5 things you don’t know about… Peter Ong
Who was the fugitive Mr. One-Eye and how did a young boy coax him to turn himself in? What does Peter Ong keep on his shelves and why is he being interviewed by ARTERI instead of Banker’s Monthly? As many roles as he’s played on stage, Peter has also played a good many in real life. Here are five of them.
1. The zoo keeper
“I remember vividly studying very hard to get into a medical faculty overseas.” The stability of this field of study would have satisfied his parents, but Peter had his own motives. “I wanted to become a zoologist because I loved animals so, so, so much.”
As a kid, Peter was not allowed conventional pets so his home zoo consisted of everything else: fish, a terrapin, a baby chick and less conventional furries – white mice and hamsters. “At one time I had 20 hamsters… which then proceeded to breed.”
His favourite was a half-blind hamster descriptively called ‘Mr One-Eye’. In spite of being ocularly challenged, Mr. One-Eye managed an adventure of his own by escaping into an air con vent. “For two weeks I left sunflower seeds at the vent for him.” Peter would find empty shells later, reassuring him that his buddy was still alive until two weeks later he emerged, “a tad scraggly but pretty happy to see me.”
2. The boy
Peter describes himself as a socially awkward child, largely because he and other boys didn’t share the same interests.
“Trying to fit in was very difficult. I was ashamed that I was not like most of the boys. Apart from my interest in animals, I was very interested in reading and music. I attended creative writing classes, limerick writing classes, picked up some French and Italian by listening to operas and songs in those languages. I had zero interest in sports and would feign any excuse to be absent from school sports events.”
Like many kids who don’t fit in, Peter was bullied. “Words like ‘pondan’ or ‘bapok’ were hurled around frequently. Lots of laughing, lots of giggles.” However, he feels that by learning to love himself he grew stronger and has this advice for other children who are taunted and bullied: “Know that things will turn out alright and you will emerge stronger and more confident than you ever imagined – just hang in there.”
3. The reluctant banker
Part of young Peter’s sensitivity was in realizing when he was doing the wrong thing, even if he happened to be good at it. He got into a reputable university and earned his Masters in Law. He got a decent job in a bank and then an interesting job in advertising. He was smart enough to get these positions and even smarter to understand that success is not the same as happiness.
Especially when he was working with a leading ad agency. “I could see the joy that other people were getting from the work” but he himself wasn’t feeling it and sought to find a career that he would enjoy as much as his colleagues enjoyed theirs.
4. The singer
“All I really wanted to do was to sing. And dance. And perform. I won one of the four music scholarships from the University of Bristol that allowed me take private singing lessons and get music classes. I sang lead roles with the University Opera Society and sang in the University Madrigal Ensemble.”
And then there was dancing: “I represented the University every year to the UK Ballroom Latin Championships and consistently won.”
So though he tried the corporate world for a few years, he eventually returned to the source of his joy. He quit his job and “dove straight into my first professional opera gig – Tosca by the now defunct Lyric Opera Malaysia.” From there he was invited to sing opera in Bangkok (Turandot) and Singapore (Madame Butterfly and The Merry Widow). My reputation as a classical singer was being cemented pretty quickly with lots of engagements. “I enjoyed the study, the discipline, the intense working process, the working with all types of people. And the pride in the work. That was amazing. I had found a purpose.”
5. The joy collector
Peter’s passions have followed him from childhood. Not only does he sing professionally, he also fills his personal life with the things he loves – and there are a lot of them. He is still an avid reader – “I have a very odd book collection, I love love non-fiction, especially history, then I also have lots of books on music, opera, musicals and a lot of books about Stephen Sondheim.” He collects children’s books (Winnie the Poo, Beatrix Potter and old Tin-Tin books) and poetry and “recently bought a limited edition of Alice in Wonderland.”
He travels and makes friends with every animal he runs across. He has a partner, three dogs and a long list of names of people who have enriched his life by “inspiring me, surprising me, motivating me to push to become a better artiste and human being.”
Peter’s advice for the rest of us is to also chase whatever gives us joy. “This morning I saw a beautiful tree… It made me happy.” And that’s how he lives; “One day at a time. See the orchids. Admire the dragon flies, hug my dogs, read a book, kiss my partner. Let the people in my life know they matter. And I appreciate each opportunity and kindness given to me. For that I am thankful.”
He also has some words of encouragement for the boy he used to be, a kid who embraced what made him different:
“Now I’m able to tell that 10 year old boy in school feeling bullied and left out, unwanted, ridiculed, scorned – well, this bapok has managed to make something of himself. I’ve been able to traverse most musical genres that other singers can only dream about. I am a performer. I am a singer. I am so grateful for that opportunity.”