Home-grown singer Joanna Dong, who scored a mentorship with Mandopop prince Jay Chou after a blind audition for the second season of massively popular singing contest Sing! China, thought she had had enough of the pop music world.
In 2004, she took part in the inaugural Singapore Idol, but was booted out early in the game and criticised by the judges for her “auntie get-up”.
“I came out of it completely confused and it was a big blow to my self-esteem,” the 35-year-old tells The Straits Times. “It felt like maybe I wasn’t cut out for the pop market, that I didn’t have mass appeal. So I shied away from anything that was mass audience-related performances.
“The more people see you, the more likely they are to criticise. I think that comes with the territory and a part of me was frightened of that. Singapore Idol had given me a taste of that. I wasn’t sure I was ready to face widespread judgment again.”
Dong then made her name in the theatre and jazz scenes here, winning Best Supporting Actress at the ST Life! Theatre Awards 2008 for her role in Mandarin musical If There’re Seasons and releasing an EP, Lullaby Nomad, in the same year, as well as several singles.
“I pretty much did a lot of niche work like theatre and jazz, a lot of small-scale and experimental stuff.”
The producers of Sing! China had other ideas and invited her to audition for the show. She decided to accept it as she felt she was finally ready to face the mainstream audience again.
“It took me this long to be more comfortable with being myself and being comfortable with mass audiences seeing me being myself,” she says.
Dong was also inspired by fellow home-grown jazz singer Nathan Hartono’s success in Sing! China last year. The first Singaporean to make it through the show’s blind auditions, he ended up in the second spot.
“I followed Nathan’s progress closely because I am a fan. The sense that I got was that (Sing! China) was very encouraging; as a platform for music, it was very welcoming of diversity.
“And so I felt like maybe a voice like mine could still stand a chance. In most singing competitions, you need to have powerhouse vocals, a distinctive voice to stand out. I felt like this show had the right direction for singers like myself.”
From February, Dong had to go through several auditions held in Singapore, Shanghai and Hangzhou, but had to keep mum about her involvement in the show even after she aced the blind auditions. Only a select few, including her husband Zachary Ho, who teaches at School of the Arts Singapore, and her manager, Ms Ruth Ling from Red Roof Records, knew. The couple have no children.
Dong impressed the judges with her jazz rendition of the Lo Ta-yu classic Love Song 1990 in the first episode of the second season of the Zhejiang Television singing competition, which aired last Friday.
Her achievement in the blind audition was like a dream and reality sank in only when she was on the flight from Hangzhou to Singapore alone.
“I was seated between strangers and I was crying and crying. It was a relief, it was cathartic. Finally, I was by myself and it just hit me how badly I craved this validation and recognition.”
Dong is excited to work with Chou, a pop visionary who she feels will understand her music.
“I am dying to learn more from him, how he became someone who defined a genre, who pretty much single-handedly converted an entire Chinese-speaking audience to R&B music. I am just hoping he can help me do the same with jazz.”
This story first appeared on The Straits Times on July 19, 2017.