Many would know Joanna Dong as the Singaporean sweetheart who entered Sing! China in 2017. A featured performer with major local groups such as the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, JASSO and Dingyi, she is well-regarded by music industry peers. A career in the arts is a path often less travelled for many Singaporeans. Particularly so for Joanna, as most of her classmates wound up as doctors. She expressed, “I was different but not always that different. I think we were all kind of bold in not accepting our fate. And if we ended up being lawyers or doctors, it was because we wanted to and not because anyone told us we had to.”
Her journey started when she took a slight detour during her time at NUS Sociology to join the jazz band. Subsequently, she took part in the first-ever Singapore Idol competition in 2004 and landed a position in the Top 40 category, kickstarting her full-time career.
Widening the Local Jazz Community and Experience at Sing! China with Jay Chou as a Mentor
A genre characterised by swing and blues notes that you just can’t help but groove and tap your feet to, jazz saw a slight decline in following after being commercialised in the West around the 80s and 90s. It is a genre is still relatively less commercial in local spheres, hence, Joanna has made it a personal goal to widen the widen community by working with We Love Jazz and the Jazz Association (Singapore), and has paved the way for younger jazz singers such as Dawn Wong.
Driven and ambitious, she looks to expand her reach to other parts of Asia where there is a pool of Chinese audience who adore jazz classics that have arisen from the “Old Shanghai Jazz Golden Era”. In recent years, a couple of upbeat Mandarin Jazz covers of Jasmine Chen’s “Waiting For Your Return” and Grace Chang’s “Wo Yao Ni De Ai” have been popularised by the award-winning movie, Crazy Rich Asians.
She aims to highlight the uniqueness of jazz and how it has progressed by doing more contemporary covers. One example would be her catchy rendition of “Wo Yao Ni De Ai” that she chorused during the Sing! China competition. To prep for this, she would bring in little bits of improvisation to vary her performance, although this was not always welcome. She recalls how her experienced mentor firmly advised against it and told her to stick to one version so he can help make it the most showy and musical – in other words: competition ready.
She eventually came in second runner-up for Sing! China and recalls Jay Chou’s sagely advice fondly: “The competition is just a game, don’t worry too much about winning, what matters more is what you do after.” And true enough, beating all the odds as a singer specialising in the niche genre “Mandarin Jazz”, Joanna has now easily become a household name for Jazz music in Asia.
Cultural Differences in China
Her initial worries that she would not be able to click with the Chinese contestant on Sing! China due to the cultural differences soon dissipated after numerous visits to China. Joanna discovered that the Mainland Chinese are very different but have also many similarities as Singaporeans. The most pronounced difference is that they “tend to be a lot more expressive”, she exclaimed, reminiscing how the mainland Chinese would passionately pass out compliments at her after each performance.
However, this isn’t always the case. Joanna humorously recalls one peculiar incident that occurred when she was performing in a quaint jazz bar in Zheng Zhou. Even though she was relatively well-known by now in the scene, the diners at this particular jazz bar couldn’t care less of who she was. “Zheng Zhou was weird. The diners seemed more interested in their food and we really had to work to entertain them”, she laughs. Unfazed, the seasoned singer took it in stride and continued to perform to the seemingly tough crowd. She didn’t mind at all. In fact, she actually found the situation “oddly refreshing” and “humbling”. And of course, her alluring charm eventually won them over and everyone was joyously “gan bei”-ing to her feel-good, jazzy tunes by the end of the night.
Holding the Local Community Close to Her Heart
No matter how far she travels out for her gigs, she still holds home close to her heart. She affectionately commented that Singaporeans would always be her first and most loyal supporters. Well put in the lyrics of the National Day Song, “We are Singapore”, that she sang in perfect pitch during the National Day Parade in 2018, “I believe you [Singapore] will always be a part of me”. After all, this is where the eloquent performer grew up and fell in love with the art form.
On advising younger jazz artists, she marvels at how there are so many great resources available compared to when she was first starting out. She recommends checking out the SingPop Music Foundation, which just recently launched this year. Specialising in Chinese music, it opens up opportunities for artists to bring their works over to international markets. To help in the tune creating process, Joanna uses an application called MuseScore, which allows her to play and slow down the wide array of Jazz tunes offered when learning new scores. She also encourages aspiring vocalists to expose themselves to vastly different kinds of music and collaborate with as many people as possible. During this time of COVID-19, she sees that it could be a great period to start taking online classes with jazz music teachers.
Joanna also often goes into in-depth conversations with her husband, Zachary Ho, who is a theatre practitioner with SOTA. Surrounding much of their dialogue is their shared love for music and most recently, they discussed the importance of preparing young artists to be agile. Especially in today’s ever changing climate, the gifted singer emphasizes on the willingness and curiosity to keep learning and adapting in whatever you do. “It’s not about specific skill sets, the primary focus is now on having a message, then finding whatever medium you have to say it.”
The road to success has never been easy. She admits that her younger self used to think that fame was the answer to everything. Gaining more recognition for her works, better pay for her gigs, increased opportunities and more, she thought that becoming more renown was the best solution of all. Now that she has achieved much success in that respect, she conveys that her life is far from being a bed of roses.
While she does agree that being famous has no doubt blessed her with many benefits, it has also brought on a whole new set of problems. It is an “exchange for your freedom” she voiced, and a rather “lonely and stressful life”. She now understands why many young artists thrust into the limelight often fall prey to vices like drugs and alcoholism. She revealed that she often feels shackled, having to think about the commercial success of her works and public opinion. Even when creating works that might be viewed as more “artistic”, she fears that people might interpret that she’s gone off-kilter.
Coping with the New Normal
In these moments, she tries to steady herself by sitting down, breathing deeply and turning towards productive activities instead. The usually upbeat and bubbly singer does get anxious and misses “the high she gets from connecting with her audience”, of course, being forward-looking, she encourages her fans to “look for the silver lining in every situation”.
Whether it be taking this period off to do “bo liao” things with friends, naming her most recent 4 hour-long talk with her music kakis (Singlish term for friend), she cherishes these moments dearly. “It’s fine to just focus on things you like for now, because when things get busy again, you won’t have the opportunity to do that anymore.” Joanna also takes joy in engaging her fans online. “I think this is as much a treat for me as it is for my fans, it helps me stay sane”, she chuckles.