Joanna Wong Quee Heng
Doyenne of Cantonese opera in Singapore
The doyenne of Cantonese opera in Singapore, Joanna Wong Quee Heng started Chinese Theatre Circle with her husband, opera playwright Leslie Wong, in 1981 to preserve and promote the traditional art form. That year, she also became the first Chinese opera artiste to be awarded the Cultural Medallion.
Chinese Theatre Circle’s signature opera A Costly Impulse has been staged many times in Singapore, as well as in Cairo, Brazil, Beijing, Guangzhou and Hong Kong.
As a child, Joanna was taken by her aunt to Chinese operas, which enthralled her with their bright costumes and strong tunes. Thus began her love affair with Cantonese opera: she taught herself by listening to records and radio broadcasts, and watching stage performances and films. In her early teens, she joined a Chinese arts association in Penang to learn opera singing.
Joanna moved to Singapore in 1959 to attend the then University of Malaya. There, she worked on and performed in university productions. She also met fellow opera enthusiast Leslie Wong, whom she married in 1965. The young woman graduated with an honours degree in chemistry in 1963 and had a distinguished administrative career, retiring as registrar of National University of Singapore in 2001.
After joining a Singapore opera troupe in 1967, she made a name for herself in 1968 with her debut as Bai Suzhen in an adaptation of Madam White Snake. The renowned huadan (actress who plays vivacious young female roles) has performed at least 50 full-length Cantonese operas.
Opera to her is “total theatre”: it combines music, song, dialogue, drama, literature, visual art, dance, mime, martial art and acrobatic display. To keep it alive, she pioneered the use of English and Chinese subtitles to win a wider and younger audience.
As artistic director of Chinese Theatre Circle, she has led the troupe to more than 2000 performances in Singapore and overseas. Meanwhile, her focus has moved from performing to teaching and directing. In her long career, she has groomed many aspiring artistes including fellow Cultural Medallion winner Lou Mee Wah.
Joanna has also worked tirelessly in the community, having served on committees and boards of the National Theatre Trust and Ministry of Health, as chairman of Cultural Medallion Awards Advisory Panel, People’s Association Women’s Executive Committee Coordinating Council, and as co-chairman of National Sports Carnival for Women. In 1974, she received the Public Service Star for her contribution to community service.
"Chinese opera has been labelled as a "dying art" since the 1970s. However this so-called "dying art" is not yet dead. I have hopes that it will survive as there are still some people, who like me, are keen to keep it alive and will continue to promote it."