Audrey, class of ’84, dreamt of being a veterinarian or a teacher when she was growing up. Little did she expect that she would be a ubiquitous figure in the Singapore art scene 30 years on.
Today, she is responsible for a master’s programme in arts and cultural management at LASALLE College of Arts after more than a decade as artistic co-director at The Substation, Singapore’s first independent contemporary arts centre. She was also the first Nominated Member of Parliament for the arts from 2009 - 2011.
Audrey Wong (fourth from left) at the arts manifesto press conference in 2013
1. Please tell us more about your interest and work in the arts. What set you on this path?
It might be that it's in my genes. My mother and father (Joanna and Leslie Wong) were actively involved in Cantonese opera in Singapore since the late 1960s, and my mother had become a well-known figure in the arts, even though she also held a full time job as an university administrator.
My parents ensured that my sister and I had exposure to the arts as children, and she would take us to watch theatre and dance shows and encouraged us to read. I remember that in my teens, she would drop me off at the theatre for Singapore Arts Festival shows, go off for her Chinese opera practice, and pick me up after the show.
Literature was my favorite subject in school, and I chose to study that at NUS although I also had a place to study law. At NUS, I volunteered for the students' drama festival doing admin work such as ticketing. Later, I knew I didn't want a desk-bound job, and I was fortunate to get a job at The Substation in 1996, where I felt very much at home. I was also lucky to meet or work with truly inspirational figures such as T. Sasitharan (2012 Cultural Medallion recipient), Kuo Pao Kun, and other artists who taught me so much.
2. Is Singapore today a hothouse for arts and culture? What do you hope to see in the next decade?
The arts has undergone an amazing growth spurt in the past two decades, and with an incredible number of over 70 arts activities per day, Singapore can be said to be a hub. We get to see the best of Asian and Western arts - from top flight, critically acclaimed dance and theatre shows to raw artistic works from young local emerging artists. There's a lot of choice.
Having said that, we also face certain challenges and limitations. Among other things, there's a lot of focus on the glamorous, high profile events, which feeds into Singaporeans' materialistic tendencies, and this doesn't always allow for a deeper understanding, appreciation and love for art and the often difficult process of art-making. Also, because of the rapid development, we haven't quite developed a community around the arts, which includes artists, supporters, patrons, organisations, audiences; neither have we developed critical discourse in the arts which is necessary for better appreciation of the arts as well as artistic excellence.
3. What gets you out of bed every day? What keeps you going?
Working in the arts - advocating for it, teaching others to appreciate it, securing support and resources, communicating the arts to audiences, and now, teaching young people - is never ending work. The work gets me out of bed each day: there's always something to be done, a new idea to pursue, a new person to meet.
I think I'm a curious person. I believe that God wants us to lead meaningful lives and if we can help others to also lead their lives meaningfully - and the arts helps us to see life afresh and helps us to empathise with others - then we should go out and do it.
I noticed this year, that sometimes I might be tired, but if I'm listening to a student's presentation and she's really engaging with the ideas and facts that she's read about, or grappling with new knowledge or awareness, I forget about my tiredness.
Work would take Audrey to countries far and near, and feed her sense of curiosity.
5. What was your childhood aspiration?
I liked animals, except birds- wanted to be a vet or a naturalist! Or a published writer. I read a lot of conservationist Gerald Durrell's books as a kid. He founded a zoo and did a lot of conservation work. I actually made it to Jersey (Channel Islands) to visit the zoo in 2004.
6. In what ways do you think CHIJ has impacted your journey in life towards your goals and aspirations?
The school motto was ever present in my life. I think it's a good guideline to life. CHIJ's philosophy that every child matters and the emphasis on character development had a big impact on me, I was a very shy child but was always given encouragement by teachers, such as being appointed a prefect. When people have faith in you, you will pay it back.
7. Who was your favourite teacher then, and why?
Ah, can't say, must be fair to all! Many left an impact on me one way or another, even when they scolded us or punished us. I guess I should acknowledge Sister Anne Wong, she gave us catechism lessons sometimes and i always remember one thing she said, about God 'getting' to us eventually, whether we wanted it or not! A reminder that there's something bigger than us, and man is not invincible.
8. If you had to describe your experience at CHIJ with just one word, what would it be?
Got to make it two: life determining.
9. Who would be one woman who has had a tremendous impact in your life? Why was she inspiring?
My mother. She juggled work, family, arts involvement, and always made sure my sister and I had a secure environment to grow up in. It made us confident individuals and showed us that it's possible to fit in many things into your life.
10. What would you tell your 16 year old self in preparation for the future?
Don't be afraid. Study hard but don't overdo it at the expense of other things.
Endnote: “In Conversation with …” is a bi-monthly series of inspirational stories featuring our CHIJ alumnae. We are keen to hear your feedback on this story and your thoughts for future ones.