“See, she’s not boring right?” says David Gan to us about Joi Chua on this hot April morning. The celeb crimper’s very loaded statement (made, to our horror, within the singer’s earshot though we’re not sure if she actually heard it) punctures the soothing strains of an early ’90s Cantopop ballad now playing over the speakers of Sum Yi Tai, a Cantonese restaurant in Telok Ayer where we’ve just finished shooting the singer for her first 8 DAYS cover.
Okay, so it’s not like Joi was doing parkour during the shoot. But the 39-year-old singer, who now sports a spunky short bob, exuded a kind of confidence and sass that for people who have long thought of Joi as being as bland as zero per cent sugar level bubble tea, would be akin to seeing her speed vaulting across the bar top.
We’ll be the first to admit that we’ve been very guilty of judging the singer by her past album covers. For Joi, that would be that default look of hers, half-smiling as she stares blankly, not at us, but into the distance, her wind machine-swept hair artfully falling on her face. It’s an image so seared in our minds that even before meeting her, we’ve already decided that she’s simply just ‘sweet’ and ‘demure’, or you know, that girl in class whose personality you could only describe as “being good in Math”.
Now, this would be a much easier story to write if all Joi was, was sweet, nice and demure. But truth is, she really isn’t. Okay, let us rephrase that. Joi is sweet and nice. Unlike most interviewees, she genuinely seemed to care about finding out more about us so that we can have an actual conversation. “Did you know that in the past, a lot of Hakkas go into optometry?” she says when she finds out that our Hakka dad was an optician. Joi, who’s a trained optometrist, is not Hakka, but Hokkien. Her dad worked in a bank and her late mum, who passed away from breast cancer 20 years ago, was a Chinese tuition teacher. She also has two brothers — her older brother is an engineer who once toyed with singing, and her younger brother, a businessman.
But back to Joi, who is more than just sweet, nice, demure. For starters, her most-used phrase during our chat is, “Wah lau”. How’s that for demure?
Joi, who majored in optometry at Singapore Polytechnic, was discovered when she made the finals of a tertiary singing competition in 1996. “I was really sick with sinusitis on that day so there was no way I could have won,” she laughs. But her performance in the finals impressed so much that it got her a regular singing gig at music café The Ark, which in turn led her to audition for music label Ocean Butterflies, which was holding a talent search. She beat out 2,000 applicants (“When I saw the judges sit up and pay attention when I started singing, I knew they liked me,” she says) and the rest is history. Or so it would seem.
Unlike her peers Stefanie Sun and JJ Lin, whose paths to stardom were swift and smooth, Joi’s career progression was a lot less… joyful. She was dropped by her label after her self-titled debut album tanked in Taiwan in 2000. But armed with her diploma in optometry (P/S: Joi had made sure she completed her studies before becoming a full-time singer), she got a job as an optometrist in a hospital for three years, all the while wondering if that was the end of her singing career. It sure seemed that way until 2004, when another record company came calling. She then released the album Sunrise, which included the track ‘Watch the Sunrise with Me’, arguably her biggest hit.
Her personal life was going well too. In 2009, she married her boyfriend of 10 years, an optometrist who works for an MNC. On whether they will eventually have kids, Joi says: “We want to but we’ll let nature take its course. Although at my age, it’s going to be tough to let nature take its course (laughs).
But after seven years of being a full-time singer, Joi decided that she “needed a change”. So in 2011, she invested a six-figure sum to open her own optical shop, Eye Care People in Holland Village. “It was tough ’cos I had to start from zero — I had no existing customers and I had to redo my optometry license — but I’ve always wanted to have my own shop,” she beams. And no, she’s not the kind of celebrity boss who only lends her name-slash-fame to the business while her employees manage the day-to-day operations. Yup, you can walk into her shop right now and if you’re lucky enough, you’ll get Joi checking your eyesight.
But having her own business didn’t mean she was taking a step back from showbiz. In 2012, she set up her own label Joi Music and released her EP Perspectives (2012) (a project that she said left her “broke but happy”) as well as Joi + (2016) and last year’s I Am Me. She also found time to star in Royston Tan’s 2015 parking attendant-slash-Fong Fei Fei tribute movie 3688. That’s not all. In 2015, Joi took a gamble and signed on with Chinese media company C.L Entertainment Group, which counts Hongkong singer Alex To and Taiwanese crooner Dave Wang Chieh in their stable of artistes. She’s now an in-demand performer in the very lucrative Chinese market and spends at least a week every month criss-crossing the country for gigs. It also appears to be the second, no, third, or is it fourth (?) recalibration of Joi’s, in her own words, “strange” career.
Here’s the thing: it takes a certain type of personality to navigate life’s ups and downs the same way Joi has. When we finally sit down for our chat at Pantler, a bakery just down the street from where the shoot was, it becomes as clear as day that Joi can’t be any more different from that vanilla, one-dimensional cupcake we had simply assumed she was. Not that the decidedly self-assured and self-possessed singer cares what you think. “I don’t have to prove to anyone that I am not like that. I’m not so free. I’m very busy one leh,” she laughs.
As we go through the obstacles she has faced in the past two decades, we ask if she thinks it’s all been worth it. Without missing a beat, she says, with a wry smile on her face: “If it’s not worth it, why am I even doing this interview?” How’s that for boring?
8 DAYS: Let’s go right to the beginning. What’s your first ever memory of singing?
JOI CHUA: Probably when I was like seven or eight? I remember being in my mum’s car as she drove us to our tuition class and my brother and I would sing along to kids’ songs (laughs).
Is your family very musical?
My whole family likes to sing. In secondary school, my weekends were all about karaoke and our relatives would come over to sing. My older brother sings very well and he’s a very talented songwriter. When I was in secondary three, I sang a song he wrote for a competition and I came in second. Growing up, everyone saw him as the singer. But in the end, I was the one given the opportunity. But ’cos of him, I was inspired to do well. I wanted to sing like him ’cos he has a very big voice. He still loves to sing but now [he] sings karaoke at home lor (laughs).
So your parents were supportive of your career choice?
My mum was very against it. But she passed away when I was 19 so that… (pauses) When she was sick, I felt like she was very unhappy ’cos she couldn’t do many things. It made me realise that life is very short. So why not do [the things you want]? I felt that [me getting the opportunity to be a singer] was a chance of a lifetime and I should do it. I was very affected by her passing… it was a painful death.
Weren’t you singing at The Ark by then?
Yeah, and she didn’t want me to. So I told her to come watch me. That place doesn’t sell alcohol so it’s a very healthy, wholesome place. But I think if I had insisted on being a singer, she would have been okay with it eventually. She was very traditional. She felt that (switches to Chinese) ‘xi zi wu qing’, which means that artistes will have very tough lives. But times have changed lah. It’s not like that anymore.
Speaking of preconceived notions, a lot of people assume that you’re super demure...
I’m not that demure. I may look it but I’m not. [It was also] ’cos of the songs that were chosen for me to sing.
Did you have a say in your image?
A lot of it was decided by the company but it wasn’t something I was against. It’s just that after a while I was like, “Wow, why is it like this forever?” I’m more than that. And it’s hard to express yourself when you are seen as one-dimensional, a stereotype and having no personality. And no matter what you do, that’s how you would be labelled.
After so many years in the business, do you still feel like you have to prove to people that you are not one-dimensional?
Actually, I don’t feel the need to prove to anyone lah. Maybe at the beginning I felt that [what people thought of me was] not justified. But in the end, it doesn’t matter. People will always think the way they want. So who cares? In the end, people care only about themselves. You don’t affect their lives unless you really are affecting their lives. Maybe as an artiste, I do provide some level of influence but in the end, people are just living their own lives. They don’t care that much about you. To me, it’s simple: I’ll just do well in what I do. The kind of impact I can bring through my music is what I care about.
Your career hasn’t gone as smoothly as some of your peers. Have you ever wondered why?
That’s life. Last time, I would be like, “Wah lau, how come people so good?” You’ll start comparing. But the thing is, if it doesn’t happen, do you beat yourself up over it? There are so many factors that can affect the outcome. Like timing, the team you work with… Unfortunately, in our society, people feel that you can’t fail ’cos you’ll lose face. But it’s not about that anymore. I’ve sung for so many years and I’m still able to do it. It’s kind of a miracle. And I think I should appreciate that. Whatever comes next will always be a bonus.
I think what sets you apart from other singers is that your life isn’t just about showbiz. You’re also an optometrist, and even better, you still serve your customers in your shop. Why do you still do it?
’Cos I enjoy it! But I do it a lot less now ’cos I’m travelling a lot more. Another reason I still do it is ’cos as a singer, you’re not exposed to the outside world. I’ve seen so many artistes who are so caught up in themselves and their own world. I look at them and I think it’s sad. They don’t talk about other people and they don’t listen. They become ignorant. As an optometrist, you need to listen to people, which is great in relation to my music — I need to know what I’m singing about.
Do people get star struck when you’re tending to them?
They’ll always ask, “Are you….” And I’ll go, “Yah I’m the singer.” (Laughs) I’ll never deny it. In fact, I’ll introduce myself and make friends! I have actually made many friends ’cos of my shop!
Did you ever find it tough to juggle optometry and singing?
In the beginning, yes. Especially when I had to go work in a hospital as an optometrist after my first album didn’t do well. It was like, “Wah lau, all that effort for nothing.” And of course people recognised me but I just hung on to my job. I had to survive, right?
Were you embarrassed?
At that time, I had already told myself that I was going to do both jobs at the same time. If I’m a singer, I’m going to be a good singer. If I’m an optometrist, then I must be a damn good optometrist. If you can’t get off your high horse, there’s nothing anyone else can do.
I read that you were broke after releasing your EP Perspectives in 2012.
Wah lau, I was so poor then. I didn’t have much savings then ’cos most of it went into my business. Doing the EP wasn’t cheap even though we tried to keep the costs to a minimum. I’m lucky I had my husband then. He took care of the roof over my head (laughs). It was a crazy, crazy time and luckily, I managed to pull through it. Looking back, I realise that I’ve accomplished so much in the past seven, eight years and I’m so happy.
You’ve shifted the focus of your singing career to the Chinese market in recent years. Does it have anything to do with how well they pay there?
Well, that’s one of the reasons (laughs). But I took a long time, one year in fact, to decide to sign on with my company. My boss was so fed up. He asked me, “So you want to sign or not?” (Laughs)
What were your reservations?
I had to first make sure that the company is legit. Also, they had initially told me that I had to relocate to China, which was going to be hard ’cos my family and my business are here. But in the end, they said I could continue living in Singapore. And I’ve actually worked in China before so I know how different we are culturally. The Chinese… they have a million ideas at one go and you would have to filter each of them and explain to them what is workable and what is not.
What’s the most eye-opening thing you’ve seen in China so far?
So many things. Like the transport. There was once it took us 30 hours to get to the airport. There was a snow storm earlier this year before CNY. So we had to take a plane, then a car, then a train and then the speed rail to get to our destination. It normally would have taken just 12 hours. But the roads were so slippery, we could only drive at 40km/h. China will train you up. Whenever I hear Singaporeans complaining about the jam, I tell them, “This is nothing. Have you experienced a Beijing jam? It literally takes you two hours to get anywhere.”
You told us before that you’ve performed near North Korea? That must have been interesting.
Yes, our stage was right at the border of North Korea. I could see their mountains which were all bare ’cos they had to cut down all the trees to prevent people from hiding. [The concert] was for an arts festival and I was performing with Dave Wang and some ethnic singers. It was very bizarre but China has a lot of bizarre concerts. I mean, there will always be very nice places, like the stadiums that can fit 100,000 people. Then there are those dodgy gigs where there aren’t many people but you still have to sing.
How much more do they pay you compared to here?
It depends on the individual but for me, it’s like twice?
We guess it doesn’t matter how dodgy the place is as long as the money’s good.
Yeah but I mean, that’s our job. No matter how dodgy [the place], once you see how happy the crowd is to see you, you’ll feel happy. Oh, sometimes when you’re mid-song, someone will run up on stage to hug you. Or take a selfie. Best. (Laughs).
You’ve also been invited to perform at weddings there.
Yeah and they are very, very, very grand. [Her assistant interjects: One of them held was in a stadium]. Nah, it was next to it. [Assistant interjects again: They had wanted to do it in the stadium but the weather wasn’t good, so they set up a huge tent right next to it.] Yeah, the couple is super rich. And young. They’re like self-made tycoons, which is very common in China. But it was very classy. They had like 100,000 lights hanging from the ceiling and a carousel on stage. Oh, and it was a T-shaped stage but they told us not to walk down the T ’cos the guests will grab and pull you down (laughs).
Yikes. Have you had any actual bad experiences working in China before?
I’ve met some very scary fans. This was like 10 years ago. I was going for an interview and there were some fans, like seven, eight of them, all big burly guys, waiting for me outside the building. They’re those you call international fans [Ed: Fans who have no allegiance to any particular star]. They wanted me to sign some things but we turned them down ’cos I was rushing for the interview. So they got angry and squeezed into the lift with us. They started scolding us and they even pinched my colleague until she bled. And they continued scolding us even after we got out of the lift! But that’s not the worst part. After the interview we decided that it would be best that our car pick us up from the level 4 basement but somehow that piece of info got out and those ‘fans’ were waiting there for us! The minute we ran inside the car, they started banging and kicking the door. They even used their markers to draw on the car. They also broke the car’s logo. Then the dumbest thing happened. When we drove off, the carpark barrier didn’t rise. We were begging the carpark attendant to lift it up so we could get out, but he told us that we had to pay for the parking on another level. By the time we did that, those fans were there again, and this time, they linked arms to block us from leaving. It was ridiculous. I remember thinking, “Am I that popular?” (Laughs) In the end, I signed the photos they had. My colleague threw them out of the window and when the fans were busy picking the photos up, we quickly drove off. But there was one siao one who ran after our car but he eventually had to give up (laughs).
Did that make you scared to work in China?
No lah. But I saw them a few times after that incident. They really bear grudges. I was at the after party of Jackie Chan’s birthday concert in 2014 when they did the same thing to me again. One of them even took a pic of me standing in a corner, posted it on Weibo and said, “What sort of singer is this? Let her colleagues settle her problem”, and generally said s*** about me. So dramatic right?
Yeah it’s crazy. Speaking of Jackie Chan’s 60th birthday concert. How did you score that gig?
(Laughs) He told me that he had heard my song ‘Watch the Sunrise with Me’ on radio when he was travelling to work one morning. He really liked it and was waiting for the DJ to say my name but it didn’t happen. So he decided to listen to the same station every morning at the same time ’cos he knew they would play it again. And true enough, they finally did and he recorded it and sent it to his team to find out who I was. Apparently, he listened to my song for two years and he told everyone that when he turns 60, he would invite me to sing at the party. I remember when my manager got the call, she immediately rang me up to say that Da-ge (big brother in Mandarin) wanted me to sing at his birthday concert. I was like, what da-ge?” and she said “Cheng Long da-ge.” It was so bizarre but of course I had to go. I was so honoured! How could he know who I was! (Laughs)
What was the first meeting with him like?
He was like (mimics Jackie) “Aiyah, I listened to your song 18,000 times!” (Laughs) He’s very friendly and doesn’t make you feel like there’s distance between you and him. And he was so nice. There were so many big stars that day like Coco Lee, EXO, Nicholas Tse but guess where I was seated during the celebratory dinner? So it was him, then his son, then Jay Chou and me next to Jay. And next to me was Leo Ku. Jay and I know each other ’cos we had joined showbiz the same time — we used to do the Taiwanese variety show circuit together as newbies. So when Jackie introduced us, Jay was like, “Eh? Joi Chua?” (Laughs)
So you knew Jay before he was Jay Chou.
Yeah, we were all newbies then. Me, him, Christine Fan and Kenji Wu. The four of us used to see each other all the time, especially when we performed in campuses. He was very shy and I remember that he didn’t like to hold the mic during interviews (laughs). I would be like, “Wah this guy ah…”(laughs). I met him again when he came to Singapore and we were filming the same show. He said to me, “Oh, come find me whenever you are in Taiwan okay!” And I was like, “Don’t just say only ah!” He didn’t even leave his number, how to find him. (Guffaws)
So back to the dinner, what did you guys talk about?
I was a bit paiseh ’cos Jackie kept telling his friends, “You should listen to her song!” and then he would proceed to play it on his phone (laughs). Leehom was there too and he was my senior in my first record company and he recognised me. He said, “I know who you are…” even though we only met once or twice. And I replied, “I know who you are too...” (Laughs). The whole thing was a really amazing experience.
We guess it makes being a singer worth it.
Yeah. I don’t expect any of these things to happen. I think you are happiest when you don’t have too many expectations. What comes will come. If it doesn’t, it’s okay. You can still live your life.
You’ve been married for nine years but there seems to be very little information about you and your husband. Why are you so private about him?
That’s not true. The media in China always ask about him and I’ll answer. But somehow the Singapore media seems to think I’m very private.
Everyone just assumed you don’t want to talk about him.
You all never ask, how to talk? Tio bo? (Laughs) I’m pretty open actually.
Now we know. You guys dated for 10 years before getting hitched in 2009, so that’s almost two decades as a couple. How do you keep the passion burning?
Put a lighter under his butt (laughs) No lah. It helps that he is very accommodating and understanding. I cannot find another man who is like him. I was just thinking that if I didn’t meet my husband, who’s my first boyfriend, I would be single forever. I think artistes can become warped in the mind easily. It’s ’cos we are always alone. Even though there are always people surrounding you, you don’t know who is real. And that’s scary. Like people can be telling you good things but maybe they’re talking bad about you behind your back. So a lot of them don’t have a true perspective of life.
How did he comfort you during those times when your career wasn’t going well?
He’d say, “If you’re not happy, don’t do it.” Then I’ll be like, “Okay I should stop complaining.” (Laughs) He wants me to be happy and if I’m unhappy, he won’t be happy.
Does he accompany you to work?
Only once. And he was so bored. For someone who is always busy at work, to sit there and watch us do hair and make-up and then wait around just so we can be on stage for five minutes… it’s boring, right? He doesn’t think it’s fun. He knows it’s hard work.
So he doesn’t get star stuck?
Nope, which is great. I need a man like this. He doesn’t care about showbiz. I don’t think he is my fan either. He listens to hip-hop (laughs).
He doesn’t care that you’ve sung in stadiums before?
I mean he feels happy for me but he doesn’t boast about it. Most of his colleagues already know who I am so there’s nothing for him to hao lian about (laughs).
Are you surprised that you can be with someone for so many years?
Not really. It feels very natural being with him. I don’t have to worry about farting or burping in front of him and this was right from the beginning! I do think I’m very lucky to have met my husband. That even though my career is full of ups and downs, my life with him has been great.