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Women of Substance

StarTwo, September 1, 2003
The world's her stage

Malaysian theatregoers recently had the opportunity to watch Claire Wong in a homecoming performance of sorts in Atomic Jaya, which ended its run in Kuala Lumpur last week. ALLAN KOAY cornered the actress for her story.

SOMETIMES in life, everyone needs to rely on a bit of luck to carry him through various challenges. Actress Claire Wong would readily admit this; she clearly hasn't taken, and isn't going to take, things for granted.

“I have been very lucky because I have always met the right people who inspire and push me,” said Wong in an interview in Kuala Lumpur in July, shortly before the local run of Atomic Jaya began.

Sitting in Silverfish Books in Bangsar, Wong, who is based in Singapore, chatted enthusiastically about Atomic Jaya, her first stage performance in Kuala Lumpur in over a decade. After practising as a lawyer and at the same time being actively involved in theatre in Singapore and abroad, Wong had finally come home to perform for local audiences again.

“I believe there is a time and place for everything,” said Wong about why it took so long for her to return. “To me, the timing seems ideal now and certainly more meaningful. I'm coming back with a production with my own theatre company and an opportunity to work with someone like Huzir (Sulaiman).”

That company is Checkpoint Theatre, a unit she founded last year with her joint artistic directors Huzir and Singaporean talent Casey Lim. Before forming Checkpoint, the three had worked on Huzir's Occupation, the acclaimed play commissioned by the
2002 Singapore Arts Festival.

Atomic Jaya went on to play to packed audiences at The Actors Studio Bangsar recently. Huzir's hilarious satire about Malaysia's attempt to build an atomic bomb was “explosive” in Wong's hands when she first performed it solo in Singapore in 2001 (the role was originally performed by Jo Kukathas in 1998). The play's recent production saw Wong performing alongside
Huzir in a sidesplitting duet.

In her colourful and varied career in theatre, Wong has performed in countries such as Germany, Denmark, Japan, the United States and Britain. But she had her humble beginnings in school, namely SR Assunta and SM Assunta, being always involved in school plays.

“When I went to Singapore to do my A Levels at the Junior College there, I had a very good drama teacher,” said Wong. “I did Law at the National University of Singapore (NUS), and there was a very active varsity playhouse. My batch of law school students eventually became incredibly active in theatre. My classmates in law school were Ivan Heng, Ong Keng Sen … Ivan Heng and I were involved in the very first production of Beauty World. It's a musical written by Dick Lee and Michael Chiang, and it's based on the old black-and-white Cantonese movies from the 1950s.

“Beauty World is this place in Singapore, and the play is all about this girl from Batu Pahat who goes to Beauty World in the 1960s to look for her father. It's a wonderful play on that genre. A lot of those who were involved in the production eventually became very established figures in theatre – Jacintha Abishegam, Margaret Chan ... Tan Kheng Hua was one of the girls who bullied my character! Ivan acted in it as well.”

Beauty World (1988) was also Wong's professional stage debut in Singapore, while she was fresh out of law school and doing her practice law course.

“That year, I was really active, and I also did Three Children, the other landmark production which was co-directed by Krishen Jit and Ong Keng Sen,” she elaborated. “It was also quite a milestone in theatre because of the styles that we were using, which were very physical. And it was also a wonderful play by Leow Puay Tin. I remember I opened Three Children in Singapore and the next day, I went and sat for my bar exam! (Laughs)”

And how did she fare?

“I actually did very well!” she laughed.

And thus began what she described as her “parallel lives”, with her having to balance both a professional career in law and another in theatre.

Incidentally, Three Children in 1989 was also her only Kuala Lumpur performance before this year's Atomic Jaya. The production also went on a tour of Tokyo, Yokohama and Singapore. In between, Wong also dabbled in TV work.

In 1992, she played one of her most memorable roles in the one-woman play, Madame Mao's Memories, by Henry Ong. The production was invited to the Edinburgh Festival where Wong earned rave reviews from the British press.

In 1999, Wong participated in the Tokyo workshop of the Japan Foundation production of Lear, and performed in the production's European tour. Her recent work includes Theatreworks' Desdemona (2000) that toured Munich, Hamburg and Fukuoka, and Wild Rice Productions' The Woman in a Tree on the Hill (2001). After Occupation last year, Wong directed the marathon production of Singapore playwright Eleanor Wong's trilogy, Invitation to Treat, and was the associate producer.

“I was very much a lawyer as I was a theatre practitioner,” said Wong. “I would say that I was involved in Singapore theatre during a very interesting period in its development. Before that I was doing a lot of Western plays, where locals would go up on stage and use blonde wigs and speak with an English accent, because they were playing these white characters.

“Beauty World was, in fact, one of the first early plays created and told by people who were close to us – who were us. It was the first time I went on stage and spoke normally as a local person would. It was a very exciting period.

“I was also working with one of the largest law firms in Singapore, and my mentor is now a judge in the Supreme Court of Singapore. I had very good training. I started as a litigation lawyer, and soon after I graduated, I won an internship award to go to Sydney, Australia, and spent a year with a law firm there.

“Then I came back to Singapore, and moved to another firm that was very active in the regional market. That was in the early to mid-1990s, and it was all about regionalisation. I was in charge of building up the Myanmar desk.”

And how did she balance both law and theatre?

Her reply: “No social life!”

This was because theatre activities tended to be held at night. She practically worked full days, with the law firm during the day, and in theatre during the evenings and nights.

“I go to rehearsals even on weekends,” she explained. “So I missed a lot of movies! (Laughs) It was very demanding, but I was also very lucky. Somehow the people I worked with – my bosses and the partners of my firm – were always supportive of my work. But certainly it was very difficult. And especially when I began to travel abroad more, I began to cut down a little bit of the work I do in theatre.

“Having said that, I also realise that they each probably helped me stay on because they both fed very different parts of me. I kind of needed my world in theatre to live the life I was leading as a lawyer, as much as I am very stimulated by my work in law. (Law) is a very real world, and that also balances the other world. It's very yin and yang for me.”

After nine years in a successful law career, Wong decided to give it up in 1997 after she received a National Arts Council Bursary Award. She went to Columbia University, New York, where she earned a Master of Fine Arts (in Theatre Arts). Today, she lectures part-time at NUS, at the Law Faculty and Theatre Studies Programme. She said she still does consultancy work and as such, has never really quit law.

In Checkpoint, Wong uses her legal training and experience to help out in its professional dealings as a theatre company. She handles all the contractual issues, and makes sure that everything administratively is in order. Her corporate experience helps her in dealing with sponsors.

“Starting a theatre company has been a nice ‘marriage' because I really enjoy structuring contracts and working out things,” said Wong.

Asked whether she consciously chose to base herself in Singapore, Wong explained: “It's funny, but my whole adult life, my whole working life, has been in Singapore. I have had the opportunity to work and live in Sydney and New York. But for some reason, I was drawn back to Singapore as a base.

“But it's also very nice in the last few years, having contact with Malaysia. I always come home of course, because my parents live here. And it's been very nice having contact with Huzir and other professionals and working here. That's been very exciting for me. That's part of the vision of Checkpoint actually; it's very unashamedly Singaporean-Malaysian.”

She really became aware of her “double identity” when she lived in New York. People there would ask her where she was from, and she would reply that she is Malaysian and Singaporean.

“It is really how I feel, because I grew up in Malaysia, but at the same time, I grew up as an adult and worked in Singapore,” said Wong.

“Much of my acting career in theatre was in Singapore. I just love being a part of both. I always try to explain to people that Singapore and Malaysia are really very unique in the world, where literally East-meets-West and East-meets-East. There are not that many places in the world that has this kind of heritage.”

Fact File

Name: Claire Wong

Hometown: Petaling Jaya, Selangor

Education: SM Assunta, Petaling Jaya; Singapore Junior College; National University of Singapore; Columbia University, New York

Profession: Lawyer, actress

Current base: Singapore

Years abroad: 17

Pix: Claire Wong: ‘I was very much a lawyer as I was a theatre practitioner.'