How should we be strategic?' I guess, in that way, I was primed to be a competition singer as a child."
Indeed, singing was a big part of her formative years. She was in the choirs of her alma maters Paya Lebar Methodist Girls' School (Primary), Raffles Girls' School (RGS) and Victoria Junior College.
In National University of Singapore (NUS), she joined the NUS Jazz Band because she was already part of her junior college's alumni choir.
Sing! China was not the first time she took part in an overseas singing competition either.
When she was in Secondary 2, she represented RGS and was the only Singaporean in a classical singing competition in Japan.
She did not win any of the major prizes. But her experience at the contest was "a critical memory" of her secondary-school life because then RGS principal Carmee Lim had allowed her to skip her year-end examinations so she could travel for the contest.
"To me, that gesture, throughout the rest of my life, reminded me that academic results are not as important as pursuing excellence in my interest.
In person, Dong is genial and chatty. She seemed at ease with the glances and looks from fellow diners at d'Good Cafe, a cosy Holland Village joint, where this interview was conducted.
A group of teenagers, still in their school uniforms, cautiously approached her and she cheerfully took selfies and chatted with them.
Asked if this happens often and if she gets swamped by fans when she goes out, she surprisingly says: "No."
"I'm quite good at disguising myself; I like to be slightly under the radar. People usually don't recognise me and I like it that way."
In 2004, right after she graduated from NUS, she reached a turning point in her life when she took part in the first instalment of reality singing show Singapore Idol, but was voted out by the public in the first television episode.
The producers had warned her earlier that her choice of an obscure jazz classic, Bewitched, Bothered And Bewildered, as well as her "auntie get-up" would probably alienate television audiences.
"I clearly wanted to have some level of fame, otherwise I wouldn't have joined a competition like Singapore Idol.
"But I had a lot of very idealistic notions about singing and I was determined not to sing something that was voting-friendly. If I'm going to lose, I'm going to lose singing something I like."
After crashing out of Singapore Idol, she was convinced that she was not cut out for the mainstream audience.
"Part of me then became almost disdainful of my past (as a competition singer). I forced myself to unlearn all that because I kept thinking, taking part in singing contests is not artistic... I wanted to be an artist and a full-time jazz singer. I started to think, 'Oh I'm an intellectual, I'm educated about the arts.' I mean, I studied theatre studies in junior college."
She would spend the next decade straddling music and acting, performing to what she describes as "niche" audiences.
She sang in places such as the Raffles Courtyard in Raffles Hotel and at weddings and corporate events. In 2008, she released her debut EP, Lullaby Nomad, with a concert at the Esplanade Recital Studio.
Her acting gigs were varied too, ranging from Mandarin musical If There're Seasons, which won her a Best Supporting Actress prize at the Straits Times Life! Theatre Awards in 2008; to feature film and romance comedy Forever (2011), which earned her the Star Hunter Award at the 14th Shanghai International Film Festival.
My favourite moment from last week's episode of Homeward Bound. Sometimes it's harder to communicate with those you've known the longest, because all the years of emotional baggage stack up like bricks in a wall between people. Sitting between Daniel and his Mum, I knew it wasn't up to me to break the wall down for them; hopefully our programme managed to open a little window, through which they can reconnect again. If you missed it, you can catch-up on www.toggle.sg otherwise I'll see you tonight at 9pm where we meet another lovely family from the Netherlands! @channelU @threesixzeroproductions #chuhomewardbound #yacht21sg
More than a decade after Singapore Idol, Dong went back to television and hosted infotainment programmes on Channel U such as Homeward Bound and Life Extraordinaire, both in 2015.
Sing! China this year capped what she describes as "a long, slow, convoluted journey" back to the mainstream entertainment world.
"After Singapore Idol, my attitude was 'the masses don't like me, therefore I don't have to engage them anymore'. But then I realised it all came about from insecurity and a very closed heart.
"Now, I've come back to realising that being able to connect with the masses is actually at the heart of loving people and loving yourself."
Dong's career, and life, could have been very different today if she had pursued her initial plans to study theatre overseas after junior college.
Her mother, who raised Dong alone after she and Dong's father divorced, convinced her to stay.
She enrolled in NUS and graduated with honours in sociology, which turned out to be another critical juncture in her life.
"My studies in sociology were integral to the world view I have now. The people I met, the teachers and mentors, the seniors in my school - they changed my world view.
"I used to live a sheltered childhood and had a very set understanding of the world. And I think it was sociology that showed me that many things are more than what they seem, to allow myself to be always ready to see someone else's point of view and to avail myself to various interpretations of something. That applied to my approach towards music."
In 2015, she became the first artist signed to Red Roof, a home-grown independent record label started by acclaimed composer, producer and music director Ruth Ling.
Ling, who received the National Arts Council's Young Artist Award in 2013, signed Dong on because she was looking for a Singaporean artist with "a passion and flair" for singing jazz in Mandarin.
"I wanted to build Red Roof Records as a label known for bilingual artists who can deliver solid performances in the studio and on stage."
"Joanna's interest in musical theatre was a plus. Through her respectful and hardworking attitude, she has won the hearts of many long-term collaborators. I find that audiences connect easily to her affable nature that shines on television."
Dong's husband, theatre practitioner and educator Zachary Ho, describes her as being a very generous, giving person in private as well as in public.
"Joanna is not very different offstage in the sense that she still gives very much of herself to others," says Ho, who is three years older than Dong.
On this day three years ago we signed the papers witnessed by our closest friends and relatives. Even though the wedding party held half a year later was the best bash of our lives, 2nd Dec is the official wedding anniversary in our minds :) photo by @froggyappleton and featuring @apugnosedream who played our procession music. It was a beautiful beautiful day @zacharyho
The couple met when they were involved in local play Descendants Of The Eunuch Admiral and married in 2012. They live in a four-room HDB flat in Serangoon North and have no children.
"He's very calm andpatient, which is perfect because I have my moments," Dong says of her husband. "When I'm at work, I try to be as friendly and amiable as possible, but only people closest to me see me when I am anxious or angsty or when my fuse is short. But he's so calm and we hardly get into fights because he always defuses the situation."
Dong's plans are pretty much set in the next year. She is booked for corporate shows all the way till March, the "bread and butter" gigs, as she describes them, to help make up for the income lost from participating in Sing! China in the last six months. The TV production paid only for her flights, accommodation and certain meals and she had to turn down gigs in order to be committed to the show.
There will be a couple of Mandarin singles released by the end of the year and she will also be singing at the Asian Television Awards in December. She will be involved in a theatre production during the Chinese New Year period and plans to stage a solo show next year. There have also been plenty of inquiries about singing at regional jazz festivals.
And, yes, she has plans to leverage on her Sing! China appearance and tap the China market too.
She is in talks to host a music, culture and eco-sustainability-related Internet series aimed at the Chinese audience and there are plans to do a tour around China some time early next year.
"It's hard to get your foot in the door in China, so now that we have, we hope to strengthen or grow the audiences there."
Whether it is music, theatre or hosting, she says she hopes to always be known for giving her all.
"My long-term goal is always to be associated with quality work - that when people see my name, they know that whatever work I'm producing is done with integrity."
This article was first published on The Straits Times.