Actors Judee Tan and Joanna Dong have been confused numerous times by local media, friends, and even their own publicist. ‘I got an SMS saying “Judee, remember your Her World interview today,” and I had to remind her [again] and say, “I’m not Judee, I’m Jo,”’ Joanna recalls.
It’s not hard to see why: both are, but don’t look, 29; both have big eyes in fair faces on lithe frames; and both have sweet, bright voices. They were even classmates 13 years ago. But that’s where the similarities end. Outside of photographs, the two are as different as the Papaya Sisters they play in 881 – The Musical, a stage adaptation of Royston Tan’s movie about two girls dreaming of stardom in the Getai, a boisterous performance held during the Hungry Ghost Festival.
Judee, Today newspaper’s Best Newcomer of 2010, plays Yan Yan, the chao ah lian (loud Singaporean ladette) and Joanna, who received the Straits Times Life! Best Supporting Actress in 2008, takes on the role of Min Min, the guai kia (good girl). ‘Even in real life we are analogous to our characters. I don’t think [director Goh] Boon Teck realised this when he cast us, but we are playing out some semblance of our youth,’ Joanna intones in her educated accent – probably a result of her formative years at Raffles Girls’ School.
‘My character is less educated, more passionate…she gets kicked out of home,’ Judee says as she compares the role to her own background. ‘I was a delinquent, I would get blacklisted, put in detention and suspended – one time I threw a water bomb at my teacher, followed by flour and eggs. I would hang around the HDB void decks and police would copy down my IC number in case I got up to mischief.’
So how did this taxi driver’s daughter become classmates with bluestocking Jo? Judee explains that after she got suspended, she finally got scared and studied hard, she scored all A grades in her ‘O’-levels and chose to major in Theatre Studies and Drama (TSD) at Victoria Junior College. ‘I thought TSD was something like technical studies, I just applied for fun. I wanted to be a cashier when I grew up.’ Joanna made the same choice, but for different reasons. ‘My father is a classical tenor and my mother has been sending me to singing competitions since I was six… I always wanted to perform.’
Even while attending the same class, Judee and Joanna lived in different worlds. Joanna reflects: ‘In the first three months [of Junior College] you wear your secondary-school uniform, and because Judee was from a neighbourhood school, she wore a uniform that very few people recognised. She was also from a very different social background to most of the students. I don’t think she ever wanted to tone down to fit in…she was always very forthright about what she thought.’ Judee goes even further: ‘I was [an] angry teenager and wanted to burn some students alive. Some of them put on pretentious accents, so I purposely spoke only in Mandarin. There was a group of girls, who would call me “Channel 8”.’
Joanna was the golden girl, popular with students and teachers. Judee remembers: ‘There were at least three boys who liked her. During TSD, we would always get [to see] her essays because they would print out those A-grade essays. I would read and go, “Wah!”’ They interacted minimally but then went their separate ways: Joanna studied sociology at the National University of Singapore ‘for variety’s sake’, while Judee took a parental loan to join her then-boyfriend at the University of Queensland, on the condition that she would be a teacher when she returned.
But theatre stuck in their psyches, and after making a name for herself singing jazz about town, Joanna landed the lead role in If There’re Seasons in 2008. Judee had enough of faculty meetings after teaching briefly at her old secondary school, and having joined the SAF Music and Drama Company and sung in Cantopop bands, decided in 2008 to commit to performing. The duo were reunited in Liao Zhai Rocks! in 2010, and after numerous cases of mistaken identity, joked that they should play sisters.
Now, 13 years after their first acquaintance, Joanna and Judee play sisters in 881 – the Musical, despite being different as ever. ‘I’ve always respected Judee, and gotten along with her… so it will be believable,’ Joanna says. To Judee, it’s the stuff of real life. ‘I have a real younger sister who is very different, but she’s my sister and I love her. Little Papaya, we can do it.’
881 – The Musical runs from 15 Apr-1 May at Esplanade Theatre.