Joanna Dong and the Future of Chinese Jazz

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The Sing! China finalist chats jazz, Jay Chou, and her dream of becoming the female Chinese equivalent of Michael Bublé.

By Thompson Wong

Jazz singer Joanna Dong was busy “talking cock” with Jay Chou right before their duet.

The opening instrumentals were already playing in the grand finals of Chinese reality singing competition Sing! China at Beijing’s Bird’s Nest Stadium, but both only paused when it was time to sing.

“He liked to ask me questions about our team,” Joanna says, a “surprisingly sweet” gesture. As her celebrity mentor in the show, Jay Chou was responsible for guiding and nurturing Joanna alongside a team of fellow contestants. “We [contestants] wanted to get to know him better. As it turns out, he also wanted to get to know us better too.”

“He used to say to me, 你 ok 的 (you’re fine)!” continues Joanna, laughing. “And I was like, really? You’re not going to give me more? It always seemed like he was very confident in me. He was very pragmatic when it came to the music, and chose to focus on others he felt needed more help.”

Jay Chou’s confidence did not come easy. It had to be earned through many unseen years of practice. Within the competition, it was a culmination of hard work that saw the talented singer – who also hosts, acts and performs – catapulted into acclaim beginning from her blind audition (a jazzy performance of Luo Dayou’s “Love Song 1990”) all the way to the grand finals in early October, which saw Joanna and Jay Chou performing a medley of Chou’s 2001 hit “Simple Love” and The Carpenters’ “Top Of The World”.

The 35-year-old eventually placed third, a result that “already exceeded” her expectations.

“I never think of myself as the best jazz singer, not even the best Chinese jazz singer, but I know that I’m suitable to spread this to the masses. This is my place in life and I’m willing to take up that challenge.”  

Having been buffeted through a series of photo-shoots and interviews prior to our meeting at d’Good Café in Holland Village, Joanna looks resolutely unfazed on a Friday evening. Sitting opposite me on a comfortable plush sofa, she is warm and composed. A consummate interviewee, she offers thoughtful, well-articulated answers across a range of subjects from her early days at Raffles Girls’ School (RGS) to her future, often accompanied by the flash of a magnetic smile.

Most know her as a specialist. But long before jazz entered the picture, young Joanna was working the microphone at Chinese karaoke sessions. Her mother, a Chinese teacher, took her there to sing Mandarin folk songs and also sent her to voice lessons.

One early incident she remembers to this day was a gesture by Mrs Carmee Lim, her RGS principal at the time. An audition call for a classical singing competition in Japan in her Secondary Two year saw the then-fourteen year old girl chosen to represent the school, until Joanna realised it clashed with a particularly important set of streaming examinations.

“Mrs Lim urged me to go for the singing competition and said that she would use my continual assessments in place of the examinations,” she says. “The decision signalled that my academic grades might not have been as influential as my personal passions and gifts.”

Joanna is quick to credit her musical mentors, chief of which was Mr Nelson Kwei, her choral conductor and teacher in Victoria Junior College. “The sheer breadth of my music influences came from him. Once, we all had to sound like frogs,” she recalls, gamely imitating a croak before lurching into a peal of laughter. “Apart from the usual classical, baroque and romantic music, he was never conservative in his song choices, choosing avant-garde pieces for the Singapore Youth Festival and World Choral Games.”

An inclination to jazz then surfaced when she chanced upon people dancing the lindy hop at CHIJMES. “I thought, wow, the spontaneous, unrehearsed harmony of this dance was so beautiful.”

Swing jazz lessons with friends at dance school Jitterbugs soon followed. Because of this unusual introduction to jazz, Joanna points out that her understanding of the genre is more bodily than cerebral. “Jazz can be intellectual, but it always feels very lively for me. My body loves the rhythm and reacts to it,” she says. “When people say, ‘oh, you look like you’re enjoying yourself’, that’s because I am!” she laughs.

What are her favourite styles of jazz? “This is funny ah, but I actually really enjoy instrumental jazz,” she says with a self-aware smile. With singers, her all-time favourite is Ella Fitzgerald, with Kurt Elling a close second. “He is who we call a vocalese. There’s a lot of scat singing, a lot of really complicated stuff which I enjoy, a more modern bebop type of jazz.”

The genre appears to be on an uptrend. One of last year’s most-talked about films was La La Land, a romantic musical comedy starring Ryan Gosling as a jazz pianist whose passions saw him pursuing his dreams in Los Angeles.

Joanna has seen the film and shares her longest reply in the interview when pressed over whether Singapore is doing enough to support singers like herself. Meditating that this is a “complex question to unpack’” she notes the difficulties in making ends meet as a full-time serious jazz musician in places regarded as meccas, such as New York or Chicago.

“In Singapore, the reality is that we are still quite economically stable, there are corporate and wedding gigs to play and decent paying jobs at schools like LASALLE College of the Arts,” she says. “People who say Singapore does not give musicians enough support may expect all support to be institutionalised. But I personally disagree with that.”

To Joanna, institutions can always do more. “What can be done is probably to ease the perception of red tape or jumping through hoops to get funding. I think there is a decent amount of funding out there, but the parameters may need to become more flexible and sophisticated.”

Yet working musicians need to be fully aware that “we’re actually quite lucky that this scene here is still a place we can make a living – we can feed ourselves”. “We are not dragging our instruments through the subway to play at a small bar to play for tips. To me, that is an even bigger struggle,” she adds.

“Jeremy Monteiro recently wrote on his Facebook that this is the golden age of Singapore jazz, with veterans like Louis Soliano, and the middle-aged ones like us,” she says with a tongue-in-cheek grin. “And of course the younger folk like Aaron James Lee. Now, the concern is that we have the most amount of local talent, but not the commensurate number of platforms.”

Her suggestion? For people to go out more, and for more spaces to be created, such as rent-free spaces with musicians free to perform and experiment.

“I want to take every opportunity because they don’t come by easy, but how do I make full use without killing myself physically and my interests? I think to myself: will it make me die a little inside if I say yes to a project? If it does, I’ll have to walk away.”

Sing! China, now in its second season, was originally named the Voice of China, which ran for four seasons since 2012 before rebranding after 2015. Joanna points out that the key difference lies in its translation. Voice of China (中国好声音) translates directly to a “good” voice, whilst Sing! China (中国新歌声) focuses on a “new” voice, which signifies a fairly significant shift in direction as more people with more interesting vocal qualities or genres of music can stand out.

For aspiring contestants, the most crucial piece of advice she has is to build the ability to provide input for musical arrangements. “You need to conceptualise,” she sums up simply. “I had to think about which songs went well together when I created the mash-ups. Build your resources, find friends who get you, know what kind of music you want to sing, and start collaborating with them.”

Joanna is now coming down from the high of her whirlwind experience, and reflects an unflinchingly alert understanding of fame’s impermanence. In her words, a “golden hour” exists now with her star at the highest it has ever been. “There is a shelf life for any kind of fame or attention you can get, but how do I make full use without killing myself physically and my interests?” she muses.

As a performer, the love for her craft is her top priority. “It’s really easy to get jaded or cynical by taking on too many projects. I think to myself: will it make me die a little inside if I say yes to a project? If it does, I’ll have to walk away. It’s not worth it.”

Her immediate next step is a music-related documentary that will see her back in China traversing through cities and towns. “I get to jam with the locals and understand how ethnic minorities influence music,” she gestures animatedly. She believes this is a good first project to embark on after the competition. Entering a studio is never too distant a thought, but her “personal mode has been to go with the flow when it comes to opportunities.” A record is definitely in the works, she insists.

Inevitably, this brings us to our final point: her legacy.

Joanna wishes to be known in the future as one of the pioneers of bringing jazz to a wider Mandarin speaking audience. “I’ve been placed in a peculiarly good position to promote the genre,” she concludes, before pausing slightly.

“I don’t wish to sound arrogant, but I hope to become the female Chinese equivalent of Michael Bublé, you know?” she says slowly, with the air of someone who recognises the enormity of her goal. “Someone who is respectable within jazz circles, and also someone who makes the genre popular. I never think of myself as the best jazz singer, not even the best Chinese jazz singer, but I know that I’m suitable to spread this to the masses. This is my place in life and I’m willing to take up that challenge.”

Images by Esther Yeo (@estheryeophoto)


Follow Joanna Dong at http://joannadong.com.

Interview and shoot conducted at d’Good Café, Holland Village (273 Holland Ave #02-01/02, 278992).

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