Parents cheer composer on

Parents cheer composer on
Jonathan Ong, who composed some of the music for the movie Paddington, with his parents Benjamin Ong and Ong Cheow Lan.

For the first six months of Singaporean music composer Jonathan Ong's career in Hollywood, he ran a lot of errands for others.

"A lot of entry-level positions involved running errands, getting lunch for people and delivering hard drives. It's kind of a rite of passage in Los Angeles.

"I spent about six months networking, though it felt longer - buying lunch and dinner for composers and performers, and looking for leads that could take me to where I wanted to be, as a film composer," says the 28-year-old, who has lived in the United States for the past six years and is based in Los Angeles.

Recently, he hit a career milestone - he is credited as the composer for the additional music and the music programmer for Paddington, a silver-screen adaptation of the classic 1950s children's books that feature the eponymous, marmalade- loving bear. The film is now showing in cinemas here.

In 2011, after graduating summa cum laude (with highest distinction) from the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston, he moved to the east coast of the US to "the heart of the action" to pursue his craft.

His parents - neurologist Benjamin Ong and lawyer Ong Cheow Lan, both 57 - initially had misgivings about their eldest child's chosen career.

"His journey is so unconventional, we had our concerns - about the unknown and about the long term, whether he could support himself and his family in the future," says Dr Ong, whose two daughters Jeanne, 26, and Judith, 24, are doctors. "It's a different environment from what we're comfortable with in Singapore. We could only cheer him on. We had to learn to trust him. Jon had to work for it."

By the time Jonathan left Singapore in 2008 to pursue his music degree at Berklee on a partial scholarship, he had spent about four years working as a musician here. The alumnus of Anglo-Chinese School (Independent) and Anglo-Chinese Junior College took on gigs as a guitarist, played at weddings and performed in his now-defunct pop-rock band, Flybar.

Mrs Ong says of her son, who had taken piano lessons when he was young but never took examinations: "We knew that Jon is talented and committed. My concern as a mother was that when he went abroad, he might have found himself to be average. We're glad that he's excelled."

How did you become interested in film scoring?

Jonathan: I watched the old Star Wars films around age 10. I realised how much the music was doing for the movie; I could sing the melodies in my head. Back then, I didn't have the capacity to write the music but I wanted to be a part of it.

Mrs Ong: Since he was sure what he wanted to do, we let him try it. When he moved to Los Angeles, I worried about him possibly losing the values that we brought him up with, being responsible and working hard. I also worried about him partying. Jonathan: I don't really go partying. What was he like as a child?

Mrs Ong: He was a very good boy. He kept learning. When he was about 21/2, he was interested in fighter planes, for instance. We were living in Oxford in the United Kingdom for a couple of years and he asked us to take him to see airshows. After that, he moved on to dinosaurs.

Dr Ong: He was very persistent, especially if it was something he wanted to master. He read voraciously and practised his guitar, which he picked up on his own.

Jon was not difficult to bring up, though his decision to pursue music was challenging for us. It's an area we knew little about. We've not pushed our children, but we challenged them to be sure about what they wanted to do.

What is your parenting style like?

Dr Ong: We try to inculcate values such as integrity and honesty. He has to be accountable for his efforts.

Mrs Ong: I was strict regarding the effort they put into things, for example, preparing for exams. We didn't really celebrate or condemn the results.

Jonathan: They tried to have a conservative parenting style - maintaining the importance of education, for example - coupled with openness, where they emphasised effort, not results. I got As and Bs at school.

Which parent are you closer to?

Jonathan: I've grown closer to both of them as I've grown up. We have more adult conversations about life, responsibilities and work. I miss them a lot. I try to keep up our weekly Skype conversations to catch up.

Mrs Ong: We also WhatsApp regularly to stay connected as a family.

Which parent was more strict?

Jonathan: Both were equally strict. They set boundaries that we were brought up to respect, such as doing our best.

Dr Ong: We did have rules when the children were younger, such as respecting the person you're dating.

Mrs Ong: No lies, being polite and respectful.

How did you discipline Jonathan when he was a child?

Dr Ong: He was quite amenable to being told when he was doing something wrong. We usually did not go beyond a scolding. My wife had a cane for show. When the children got older, we explained the reasons they might have been taken to task.

Mrs Ong: We would talk to them if we needed to.

Jonathan: I don't remember ever being caned.

If the parent-child roles were reversed, what would you do differently?

Jon: I don't think I would do anything differently. I had a great childhood. I learnt a lot about life and responsibility, like packing my toys after playing with them, calling our elders auntie and uncle. I also had a lot of fun.

Mrs Ong: Like most working mothers, I wish I would have listened to the children more and spent more time with them.

Dr Ong: Nothing. We don't regret his unusual journey, even though we had our concerns about his being in a different country and culture. After school in Boston, he had to struggle in LA. His life has shown that each step of the way helps to build character.

venessal@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Jan 04, 2015.
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