Lady Linda Wong Davies
Lady Linda Wong Davies
Image: Ruvan Boshoff

Petrava, Lady Linda Wong Davies’s house, is perched high on the mountain above St James and Kalk Bay, with the kind of view to make the heart of the admiral who built it sing. It is a varietal of genteel abode that could just as easily manifest on the shores of Italy’s Lake Garda or somewhere deep in the English countryside — but for the fact that its interiors are currently festooned in an explosion of great big bowls full of mandarins, an efflorescence of blooms like tremendous art installations on the dining table and throughout the house, and a supersized samurai in full regalia keeping watch over the significant art collection and the powerhouse of a woman who has invited me to lunch (to which her Malaysian chef is tending with alacrity). This, my friends, is how you should welcome the Year of the Dragon — with a young assistant pouring champagne and an opera-heavy soundtrack supplying the drama.

Lady Linda has spent at least three months of the year for the past 30 years in residence, and has, in that time, committed her evidently abundant energy to fostering a burgeoning cultural interchange between China and South Africa through her KT Wong Foundation, named for her father. But first, the samurai.

“It was Nicola Roos’s graduate artwork at Michaelis. He is a historically accurate figure — the first black samurai, [a man] taken from Africa, across the Indian Ocean. Imagine, through the Spice Islands, which is where I’m from [she is Chinese, born in Indonesia and raised in Malaysia] to Japan, where he was given as a gift to a local shogun… a very powerful commander. And he was admired and loved because he was strong, loyal, gentle, wonderful, and brave. And so, the shogun made him an honorary samurai. When I saw him and saw that wonderful, gentle face, despite all this military armour, I thought, ‘Oh, I must have him.’”

This image resonates with the work her foundation does, which could be read as the best kind of soft diplomacy, seeking to create a dialogue between cultures at a time when geopolitics may feel precarious and uncertain. Her global outlook was fostered by her cosmopolitan education. “I was born in Singapore, grew up in Malaysia, went to an English school, and went to university in the US, to Mills College on the West Coast, one of the ‘eight sisters’ in the Ivy League. My father thought he was sending me to a very nice, quiet girl’s school quite far away, and it turned out to be a radical women’s college right next to Berkeley. “Everybody was smoking pot, and my father asked, ‘What are you going to read?’ I said, ‘Music and European history,’ and he said, ‘You’re reading business or economics or you’re on the next flight back.’ So, I majored in economics with music and history! That was wonderful, and I ended up working for my father.”

This was fortuitous, in the sense that he was at the helm of an industrial and construction empire in Malaysia during the economic boom. In 2007 she established the KT Wong Foundation, which has art in its various iterations at its core, with multiple global projects in which Lady Linda is deeply invested, bringing the East and West into a cultural rapprochement. “I started because my father died, and I wanted to honour everything he had taught to me and my four siblings… he always loved classical music, opera, and cultural understanding. China was his big love and it was just opening up.”

And her vision for the foundation? “I wanted to get a message out to people about Chinese culture, that it is modern, contemporary, it’s not just this economic juggernaut, and if people don’t know they are very suspicious, with a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions, churning out this whole machine of anti-Asian hate. I have committed my whole life to changing that.”

Some of the multiple heavy-hitting projects include co-productions such as Handel’s opera Semele, directed by world-renowned performer Zhang Huan in Brussels, Toronto, and Beijing; the first production of Wagner’s Parsifal in China at the Beijing Music Festival; and screenings in Shanghai and Beijing of Danny Boyle’s Frankenstein through the National Theatre Live.

“I wanted to get a message out to people about Chinese culture, that it is modern, contemporary, it’s not just this economic juggernaut, and if people don’t know they are very suspicious, with a lot of stereotypes and misconceptions, churning out this whole machine of anti-Asian hate.

As a producer of TV documentaries, she has collaborated with the BBC on its Imagine series on the life of pianist Lang Lang and she supported pianist Daniel Barenboim Beethoven performances during the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra’s first tour of China. In South Africa, she has been discreetly but extremely busy. Projects arise organically through her active commitment to the arts and, in many cases, her personal relationships with artists. She pointed to the glorious Mohau Modisakeng work on the walls of her drawing room: “I’d said to him, ‘If you ever want to do anything with video or music creation, the foundation will support you.’ And one New Year’s Day I was walking down in Kalk Bay and bumped into him. I congratulated him on his selection to the South African pavilion at the Venice Biennale and asked what he was going to do. And he said, ‘I am going to do video, of course — do you have music?’ We commissioned Neo Muyanga, one of South Africa’s most famous composers, who composed the music for the video called Passage — a powerful work on a drowning. It’s sombre but so beautiful, and we ended up supporting the South African pavilion too.”

Last year, the KT Wong Foundation sponsored 120 students to attend the Operalia, the world’s premier opera competition. “We selected 120 students from underprivileged backgrounds with Prof. Jeremy Silver of Opera UCT.” And at the Iziko South African National Gallery they screened Chinese artist Yang Yongliang’s masterpiece Five Dragons in honour of the Year of the Dragon. Her plans for this year are inspiring, such as taking Cape Town Opera to the Beijing Music Festival and “taking a contemporary Africa photography exhibition called ‘Marvellous Realism’ to Shanghai in September”. “You start with soft power — very gently. It’s in the choice of projects that I’ve done over the years, where I’m not telling people what to believe and understand, I just want them to come and watch and be engaged, and that is how people start thinking differently.”

© Wanted 2024 - If you would like to reproduce this article please email us.