Spicy, classy notes

https://www.mindef.gov.sg/web/wcm/connect/pioneer/d7d6d237-fccb-48e2-a2ed-17447d38e714/People-Violet_Oon_1.jpg?MOD=AJPERES&CACHEID=ROOTWORKSPACE.Z18_1QK41482LG0G10Q8NM8IUA1051-d7d6d237-fccb-48e2-a2ed-17447d38e714-noY4AL5 /web/wcm/connect/pioneer/d7d6d237-fccb-48e2-a2ed-17447d38e714/People-Violet_Oon_1.jpg?MOD=AJPERES&CACHEID=ROOTWORKSPACE.Z18_1QK41482LG0G10Q8NM8IUA1051-d7d6d237-fccb-48e2-a2ed-17447d38e714-noY4AL5 /web/portal/pioneer/article/regular-article-detail/people/2019-Q3/aug19_people2
01 Aug 2019 | PEOPLE

Spicy, classy notes

// Story Benita Teo

// Photos Chai Sian Liang & courtesy of Ms Oon

English 华文

Local food personality Violet Oon reveals her special link to the Singapore Armed Forces and how she's joining in the National Day celebrations this year with some old friends.

The name "Violet Oon" has practically become synonymous with Peranakan food in Singapore.

Her achievements include being a renowned restaurateur and chef; a journalist; and a recipient of the Lifetime Achievement for Outstanding Contribution to Tourism at the Singapore Tourism Awards 2019.

Add to that list: professional opera singer.

The food of love

Cooking is a huge part of Ms Oon, now 70, who runs five restaurants together with her partners. What some may not know, however, is that her first (and biggest) love is actually music.

"I've loved music since I was young. I'm a Peranakan girl, so I had to learn piano; it's part of the upbringing," she joked.

She began taking classical singing lessons at 12 while living in England, where her father was working. Even after her family returned to Singapore, she continued with singing classes.

Participating in competitions with musical groups like the Young Musicians' Society, the young opera singer won awards for her lyrical soprano voice. She also performed in musicals like The King and I in 1973.

What is it about singing that draws her in so deeply?

"If you're an expressive or creative person, you can show it through (different mediums). With singing, your body is your instrument. You really engage your soul. That's the part I love — to be able to lose yourself in the music."

"With singing, your body is your instrument. You really engage your soul. And that’s the part I love – to be able to lose yourself in the music."

Ms Oon on the reason music is an important part of her

A special dedication

However, Ms Oon realised that the life of a classical singer wasn't for her. "There's a lot of discipline involved — you either sing or you eat chilli. I prefer eating chilli to singing, so I gave up singing."

In 1971, she joined the now-defunct New Nation as a journalist. She was made the newspaper's music and art critic, alongside her position as a features writer.

And it was there that she found herself face-to-face with then-Minister for Defence Dr Goh Keng Swee, who had a request for the fledgling Music and Drama Company (MDC).

"He talked to me about music and MDC. (Somehow) I ended up saying, 'Okay, I'll train the choir.'"

Growing MDC

In 1976, Ms Oon began volunteering as MDC's choir mistress, providing weekly training to the full-time National Servicemen (NSFs) there.

She believes the intense regime at MDC was a good experience for aspiring artistes: "Where else do you get the chance to perform non-stop for two years as a day job?"

In the short time she was there, she also witnessed the performers being heckled by the audience, which she called their "baptism of fire".

"That's very important for a creative person to go through. Unless you're criticised, you don't get better."

Hunger for adventure

This year, Ms Oon was invited by MDC to be a part of their National Day music video. She sang a medley of well-loved National Day songs, together with MDC alumni and jazz maestro Jeremy Monteiro, and Singapore Symphony Orchestra violinist Chan Yoong-Han.

Performing again was no easy feat: a stroke in 2014 had damaged her singing voice. Fortunately, she found a coach who helped her to find her voice again.

Was she nervous about whether she could hit the notes? "If they give me the training and I still can't sing, then they can write me out. But I tried, and I actually did it, believe it or not!"

She added: "I'm very adventurous. For instance, when people ask me what's my favourite meal, I say it's my next meal. I'm always discovering something new."