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Datin Julia Chong nee Wu Nga Chee. (Memorials).



Julia Chong passed away in Singapore on the 4th of November 2001. The sad news reached me while I was preparing an article on the Dayak Cultural Foundation Ethnic Orchestra, which I had intended her to co-author. Although she had been brought to Singapore in order to receive the best of medical attention, the diagnosis of multiple brain tumors came too late. Yet, it is fortunate that she did not have to suffer long. She was cremated in Singapore, after a moving and musical funeral ceremony.

Julia Chong was born in Canton, China, as Wu Nga Chee. Her father was a Malay-speaking Chinese from Penang, who sailed to China to work and search for a bride. He married and settled down in Canton. When the Second World War broke out, the family fled China and returned to Penang. Growing up in Penang, Julia received a Western education, and at an early age she and her sisters learned to play the piano. During the war she met her future husband, later to become Datuk Dr. Chong Chun Hian, then a medical student, who had come from Sarawak and spent the war years in Penang. Between 1949-1952, Julia was educated in Singapore at the English Teacher's Training College, where she obtained a Teacher's Diploma. After her fixture husband had completed his medical degree in Singapore, they married there in 1953. Then, after the wedding, the young couple returned to his native Sarawak to work and raise a family--their marriage was blessed with three daughters.

In 1958, Julia followed her husband to England where he pursued post-graduate studies in obstetrics and gynecology, while she further developed her musical talents at the Welsh College of Music and Drama in Wales. Here she was awarded the Victor Freed prize after scoring the highest marks in a piano competition. After a year at the Welsh College of Music and Drama, she continued to study at Trinity College of Music in London until 1961. She was a Licentiate of the Royal School of Music (LRSM) and of the Trinity College of Music (LTCL), of which she was also a Fellow (FTCL).

Being very energetic and passionately devoted to music, Julia succeeded in combining a happy family life with an academic and artistic career. When her husband received a scholarship to obtain a diploma of public health in Baltimore, USA, as he was slated to become the director of medical services, Julia followed him there and enrolled as an advanced student of piano. In 1964-65, she was Peabody Conservator in Baltimore.

Later, when her husband was appointed WHO Consultant to Korea in 1971, she again took the opportunity to further her studies. At Kyung Hee University, she studied music composition under the renowned composer Kim Doung Jin. She was awarded a Master's Degree in Music at Kyung Hee University, Seoul, Korea 1973-75.

Julia Chong was also an accomplished piano teacher and composer. Until the end of her life she taught music classes and was attached to UNIMAS as a university lecturer (adjunct professor). Her love for music was not only expressed in teaching and performing, she also composed music for piano and for orchestra. Moreover, she was the musical director for numerous concerts, operettas, etc. Among her compositions are several works created for institutions of classical ballet in Kuala Lumpur. These ballets often took their themes from well-known Malay sources, such as the kancil stories. The most successful ballet, entitled "Manorah," inspired by a dramatic form originating from Thailand, had many performances in Kuala Lumpur, Penang, and Bangkok in the 1970s and 1980s.

While her compositions were solidly based upon the rules of classical Western music, Julia also found inspiration in popular Malay music, as may be heard in her Variations on Rasa Sayang. During the 198 Os, she became more oriented towards the native environment of Sarawak. This was expressed in the music she composed for the operetta, "Life in the Jungle," which was performed in Kuching in 1984. Her serious concern for the indigenous music of Sarawak was expressed in an article published in 1989 in the Sarawak Museum Journal entitled: "Towards the integration of Sarawak traditional instruments into 20th century Malaysian music." In this article, she expressed the need for Sarawak composers to develop the indigenous music without destroying its local flavor. Moreover, she launched the idea of setting up a chamber orchestra of indigenous Sarawak instruments. This was not merely an abstract idea, as in 1988 she had already written a composition for a combination of Sarawak ethnic instruments entitled: "The Rush ing Waters." In the following decade, Julia Chong managed to form an ensemble of Dayak musical instruments in cooperation with the Dayak Cultural Foundation. In 1997 her composition for Iban musical instruments called "The Sound of Sarawak" was performed during a workshop on Iban traditional music, dance costumes, and songs at the Sarawak Museum. In the following years, this small ensemble developed into the Dayak Cultural Foundation Ethnic Orchestra.

But Julia Chong was not only interested in developing Dayak music, she was also concerned that the folk music and playing techniques of the natives of Sarawak were becoming obsolete, and advised that these should be documented. Following this advice, her daughter, Pek Lin, carried out research on traditional Kenyah songs, which were documented and published with musical notation in 1998 by the Dayak Cultural Foundation. At the conclusion of her 1989 article, Julia Chong writes that, following the example of "specialised institutions in Korea and Japan for the training of traditional instrument players, ...a school for traditional music must be established to look after this branch of music in Sarawak." It is to be hoped that in the near future this excellent idea will be realized.

During her long musical career, Julia Chong was the recipient of several honors for her artistic work, including receiving a Malaysian award, the Sijil Kehormatan Negara, in 1968. Moreover, for her musical contributions to the state of Sarawak, she was awarded the Johan Bintang Kenyalang in 1988.

As she remained energetic and highly motivated until the end of her life, she must have accomplished many of her aspirations. Moreover, she had the satisfaction of seeing her daughters become successful people who followed in their parents' footsteps and blessed them with nine grandchildren. Certainly she had every reason to feel satisfied about the life she had lived, and will rest in well-deserved peace. Many relatives, students, and friends, including myself, will always remember her with great fondness as a devoted musician and generous friend. She has also played an important role in the innovation of the Dayak musical tradition. The fact that she took up this difficult task during the last decades of her life proves that innovation is not the prerogative of the young--Julia has demonstrated that new developments can also be brought about by more mature people. Personally, I am grateful that the Directors of the Dayak Cultural Foundation brought us together. It has been a wonderful experience to share wi th her the excitement of a successful concert with the DCF Ethnic Orchestra in July 2000 (Clara Brakel-Papenhuyzen, Leiden, The Netherlands).

Julia Chong nee Wu Nga Chee


Teacher's Training College, Singapore, 1949-1952

Welsh College of Music and Drama, Wales, 1958-1959 (Awarded the Victor Freed Prize in a piano competition)

Trinity College of Music, London, 1959-1961

Peabody Conservator, Baltimore, 1964-1965

Kyung Hee University, Seoul, Korea, 1973-75


Teacher's Diploma (Singapore Teacher's Training College)

LRSM (Licentiate of the Royal Schools of Music)

LTCL (Licentiate of the Trinity College of Music, London)

FTCL (Fellow of the Trinity College of Music London)

Masters Degree in music, Kyung Hee University, Seoul)


Sijil Kehormatan Negara, 1968

Johan Bintang Kenyalang, 1988, for her musical contributions to Sarawak

Music for ballets and operettas:

"Sang Kancil"


"Manorah," performed in Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Bangkok in the 1970s and 1980s

"Life in the Jungle," performed in 1984, Kuching.

Piano music:

Variations on "Rasa Sayang"

Variations on "Katak Lompat"

Ethnic orchestral music:

"The Rushing Waters," for a combination of Sarawak ethnic instruments performed in 1988

"The Sound of Sarawak" first performed by ethnic ensemble in 1997

"Liling, Merry-making"--performed by the DCF Ethnic Orchestra during the Borneo Research Council Biennial Meetings in 2000, Kuching.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:musician, composer
Author:Brakel-Papenhuyzen, Clara
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Article Type:Obituary
Geographic Code:9SING
Date:Jan 1, 2001
Previous Article:Notes from the editor.
Next Article:Kenelm Hubert Digby. (Memorials).

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