Tanya Chua Is Reclaiming Her Personal Identity

“Morning comes around and I can’t wait to see my sunny island,” Singaporean musician Tanya Chua sings at the beginning of “Where I Belong” a sprightly lilt that easily evokes a nostalgic sense of pride and belonging in most Singaporeans. It was at the 2001 Singapore National Day Parade when Chua, together with a red-and-white-clad audience, belted out the words, “where I belong / where I keep my heart and soul / where dreams come true for us.” Written and composed by Chua almost two decades ago, the song was a rousing tribute to the modern state of Singapore, which despite being in its infancy, had become one of the most prosperous nations in the world.

In the official music video, the camera follows a pensive young Chua as she rides in a taxi out of the Singapore Changi airport, before scenes of the metropolis start to unfold. The images translated are not the typical glossy skyline but intimate glimpses into humble everyday life on the island — the school bus, neighbourhood strays, colourful high-rise buildings and provision shops. Without the need for swelling orchestral undertones, the song manages to exact an emotional response, and channelled a sense of unity among Singaporeans. Not surprisingly, it became a de facto anthem shortly after its release and still stands as one of the most iconic national theme songs today.

“I must have still felt like a rookie,” Chua tells me over the phone, not with the magnanimity of someone who has played such a huge part in something so attached to both our national identities, but as a perpetual student who commands great humility.

Chua was in the early stages of her music career when she wrote “Where I Belong”, having only made her professional debut in 1997, a year after graduating from her diploma course in business administration. Chua recalls the first 10 years of her career to be a blur of frequent shuttling between Singapore and Taiwan, with dreams of making it big in the music industry. “I couldn’t explain how I wrote it,” she says, “but I was travelling quite a bit at that time and I tried to write it in such a way that [would] remind the people who are out and about that, ‘you [will always] know where you belong as long as you remember the simple pleasures of growing up [in Singapore]’.”

Left: Ralph Lauren Collection jacket, blouse, trousers and boots. Right: Ralph Lauren Collection jacket, trousers and boots.
Left: Ralph Lauren Collection jacket, blouse, trousers and boots. Right: Ralph Lauren Collection jacket, trousers and boots.

Created from a time when Chua didn’t have any formal training in song writing, “Where I Belong” stands as testament to the enduring power of emotions. “I had no formula. I broke a lot of rules because I didn’t know the kind of relations one chord had to the other,” she says. She simply looked to her music heroes — Karen Carpenter and Joni Mitchell amongst others — and tried to recreate the feelings their songs instilled within her, but with her own words and experiences.

That eventually became the approach that shaped her distinctive style in her music, with Chua forging a reputation as a singer-songwriter who has been unapologetically true to herself. Harnessing on her sense of empathy, Chua’s songs are often composed of lyrics plucked from the top of her head that reach to the bottom of her heart, packaged in a way that is simple, transparent and honest. After all, it was what got her interested in becoming a musician in the first place.

As a kid, Chua would listen to songs on the radio and they would almost immediately embed themselves in her head. She often sung at the top of her lungs around the house; and in school, teachers would pick her to perform during their milestone events. Chua knew she had a natural sense of rhythm and melody but she had never considered music to be anything more than “something fun to do”, much less a career that would lead her to the upper echelons of the Taiwanese music industry.

Left: Loewe jacket and trousers. Right: Loewe jacket.
Left: Loewe jacket and trousers. Right: Loewe jacket.

Instead, Chua opted for a more conventional path — one that took her to business studies at the Singapore Polytechnic, where her fondness for music only manifested itself in her decision to do singing gigs in boisterous local bars for extra pocket money.

“Music was always knocking on my door, but I was always running away from it,” says the 45-year-old acclaimed singer-songwriter. She pauses for a minute, and I too, in part confronting the dormant state of our local arts and entertainment industry today, where there is a recognisable lack of art and creative production. Putting things in perspective, a career as a full-time musician early ’90s — when the music scene was practically non-existent — just didn’t seem like it was within the realm of possibility. So for the next three years, Chua continued to show up at the pubs to perform covers with no concrete plan of where she was headed for her career.

When Chua was 21, she was confronted with a decision, whether or not to enter the world of corporate business administration with her diploma. Instead, she joined a band, where she was told she “didn’t know anything about music.” “It prompted me to buy a guitar the next day,” she recalls, “I picked it up very instinctively and started writing songs and that basically change my whole path.”

Ralph Lauren Collection jacket, blouse and trousers.
Ralph Lauren Collection jacket, blouse and trousers.

In a month’s time, Chua had written some 30 songs, and the very process of doing so made her realise that she had something to say. She wanted to write sonnets and love letters to the world in the form of melody. That realisation impacted her perception profoundly and it had become clear that this would be the path she was going to take — to be a music artiste. “My then manager was trying to get me a record deal, so they brought some executives to watch me at the bar,” she says. Wide-eyed and earnest, Chua didn’t possess the kind of combustible presence they were looking for.

Every rejection Chua faced fuelled her determination to do better, which drove her to finally enrol herself into a music institute in Los Angeles. While doing so, she had also taken the step of selling some of her songs to Taiwanese record companies and had also released her first ever EP. “[My English album] circulated among the Taiwan record companies and we started getting call-backs, [asking] if I would like to sing in Chinese,” she says, “suddenly, the tables were turned, and the ball went back into my court.”

“I always look back and think that it’s such a miracle that I’m given this gift from the universe,” Chua says, looking back at those years with great affection. So much that she believes her career was built upon a fortunate happenstance. But once the doors opened for her, Chua did the work, stretching herself across the spectrum of music creation to take on the different tasks of singing, writing and producing. That same spirit prompted her to relearn the Chinese language, not just to communicate effectively, but also so she could create greater impact in her songs.

Left: Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello jacket, blouse, leggings and heels. Right: Max Mara jacket and top.
Left: Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello jacket, blouse, leggings and heels. Right: Max Mara jacket and top.

Under her new management in Taiwan, Chua’s popularity soared. People had started to appreciate her mellow vocals, which perfectly captured the tear-jerking, melancholic sways of sad love songs. It eventually became her signature sound. In 2005, Chua released her fifth Chinese album “Amphibian”, which earned Chua her first Golden Melody Award for Best Mandarin Female Singer and two other Golden Melody Award nominations.

To the outside world, 2005 must have been a banner year for Chua. Ironically, right on the cusp of becoming one of Singapore’s most successful female exports, her passion waned. “All these songs that people loved — these were not the songs I wanted to write. Those were not my feelings. I think I was the most miserable at that time because I completely lost my passion.”

Music is such a powerful tool. If you write with honesty and a pure heart, so much can be felt and explained through music, and I wanted to be part of that.

Chua subsequently left her management company and escaped to India for a month long yoga retreat in search for a renewed state of mind before returning to Taiwan. For her second shot at music, Chua equipped herself with no more than just a suitcase, a guitar and three months’ worth of rent money. “It’s three months to make it or break it,” she told herself. She had no contract, no job and absolutely no excuses to fail.

“When you throw yourself in that entirely [different] atmosphere and culture, it changes you,” she says, with the wisdom of someone who has returned from the abyss and is now reaping the benefits. In 2007, Chua signed a new record deal with Asia Muse Entertainment, where she was given free rein to explore her craft. Later in the year she launched her sixth Chinese album, aptly titled “Goodbye & Hello” after her reincarnation. She sang, “I regained my freedom to say hello to this world.” The album received a record breaking number of seven Golden Melody Award nominations for a female artiste, and won two awards for Best Mandarin Female Singer and Best Album Producer.

Ralph Lauren Collection jacket.
Ralph Lauren Collection jacket.
Longchamp vest and top.
Longchamp vest and top.

“Music is just so personal. What works for somebody might not work for others,” says Chua. “Yes, some might show up with more figures [especially with] the Internet world, but that is popularity, it does not reflect on the essence of the music itself.” Finally, she is recognised for her own narrative and vision the same way she is remembered for the song she originally created for her home country.

The advent of technology and new software has completely changed the game of music making. “With the digital era, anyone can come out to say, ‘I am a musician, or I am a singer’. The true essence of songs gets diluted with the help of new software,” Chua says, “I do think that music needs its own desirability. This sense of presence, substance and sincerity are the rules that I live by.”

In a fast-changing era when nobody remembers what the last cool song was yesterday, perhaps being vulnerable and authentic is what will ensure the sustainability of one’s artistic career. “You can be anything that you want to be; if you put your mind to it, anybody can do it. But it’s whether if you have something to give, if you give it from your heart, and if you do it with love.”

In recent years, Chua is doing what she does best — discovering herself through her songs, her life and the world. She was supposed to hold a concert in Taipei this year but it was put on hold indefinitely due to the sweeping effects of Covid-19. Her version of working under quarantine measures now includes making French pastries, learning 3D coffee art and composing a new jingle about the pandemic, which she uploaded to Facebook in April. “Just like how the world is changing, and my life is [moving], my music [reflects] these things,” she says.

It is instinctive for every great artist to find a silver lining within the chaotic universe that is our current world. In one of Chua’s latest albums “Kisses for the World”, which she released last year as an homage to her time in India, she sings about giving back to the world. With fierce optimism, the song sums up Chua’s approach in these uncertain times. Like a true artist, she says, “Stay in music because you love music and what it does to you, not what it brings for you.”

Tanya Chua on one of the five covers of T Singapore’s “The Greats” November 2020 issue wearing Ralph Lauren Collection.
Tanya Chua on one of the five covers of T Singapore’s “The Greats” November 2020 issue wearing Ralph Lauren Collection.
Photographs by Zhong Lin
Styling by Ting Ting Lin
Hair: Ting Shih (Flux Réel Hair Boutique)
Makeup: Venny Chen using Chanel Beauty
Fashion Editor: Jenine Oh
Photographer’s Assistants: Yuanling Wang, Sherry Liu, Yinghan Wang
Production Assistant: Chialing Wu
Fashion Assistant: Pinjun Guo
Hair Assistant: Angel Hsiao