Renee Liang talks to JJ Fong, a young Kiwi-Chinese making a name for herself as a singer, dancer and actor.
JJ plays the role of the Princess in the children’s fable The Secret of Dongting Lake, opening October 4 in Auckland.
* * *
I first came across JJ Fong (Jess to her friends) when she contacted me to say she wanted to be part of Funky Oriental Beats, a show I was producing which showcases Kiwi-Asian performing artists. She’d come across the initiative through mutual friends.
I was impressed from the outset - every email I sent was promptly replied to; she was organised, meticulous but always gracious. Her website was slick and professional. I knew she sang mainly upbeat pop numbers but luckily I was able to overcome my cultural snobbery (which is my problem, not hers).
And I am so glad I did. When JJ showed up for the performance she blew us away. Not only with her voice and her dancing but (this may seem shallow) she was in the most amazing outfit – hotpants, lace tights and boots I would have loved to wear if only I’d had the body and audacity to carry it off. As well as false eyelashes that could have flagged down a passing 747. (Our audience sat up a little taller.) And she’d organised a group of backing dancers, some of whom had impressive performance pedigrees of their own but were happy to come to support her. I realised that this was someone who was going places.
But the artist known as JJ Fong is only one side to this woman. Sitting quietly in the audience during her performance was her dad, who’s always there to support her and is her business mentor. Several of her dance students also performed with her, and she’d organised transport and made their costumes. She’s an ambassador for OnefortheGirls, a website promoting the HPV vaccine for young NZ women. And this is all on top of a busy career as a professional entertainer who regularly donates her time to help community causes.
Several people told me that JJ was also a talented actress. So when I heard that shehad won the role of the demure Princess in children’s fable The Secret of Dongting Lake, I organised a coffee to find out more.
Renee: What are your passions?
JJ: My passions are singing, dancing, acting, and most importantly entertaining!
Renee: When did you decide to pursue your dream of becoming a professional actor and singer?
JJ: When I realised I had to apply for university in the middle of 7th form. Everyone was organising themselves to apply to university - and I thought I would go and do fine arts at Elam. But I realised I loved dance to much to give it up - so I originally wanted to be a professional dancer starting off. Then as I progressed from training professionally - I realised that I needed to have singing and acting with my dancing to become more versatile in the entertainment world to gain jobs.
Renee: Are you someone who plans for their goals and works hard to get there, or trusts themselves to pick the right opportunities?
JJ: I'm very much a planner through and through. I plan nearly all of my strategies and how to get there - then I work up to those goals depending on time, and what work comes up in between. However I always chose the right opportunities as well but that is always gained from planning and working towards those 'right' opportunities.
Renee: Has your Kiwi background given you any advantages in making it big?
JJ: I think being a Chinese Kiwi has given me advantages as I'm finding I'm unique in the performing world in Auckland alone so far.
Renee: Who are some of your inspirations? Your mentors?
JJ: My biggest mentor would have to be my father. He has guided me throughout my entire career working up towards what I want to achieve. Also Lindah - my friend and creative director for a time. My inspirations would have to be the talented people that I meet all the time. All the different types of actors, musicians, dancers, scriptwriters, directors, singers, breakdancers - they all inspire me in different ways to achieve and learn.
Renee: How do you rate the performance opportunities in NZ? Why do people feel they need to go overseas?
JJ: I think NZ has a lot of opportunities to perform - you just have to find out what you are as an artist yourself and then target those areas where you want to perform. I do agree that there is a tendency for the same people to do the same performances in NZ, so that’s why I think a lot of artists who are independent get frustrated and move overseas as they aren't being recognized. Also people think overseas there is more opportunities, which is true, but there is also more competition. I think it’s easier to make something of yourself faster in NZ if your good than overseas.
Renee: Tell us about some of your experiences rehearsing for Dongting Lake.
JJ: Rehearsing for Dongting Lake has been a complete learning curve for me. I have loved every minute of the rehearsing period, and working with Ben Crowder has been really insightful. He is a brilliant director and the cast are so funny, and have really become some of my most closet friends now.
I have learnt so much about theatre acting with this show - and even though I've trained in musical theatre - this is completely different, as its straight acting, not singing and acting. I have learnt a load of fun games I must admit. We play warmup games before every rehearsal and I swear the amount of times we have played four square I cannot count the times I have lost! Ben has a competitive streak, so he always ends up as the king in the end! Haha.
The cast are really talented, there are 8 of us in the core cast, and 4 chorus people. All of them have such different backgrounds, and talents. I've learnt a few breaking moves off Mitchell Kwan, who is the youngest in the cast at 18. I've made good friends with Omer Gilroy - who is part Maori and part Chinese. And Perlina Lau who plays my little friend in the show ' Waterlily,' she is a cutie to work with. Yuri is the oldest in the cast, and she has a lot to offer, hilariously funny, she is Japan's best improv actress!
Coming up to production week – it’s going to be quite full on, but I'm really excited to be putting on the show, and just doing something that I really love!! and that is entertaining!
Renee: In preparing for this role, did you use any of your "Chinese" background?
JJ: Ha this is funny question - as to be honest I'm as kiwi as it comes. I guess playing the part of the Princess I had to be a lot more girly and not so tomboyish, which I usually am myself. It was hard not to be too harsh in saying most of my lines, and softening the character. To be completely honest I didn't draw on much of my Chinese background because I was brought up so kiwi - I think I learnt a lot more about being Chinese just being in the show!!
Renee: How have your family supported you in your career?
JJ: My family have always been there for me in my career and helping me to build up my business as a solo performer. They have been there as moral support and my father is my business mentor so he always has great entrepreneur ideas!
Renee: You're also a role model for young women - what is your main message to them?
JJ: To not let your parents’ expectations stop you from what you want to do in your life. I think a lot of young Chinese (not just women) are still being pressured into going to university and doing a law degree, of business or medicine, but their hearts really are into the arts, or acting. I've come across so many young Chinese who are doing the degree just for their parents and not for themselves.
I'm lucky in the fact that my family are so supportive of my career - but I think if you love something that much, go for it, no matter what! You'll succeed better if you love it, and work at it. Life is there for us to enjoy our experiences, and if you do something you’re not happy in, you just won't ever be satisfied in life.
Renee: Where do you see yourself in ten years?
JJ: Hopefully rockin it hard out in China or Hong Kong! I would love to be able to perform and live there!
* * *
The Secret of Dongting Lake by Michaelanne Forster directed by Ben Crowder
When: Monday 4 - Saturday 9 October at 11.00am – aimed at children 6-10 years (and big kids).
Where: Concert Chamber, Auckland Town Hall.
Presented by: TimeOut in Association with The Oryza Foundation for Asian Performing Arts.