It’s purely by chance that Joanna Dong and I are in a café along Thomson Road called Old School Delights. The hipster joint that we had originally planned to go to was closed for the day, and so we found ourselves walking along that stretch of Thomson Road eateries searching for a place to grab a bite and chat. “Or we can do this interview over beers! Then I’ll tell you everything!” Joanna says in a (we swear there’s no better adjective) sing-song voice. While that would have been beer-y awesome, the thought of filling our tummies with kueh pie tee, pulut and otak, just some of the things we drooled over while browsing through the café’s primary school jotter book-like menu, proved to be surprisingly more enticing.
The point I’m trying to make is this: It is serendipitous that we’ve ended up in a café called Old School Delights ’cos Joanna Dong is old school (and, yes, delightful). It’s the same term Harlem Yu used to describe her after their duet on Sing! China — we know it’s a compliment ’cos he went on to say that he too is old school. Jo’s love for jazz and her old-timey 1950s-era (full skirt, cinched waist, covered arms) style of dressing scream, or should we say, jazz scat old school. From certain angles, Joanna, 36, also bears more than a slight resemblance to a young Xiang Yun — and who else is more old school than Singapore’s very first TV star?
By now every self-respecting Singaporean would have heard of Joanna Dong’s storybook ascent, which is often told in the form of several headline–friendly narratives. The Singapore Idol reject who finally found redemption 14 years later on a much, much bigger stage. The jazz singer who warbled her way to success in the mainstream music world she once eschewed. The struggling artiste who did Singapore proud. All true, well, except for the ‘struggling’ part. “I have to stress that I was not in any way a struggling or suffering artiste before this,” avers Joanna, who apart from singing at weddings and corporate events, is also a theatre and film actress and an infotainment programme host — she was last seen on TV hosting Channel NewsAsia’s City DNA early this year. In fact, by the time you read this: Jo would have embarked on a two-week trip around China ("From Shangri-La to Shanghai," says her manager) to film a travel web series for an online Chinese portal.
One thing’s for certain: Her inspiring run on Sing! China where she came in third (“The show didn’t really say third but according to votes, yeah,” she says) made her not just a household name but a symbol of nationalistic pride, not unlike her predecessor Nathan Hartono and, to a certain extent, Joseph Schooling. “It’s one of those things that I feel super grateful for. ’Cos when I look at my friends from the competition who are from other cities in China or who are from other countries… they didn’t get the same level of support,” she says.
While she appeared poised, restrained and reserved on Sing! China, in person, Joanna is quite the opposite. “It’s mainly ’cos I was afraid that [if I were to talk more on the show] I would go on a merry-go-round and waste everyone’s time,” she says, when we mention how she seems much more — for the lack of a better term — real now that she’s sitting opposite us sipping kopi peng siu dai. “Also in general, [the producers] wanted us to focus on singing and leave the talking to the mentors. So, if you notice, all the contestants don’t really speak that much.”
The Raffles Girls School-Victoria Junior College alum (“I was borderline naughty but I always tried to be a good girl — I swear, up till JC I was still copying homework,” she laughs) is infectious, engaging and open. She also cracks a lot of jokes, mostly self-deprecating digs like how uncomfortable she is posing for photos (“How do models do this? My face is so cockanadan...”). She’s also cool enough to share embarrassing personal details. When asked to reveal a secret, Jo Dong, as she occasionally calls herself, giggles: “I sometimes pee in the pool and I’m somewhat ashamed of it”. And when she’s not talking or cracking jokes, she sings. A lot. During the shoot, Jo suddenly breaks into Minnie Riperton’s ‘Lovin’ You’ and we get goosebumps.
The only child says her talent for singing comes from her dad, who sings classical music, which she used to mimic, and who has an ABRSM in singing. “I don’t even have that [cert]!” she laughs. But it was her mum, a former Chinese teacher who raised Joanna after divorcing Joanna’s dad, who nurtured it. “My mum is someone you would describe as tone deaf,” she laughs. “When I was a kid, like five or six, my mum would drag me along with her friends to the karaoke and say I was her representative. There were no private rooms then so you had to take a number and when it was your turn, you went up on stage and sang. That’s one way I got used to performing.”
Joanna is married to theatre practitioner Zachary Ho, 39, who also teaches at SOTA. “We’ve been married for five years but we’ve been together for eight,” she beams. They met while working on local play Descendants of the Eunuch Admiral. She had just gotten out of a relationship then and was not looking to be in another one. “The training for [the play] was very physical, and it required us to be very open and to follow our organic impulse,” she says. “And the impulse came and we followed it.”
Thanks to his wife’s newfound fame, Zachary, who was seen on camera gazing lovingly at Jo from the audience during the competition, has been thrust into the limelight too. After all, Jay Chou, Joanna’s mentor, did crack a joke about Zachary’s mustache on live TV. When the couple were in China, people on the streets would call out to Zachary as “Dong Zi Yan’s lao gong” before realising that she’s right next to him. “I think there’s something about me that makes it hard for people to recognise,” she laughs.
She can’t be more wrong.
As we devour the last morsels of our lunch — when I apologise for shoving an entire kueh pie tee in my mouth, Jo says, “But that’s the only way to eat it!” and proceeds to shove one into her mouth too — the lady boss of the café sidles over to our table and says: “Hi, are you Joanna Dong? I just want to say that we are all very proud of you for representing us. Here’s a piece of our homemade lemon cake on the house.” Joanna smiles and thanks the lady boss profusely. I glance at Jo and there’s a look of gratitude on her face.
“I also have a favour to ask of you,” continues the lady boss. “I never take photos with stars even when some of them come here ’cos we are near [the old] MediaCorp [campus], but I want to take a pic with you.”
Upon hearing this, a trio of twentysomethings seated a few tables away from us chirp, “Can we have a pic too?” “Oh my god, I chased every episode [of Sing! China] ’cos you were in it!” says one of them. “When I saw you sitting there, I was like ‘Is it really her?’ I really supported you!” I turn to look at Jo once more, and again there’s that look of gratitude.
It’s funny how just four months ago, Jo Dong was someone people kinda knew but didn’t really know. Now she can’t even have her kopi and kueh pie tee in peace. And she’s totally fine with it.
8 DAYS: First thing we have to ask: Do you have Jay Chou’s number now?
(Laughs) Noooo… He doesn’t even have WhatsApp so we can’t communicate with him directly.
You know, as much as we like Jay Chou, we probably wouldn’t have picked him as mentor ’cos he’s probably too busy to devote that much time to his mentees.
That’s a valid point and it’s true that ’cos he’s very busy, we don’t get as much time with him as compared to other teams and their mentors. But our team had the most number of duets with our mentor. So many times he invited us to sing with him on stage and that was where I learnt the most. You observe how chill he is, like, “Oh, so that’s what it takes to be at this level.” And it’s just shiok lah to sing with Jay Chou (laughs).
The gold standard for many local singers is to be like Stefanie Sun or JJ Lin. Is that the same for you?
So my GP teacher in VJ recounts this story which I conveniently don’t remember (laughs). In one of our first classes together, he had asked each of us what we wanted to be when we left school. And apparently I said “superstar” quite unabashedly. I asked him if he thought I was damn annoying and a poseur and he said, “No, you had clarity of purpose (laughs). But I guess I did dream of that and I did look at them and think about what amazing careers they’ve had. But I also went through different phases. When I went into jazz and theatre, I felt like if I had gone down their path, I would not have the time to focus on jazz. So I told myself, it’s beautiful no matter how my life turned out. I think that’s why I joined [Sing! China]. It was not like I must win. The worst that could happen was that I come back to my life which is pretty awesome already.
While watching your performances on Sing! China, I realised that the mentors and the panel of music industry insiders all called you ‘Dong xiao jie’.
All my fellow contestants called me ‘Dong Jie Jie’. I kinda miss hearing someone call me that. It’s still hierarchical there. Age is… they still [respect that]. And I’m not like one or two years older, I’m like 20 years older than the youngest contestant in my team.
It’s funny ’cos you’ve said that the ‘auntie’ comment from Florence Lian haunted you for years after Idol.
You know what’s the worst thing? I always thought it was Dick Lee who said that (laughs). So for the longest time, I resented him wrongly.
In a strange twist of fate, did you feel like a real auntie this time round?
Totally! I embrace this older woman role. You call me jie jie or auntie, it doesn’t matter. I’m the one who if anyone needed any medication, I’d have it in my bag. Olinda [Cho] also. We were both typical aunties (laughs).
Speaking of Olinda, the two of you performed a patriotic Chinese song with the other contestants on China’s National Day.
Oh man, that was awkward. The song was like their version of ‘Chan Mali Chan’ or ‘Stand Up For Singapore’. It was one of those things that we couldn’t really say no to but we did raise it up that we are foreigners and that it’s strange to sing a song like that.
Were the producers offended?
No lah! They are very reasonable people. But they told us that it would be very weird if everyone sang it and the two of us didn’t. Plus it’s their National Day, so they told us to treat it like we’re singing a song to wish someone happy birthday.
The song had words like ‘motherland’.
I know. So what Oli and I did was when we sang that word, we would think of Singapore ’cos it applies too (laughs).
You and Nathan Hartono both did very well in the competition…
If you ask me, Nathan was probably Singapore’s best chance of getting champion.
... Are there any other local artistes who you think could also succeed on the show?
After watching Nathan’s year, I realised that the direction [of the show] had veered from the stereotypical belters to people with distinctive style and I think we have a few very interesting voices here, like the lead singer of The Steve McQueens, Eugenia Yip. She has a vocal quality that’s so weird but so good. I’ve never heard her sing in Chinese but Nathan has already proven that doesn’t really matter. There’s another singer quite similar to me but more clearly defined. She’s called Miss Lou or Lou Peixin. She has the complete package and I think she would do very well.
Are you going to tell them to join the competition?
I won’t ’cos I don’t know what they want. People need to want it badly. It’s so not worth it if you don’t really want it. I had to give up four months of work. I had no income. And even when you get booted out, you still need to film stuff for it. I asked a producer if I got kicked out early, could I plan for work in October and they were, like, I think you should still keep your time free (laughs).
Do you think more people recognise you in China now than in Singapore?
Nooo… there are so many more people there. I think I would be very quickly forgotten if I don’t follow up with more performances soon.
So what’s next for China?
There’s the web series and we have a couple of inquiries for corporate engagements there, which has never happened before.
We hear the pay scale there is amazing.
I don’t know but we quote a lot ’cos now we have to fly people there. It’s a hefty sum I’m not used to quoting but we have to lah. This is all very new for us and we’re still trying to navigate it.
Think you’ll shift base to China?
It would be very hard ’cos of family. These few months have taught me that I really do miss Singapore when I’m away. So I’ll probably shuttle back and forth. I think that’s why a lot of people say older contestants are not as favoured ’cos if given the same opportunity, a younger contestant is more likely to do more with it. I’m more reluctant to spend that much time in China compared to a young unmarried competitor.
But shouldn’t you be milking it for all it’s worth now?
We are looking for partners in China ’cos my record label Red Roof is a very small one. The reality is that you need a network in China even if it’s a small tour. You need to know people who are trustworthy and who can help you set things up.
Nathan started a Milo craze when he was in the competition. Why didn’t you do something similar?
I was very envious ’cos I really like Milo (laughs). I was like, “He’s damn brilliant!” But I can’t come up with something to top that! (Laughs) And it has to be organic. If I go think about it and set it up… it’s going to be, yeah… (Scrunches her face up)
You could have said jewellery.
I should have said gold. Give me some Yusof Ishak! (laughs)
Your popularity has skyrocketed. Do you think it proves the theory that for a Singaporean artiste to make it locally, she has to first make it big overseas?
It’s very petty [to say that] lah. I think it’s ’cos we have this self-awareness that we are a very small place. So even if you’re number one here, we often feel that it’s not something that’s worthy to be shouted about until you prove your mettle on a much bigger platform. It’s like if you are the top student in class compared to [being the] top student in school.
But did you think: Where was all this support before the competition?
No, ’cos I never felt like Singaporeans didn’t support me. It’s just that now the support has grown. It’s about visibility. Most people didn’t get the chance to see or know about me till I appeared on a bigger platform. So don’t blame them. And also when you think about it, I never pushed myself to this level of performance. I never spent weeks and months preparing for one song like I did for the blind auditions. Even people who know me have never seen me perform like that. I’m grateful that at least Singaporeans are very supportive when I went overseas and made it. It’s better than if you do that and people still don’t support you.
Let’s talk about your years after Idol. How tough was it being a full-time singer in Singapore?
I have to be honest and say that I never had it really tough. I know people who had it much tougher than I did. I think it’s ’cos I’m bilingual so I could do more gigs. And I didn’t just sing. I acted, hosted and all these things helped mitigate the erraticness of my income. I always had opportunities to try out a lot of stuff which I may not have gotten if I was born in another place. And the media would always support me whenever we called on them. I never felt like I was abandoned.
But for a country our size, there aren’t that many opportunities for artistes. Surely there would have been times when it was tough financially.
Yes, yes. I did graduate with honours in sociology from NUS and that’s pretty respectable. I would have gotten a fairly decent paying job. I remember one year the census said that the median income was like $4K. I was like, “I’m earning way below that!” For many years I was earning between $2-3K a month, which, by the way, is not bad at all. It was enough for me to lead a comfortable life. But not compared to my peers with the same paper qualifications.
How long did you survive on that income for?
The whole 10 years plus lor. I did ask myself: “How long more can I go on?” But I was very aware that I was not poor by any standard so I really had nothing to complain about. And I was doing something that I really enjoy. How many people can say that? So when my husband and I bought our own HDB [Ed: a four-room flat in Serangoon North] we were, like, we made it! It’s the Singaporean dream to own your own flat. I remember sitting on the floor ’cos our couch hadn’t arrived yet, trying to take it all in.
Your hubby works in theatre so it’s safe to say that both of you are chasing your passions in life?
Well, he’s teaching in SOTA and that’s a better paying and more stable job. But yeah, we are both romantics and idealists. But as our parents got older, the realities of adulthood kind of hit us so he had to make adjustments, like taking a full-time position. But he’s always been passionate about teaching so it’s not a sacrifice for him.
Have you ever thought about getting an office job?
These thoughts are fleeting but I have done an office job before and I was decent at it. I was working at an online
ad agency as a project executive. It was just after Idol ’cos I couldn’t sing for a couple of months due to contract stipulations. I enjoyed it but it was stressful ’cos of all the KPIs and deadlines (laughs). For me, those challenges were harder to cope with than those that come from being a performer.
You speak beautiful Mandarin and you’re clearly very comfortable in front of the camera. Ever thought of being a Ch 8 actress?
I’ve always felt like I wasn’t telegenic enough. But I also didn’t want to be a celebrity. I was keeping the mainstream audience at arm’s length ’cos I always felt like they wouldn’t like or get me and that I wouldn’t get them. But that has to do with my insecurities ’cos I don’t like myself.
That’s a very strong statement to make.
(Laughs) There are a lot of things I don’t like about myself. Feeling like other people don’t like me comes from me not liking myself.
What don’t you like about yourself?
Everything. Okay, not everything but a lot of things. Like sometimes I look at my videos and I go, “Eeee, how come so ugly?” [I get it when] people comment: “Why does she make all these weird expressions when she sings?” But I can’t help myself.
Some people call it ugly singing, like ugly crying.
I don’t know if there’s a name for it. I’m getting more conscious but if I need to make an ugly face to make a beautiful sound, I’ll do it. But yeah, I do look at myself and think, very superficially, that I’m not thin or pretty enough. Even though I know that as a self-respecting intelligent woman you should love your body and all that. But I still get swayed by the prevailing standards of beauty.
You can sing, host, act, and dance the lindy hop. Is there anything artistic that you can’t do?
I can’t play any instrument. That’s my Achilles heel. So every time I pose with an instrument, I always feel like a fraud! This is one of the things I struggled with in the last few years. There’s a rise in this whole singer-songwriter thing, and it came to a point where I was feeling very ashamed and inadequate. I tried to learn [an instrument] but I felt like I wouldn’t be able to learn it fast enough to be happy [with the work I produce]. If I’m going to write a mediocre song just so I can apply the singer-songwriter label, it’s lame. And the last thing I want to be is mediocre. So yeah.
Is this one of those things you don’t like about yourself too?
Yeah. I often have these emo chats with my hubby. Why am I still singing? Maybe I should just focus on being a travel host, which seems to be in greater demand and people seem to recognise me more for that. It was heartbreaking ’cos I’ve always identified with being a singer. That’s why I also wanted to do Sing! China. There was hunger to remind people that Jo Dong is a singer.
What did your husband say about your sudden growth in fame?
He also didn’t see it coming (laughs). But he always had more faith in me than I did.
Did he feel joining a singing competition was too mainstream?
He’s not judgmental that way. But at some point I was. Arrogant and snooty. I thought of myself as more atas than the average Joe. I’m ashamed of that.
Realising where it came from. I was very afraid of being judged, of the masses not liking me. I push you away first before you can reject me. I didn’t want to be mass. I wanted to be niche. I choose to be a niche artiste so that’s why I’m not popular. It was almost a bit vindictive.
We watched you perform at Red Dot at Dempsey once. What’s singing at bars like?
I love it. I love when you’re background music and people are just talking ’cos there’s no stress and I can just enjoy the interaction between me and my bandmates.
Are such gigs lucrative?
The rates have not increased since the ’80s according to my veteran musician friends. They were earning $120 to $150 a night for regular gigs, which means you sing two or three sets of 45 mins. And mind you, ’cos you sing late into the night, you’d still have to pay the midnight surcharge home. So once you defray all these costs, you’re not taking home much for your time. And you’re not just working at night, you have to spend time in the day practising and learning songs. But it’s not like you can’t survive… if you can land a regular gig. And the problem with economic recessions is that a lot of these places stop hiring or they do away with live entertainment. So that’s the pressure we’re all facing. There was an age where we had jazz divas like Claressa Monteiro and Jacintha, and they could command diva rates. But the time it got to my generation there was no such thing anymore.
Then wouldn’t singing pop music make things easier for you?
No, that’s also very competitive. You have to know all the hits. For [jazz singers] once you learn like 100 jazz songs, you probably can sing the 100 for the rest of your life (laughs).
What creature comforts do you and your husband have to give up to pursue your passions?
We’re terrible. We actually splurge. We live like there’s no tomorrow (laughs). I mean we pay our bills and try to do right by our families but we do treat ourselves well. That’s what we both believe in. We have nice dinners, nice drinks. We buy nice clothes but only on sale and never at full retail price. We can buy a really nice piece of clothing but we have to make sure that we get a lot of wear out of it. Never buy disposable fashion. That’s how we maintain a balance. That’s why I say my life is not difficult lah. I was not a struggling or suffering artiste before this.
Have you guys thought about having kids?
We don’t know. Mainly ’cos both our careers are peaking later in life so we want to continue working. Kids are a really big commitment. And we know we would give up everything so the kid can be well taken care of. And at this point, we’re honestly not ready to give everything up to take care of this other life. And we’ll probably be resentful. We don’t want to someday look at our kid and go, “’Cos of you, mama had to give up her beautiful singing career!” And the poor kid would be like, “I didn’t ask to be born!” (Laughs) We know that the window is closing but we are not desperate to have kids. Still, I would never rule out anything. Life has proven me wrong so many times that I don’t dare to say never already (laughs).
PHOTOS: JOEL LOW