Arts News Singapore

Janice Koh conferred the prestigious Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, for her contribution to the arts

For her outstanding contribution to the arts, Singaporean actress Janice Koh has been conferred France’s prestigious Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters).

Held in an intimate ceremony at The Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre @ Wild Rice on Monday, the 6th of June, the evening’s proceedings were overseen and organised by the Embassy of France in Singapore, with theatre director Beatrice Chia-Richmond as emcee. Standing onstage with the flags of Singapore, France, and the European Union, His Excellency Marc Abensour, Ambassador of France to the Republic of Singapore, began the ceremony by introducing Janice Koh and her many achievements and contributions to the arts over the years.

Dressed in a Christian Dior jacket, paired with a Saint Laurent belt (both on loan from her friend Tresor of Huntstreet Singapore, who Janice worked with on Pasar Glamour in 2021), with a skirt from German label Baum und Pferdgarten, Janice was the epitome of class as she stood onstage that evening. Completing her look with Carrie K earrings (on loan from founder Carolyn Kan herself), Janice encapsulated the coming together of French, European and Singapore culture.

Janice Koh in project SALOME. Photo Courtesy of Arts House Limited. Image taken by Debbie Y.

HE Abensour began his address by making references to Janice’s latest ‘astonishing’ performance in Ong Keng Sen and T:>works’ project SALOME, commissioned for the 2022 Singapore International Festival of Arts and based in part on English writer Oscar Wilde’s Salome. HE Abensour mentioned how Wilde’s original script also has links to France, having been first written in French while Wilde was in Paris. From Wilde’s Complete Letters, he speaks of the beauty of the French language, ‘a tongue that is not [his] own, but that [he] loves as one loves an instrument of music on which one has not played before.’ This was compared to Janice’s unending willingness to continually challenge herself and push forward the promotion of the arts, regardless of the role she found herself in.

“Your contributions and sense of commitment to the arts are of great value,” said HE Abensour. “Beyond acting, when you were an Arts NMP, you advocated for the the importance of literature and the humanities in local education system, advocated greater support for Singapore music, and the need for greater heritage conservation in preserving Singaporeans’ sense of place and home. aYou are also known for raising sensitive issues such as censorship, and the regulation of the arts in Singapore, and your activism shows commitment to the local theatre community, and today continue to perform in productions that raise major issues in the world.”

Janice Koh in Pangdemonium’s 2021 production of Florian Zeller’s The Mother. Photo Credit: Crispian Chan, for Pangdemonium

Janice’s friendship to France is ‘very special’, and over the years, has performed in several French productions translated to English, including Pangdemonium’s productions of Florian Zeller’s The Father (2018) and The Mother (2021); T:>works’ The Reunification of the Two Koreas (2018) that itself toured to France; and Georges Clemenceau’s The Veil of Happiness (2020), which opened the 2020 Voilah! Singapore France Festival, and commemorated the centenary of former French president Clemenceau’s visit to Singapore. Janice also served as the official patron of the 2019 Voilah! Singapore France Festival.

Over her storied career, Janice has gone from being a humble Theatre Studies student in her teens at Victoria Junior College, to now having performed in over 50 productions in Singapore and some of the world’s major venues and biggest festivals, frequently collaborating with some of Singapore’s most renowned companies, such as Wild Rice, Pangdemonium, Singapore Repertory Theatre and T:>works. Her onscreen performances also include roles in Unlucky Plaza (2014), Hitman: Agent 47 (2015), and the world-renowned Crazy Rich Asians (2018). On television, her best known role is as ambitious lawyer Angela Ang in legal tv drama series The Pupil (2010-2011) and its spinoff Code of Law (2020), alongside hosting Channel News Asia’s The Art of Conversation, a documentary series following the journeys of Singapore’s creative talents. 

From left: L-R: Michelle Yeoh, Janice Koh, Amy J. Cheng, Selena Tan, Lisa Lu and Gemma Chan in Crazy Rich Asians; Sanja Bucko/Warner Bros. Pictures

Trained in arts management and administration, Janice worked at the National Arts Council from 1997 to 2002, and later became Nominated Member of Parliament from 2011 to 2014, passionately championing the arts and creative sectors in Singapore. In her maiden speech in Parliament, she highlighted the importance and potential of the arts and the artistic community to Singapore, emphasizing the pivotal role they play in projecting Singapore’s unique identity, its stories and its creativity to a global audience. Janice serves on various boards in the non-profit arts and education sector including Wild Rice Ltd and the Victoria Advisory Committee.

“It is for all these reasons that you are fully entitled to receive the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres,” said HE Abensour.

Receiving the medal and ribbon from HE Abensour as he pinned it onto her jacket, Janice beamed with pride as she delivered her acceptance speech.

“In the first moment, upon hearing the news of receiving this award, I felt so honoured and deeply humbled. Honoured because this special recognition is an affirmation of the vital importance of the arts, culture and creativity in society – an industry that I am immensely proud to be working in and contributing to – but also deeply humbled because I feel so fortunate and touched that the French government has chosen to confer this prestigious award on me.”

“In the next moment, I thought, wait hang on a minute, might wearing this (medal), let me cut the long immigration queues at Charles de Gaulle Airport?” she jokes.

From left, Karen Tan, Janice Koh and Zelda Tatiana Ng in T:>works’ The Reunification of the Two Koreas. Photo credit: crispi photography

“Four years ago, in 2018, I was given the opportunity to work with French director Jacque Vincey and translator Marc Goldberg on an absolutely wonderful play written by one of France’s most celebrated playwrights, Joel Pommerat. It was called the ‘Reunification of the Two Koreas’, and over the course of 19 scenes featuring 51 characters performed by 9 Singapore actors in just over two hours, the play took an unflinching look at couples in crisis, and familial relationships were fractured, exposed, and turned inside out,” she continues.

“The work was hard. For many weeks, the actors, together with our French translator and director, debated and argued over the interpretation of many scenes. Each of us had a slightly different take on the characters’ intentions and motivations, and every one of us had our own version of the “truth”, based on our cultural upbringing and life experience. Yet what drew us together and connected us, was our shared sense of empathy for and identification with what Pommerat’s characters were confronting in their lives – the ache and longing for a child unborn, the despair of discovering a cheating spouse, the profound sense of grief when one has lost a loved one to dementia – difficult, uncomfortable emotions that were deeply human and universal.”

From left, Pavan J Singh and Janice Koh in T:>works’ The Reunification of the Two Koreas. Photo credit: crispi photography

“In an interview once, Joel Pommerat said “I’m interested in recreating what we call reality through the artificial means of theatre. So it’s not a photograph of reality but a reconstruction of reality. This reconstruction allows the audience to see every side of an object, whereas in reality you just see one side. And therein lies the beauty and the specialness of working across cultures in a co-production like this one, where we all got a chance to see and understand each other from another side – not only within the rehearsal room, but also through the many post-show dialogues and interactions with Singapore audiences, and then later with French audiences when we toured the show to Tours and Paris.”

“Since then, I’ve had many opportunities, as an actor, to understand the world through the eyes of amazing French writers, including Florian Zellar’s in The Father and The Mother by Pangdemonium, and George Clemenceau’s The Veil of Happiness for the Voilah! Festival in 2020. As a shared ‘live’ experience, the theatre has given me a precious gift of seeing the worldthrough another’s eyes, and for us as actors, an even greater privilege of walking a mile in their shoes.”

“There are three important groups of people I would like to acknowledge and thank for this honour tonight, and for the privilege of being able to do what I do,” she said. “First, I would like to express my profound thanks and gratitude to the French Minister for Culture, Ms Roselyn Bachelot-Narquin, to the French Ambassador to Singapore, Mr Marc Abensour, for so kindly recommending me for this incredible honour, and to the Counsellor for Culture, Education and Science, Mr Anthony Chaumuzeau and his team at the French Embassy for putting this event together.”

“This may be, quite possibly, the only National honour I can expect to receive in recognition of my work as an actor. As actors, unlike writers, painters, composers, filmmakers, or even directors, we don’t usually get awards like this one. Maybe it’s because we don’t make anything really tangible. We don’t make any ‘thing’. We channel, we inhabit, we energise the space, we fill the silence. Our work is transient, ephemeral, and lives only in memories of our audiences. On stage, our job is to create each moment as if we’re experiencing it for the first time, and as we always say in theatre, no two shows are ever the same.”

“Someone once pointed out that despite the constant recording of all the actions in our livesonline and on social media, when we interact with others, most of those interactions are ephemeral. ‘Theatre replicates this aspect of our life in a very interesting way. The more we mediate our lives through technology, the more the theatre will continue to represent this profound aspect of human life – that when we come together, after the interaction is over, it’s lost to everything but feelings and memories’. I am therefore grateful for this recognition of my work and craft as a performer, and more importantly, for the message the French government is sending through this award – that culture and the arts play an important role in bringing people and countries together, and that artists, actors included, are valued and worth celebrating.”

Janice Koh in Pangdemonium’s 2021 production of Florian Zeller’s The Mother. Photo Credit: Crispian Chan, for Pangdemonium

“Secondly, I would like to thank my theatre family, and many of you are here tonight. I am immensely grateful to the many actors, directors, and theatre companies who have invited me to collaborate over the decades, and who have given me a platform to do what I love – Toy Factory, The Finger Players, Spell #7, Singapore Repertory Theatre, Pangdemonium, Wild Rice, T:>Works and many others. You have such a transformative and powerful role as conversation starters, as risk-takers, as a crucible for new and innovative ways of thinking, as advocates for those on the margin and speaking truth to power – I am thankful to be part of your visions and ideas.”

“I am especially grateful to T:>Works, formerly Theatreworks, and to director Ong Keng Sen for being one of the first theatre companies to employ me as a young actor, and continuing to give me those rare opportunities to tour and to work internationally, including on The Reunification of the Two Koreas. As they say, families always have your back, and Wild Rice had mine when they said yes to hosting tonight’s ceremony at this beautiful Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre. Wild Rice patron, Mr Jamie Teo from Ngee Ann Development is here this evening, and this is a timely moment to acknowledge the critical role that philanthropists and sponsors play in Singapore to enable theatre artists to do their best work. I’d like to give a shoutout to Ivan and Tony who can’t be here tonight, and to Wee Giap and the fabulous theatre team at Wild Rice, who are probably busy making sure our champagne is chilled and ready!”

“Thirdly, to my real-life family, Lionel, and my sons Max and Lucas, for always being so supportive of my work.”

Here Janice pauses, choking up with emotion.

“even when it took me away for weeks and months on end. Because of this work, I have missed important occasions in your lives, including birthdays and major exams whenever I went on tour, and yet you all so patiently continue to support me in little ways including reading and rehearsing my lines with me, show after show. I am so, so lucky, and I love you.”

She gazes out at the audience in the stalls, an audience of theatre directors, of fellow actors, of journalists, of patrons, of board members, of family, and of friends who have offered their unwavering support every step of the way, following her journey from the moment they knew her, here to celebrate her big moment.

“Finally, to everyone of you here tonight, you are here because you have played a valuable role in my journey, and you have contributed, in one way or another, in supporting me, my work and the work of many Singapore theatre artists whom I admire. For that I am grateful. Thank you for sharing this moment with me, to Beatrice for being our beautiful emcee this evening.”

And with a wink, she adds a final punchline: “please keep your fingers crossed that this (medal) works when I fly off to Paris next week!”, as a bottle of champagne is popped, the theatre thunders into applause and cheers to her conferment, and the space fills with love for this phenomenal woman, actress, advocate and artist. Her journey is far from over, but with this award, it is proof that her work does not go unrecognised, and certainly, confirms that Janice will continue to be a bright spark in the local arts scene for the rest of her life.

France’s Order of Arts and Letters was established in 1957 to recognise “persons who have distinguished themselves by their creativity in the field of art, culture and literature or for their contribution to the influence of arts in France and throughout the world”. The Order is made up of three ranks – Chevalier (Knight), Officier (Officer), Commandeur (Commander).

Janice’s conferment of the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres follows in the footsteps of other Singaporeans in the arts who have been bestowed the honour, including actor Hossan Leong, curator Lee Chor Lin, National Gallery Singapore CEO Chong Siak Ching, and National Arts Council CEO Rosa Daniels.

For more information on the French Embassy in Singapore, visit their website. Look out for the return of the Voilah! France Singapore Festival, with more information available here

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