Living the Dream

Joanna Wong (BBA 1981)

joana_wongDreams do come true if you are driven by the passion to make them happen. Artist and children’s author, Joanna Wong (BBA 1981), is proof of that. The youngest in a family of sixteen children, Joanna loved writing and painting as a child and dreamed of making it her living, inspired by her favourite author, Beatrix Potter. She eventually achieved her goal of writing and illustrating children’s books, and becoming respected as an artist working in water colour and oils. But her career started down a very different path.

Coming from such a large family, with her father as the sole breadwinner, finances were stretched. As each of her siblings left school, they went straight into a job to help pay the family bills. When it came to Joanna’s turn, she asked her father to let her go to university and promised to pay her way with odd jobs while she was studying. Her father agreed and Joanna was accepted into NUS Business School, an experience she remembers with fondness. “I was part of the first batch in King Edward Hall at Kent Ridge. We “hostelites” as we called ourselves were very close, and we still meet for dinner on the same date every year without fail.”

Upon graduation, her father was adamant that she start work immediately. So she took the traditional route of entering the finance industry with Standard Chartered Bank, and worked her way rapidly up the banking ladder. She was running the Priority Banking Division before she retired after 18 years of service. “I have no regrets delaying my dream and working in banking,” Joanna says. “It was great training, I had great colleagues, a fantastic team and it gave me many rich experiences that I have since been able to bring into my writing.”

The down side was that her work kept her very busy and she found herself working 14 hours a day. Not only did this take a toll on her health but it affected her relationship with her children. “I wasn’t able to spend the time with my children that I should have,” she recalls, “and that weighed on me. So I used to spend quality time with them at bed time, tucking them in and reading stories to them, and eventually gave up work so I could be with them.” The stories Joanna read weren’t the traditional children’s fairy tales. “I used to create my own stories and illustrate them with paintings.” The children loved the stories, and as they grew up, they suggested that Joanna publish them and share Squeaky the Squirrel with a new generation of children.

With this suggestion, Joanna recognised a perfect outlet for her as a stay at home mum and a way she could incorporate her passion for writing and painting into her life. In 2005, she launched her first book under her own publishing company. “I did my homework before that, attending courses at the National Book Council and learning about copyright issues and such,” she explains. “Now I am able to leave my stories as a legacy to my children.”

In addition to selling her books commercially, Joanna has made her whole series of young reader and junior novels available in all Singapore primary school libraries. “I had also recorded my stories, so when the suggestion was made to create interactive versions of my young readers, it was a natural avenue to pursue,” Joanna recalls. Her interactive early readers are now available as free apps in the Apple App Store.

Joanna’s children were also instrumental in getting her started in painting in the early days of retirement. “My sons bought me a Chinese painting book for Mother’s Day and it came with paints and instructions to paint a rooster.” This rekindled her love of painting and in 2003 she enrolled in classes with renowned painter Ong Kim Seng, a class she still attends today. These classes are conducted outdoors weekly and have taken her to wondrous scenic destinations such as Bali, Malacca, Nepal, Myanmar, Shanghai and Tuscany over the years.

As Joanna paints around one painting a week, over the years her work accumulated and she needed to find a way to store or sell her oil and watercolour paintings. “I also needed a well-ventilated place where I could paint with oils, as the fumes are too toxic for the paints to be used in small enclosed spaces such as at home.” Today she runs her own art gallery, where she paints and displays her work. She also donates paintings and books to raise funds for charitable causes, notably children’s homes and charities that help children at risk.

An added bonus to turning her hobby into a business is that it enables Joanna to finance what was becoming a very expensive past-time. “I use quality paper and pigments as well as good canvases, and these don’t come cheap.” But for Joanna the biggest benefit is the freedom she now has to live life at her own pace, spend quality time with her family and pursue her life-long passion to write and paint.

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