SINGAPORE: When Jonathan Wong Hong Jia introduces himself, most are left bewildered.
“They will be like: ‘Wong? How?” he explained with a laugh. “They think I’m African, American or from the Caribbean.”
During his Basic Military Training (BMT) course, some recruits asked if he had put on somebody else’s uniform.
“They (wrongly) put (the initials) J W Hong on my uniform,” recalled Wong, who will represent Singapore in next month’s rugby sevens competition at the 30th SEA Games in Philippines.
“Every time they ask me – I give up la. So when I got into command school, I changed it to Jonathan. It was irritating, I needed to change it.”
Wong has mixed parentage – his father is from Singapore, and his mother from Papua New Guinea.
“My section mates couldn’t pronounce Papua – they’d always pronounce it as Papa,” he added. “That’s when the nickname of Papa Jon came about.
“Everybody started calling me Papa Jon then my sergeant was like: ‘Who is Papa Jon? The black dude?”
A DIFFERENT LIFE
On the morning of September 19, 1994, two volcanoes in Papua New Guinea erupted.
The falling ash would blanket Rabaul, a town in the country’s East New Britain Province, destroying buildings and claiming lives, but most residents had managed to evacuate safely.
Wong and his family were among them. The family eventually relocated to another town, Kokopo.
“It erupted and we moved,” said Wong, who was just one year old at the time. “The town was all gone, all underground. We came to Singapore for I think a month – to settle down and wait for things to get better.”
This would be Wong’s first glimpse of the country he now calls home. It wouldn’t be his last.
Wong’s father had planted roots in Papua New Guinea, helping out his uncle with a business venture, before starting his own.
Born on one of the islands which make up the archipelago, Wong, the fourth of five siblings, enjoyed a very different childhood from his current peers.
Spearfishing, exploring the jungle and hunting were some of his pastimes.
“Over there, it was pretty chill,” he said. “We have computer games but we’re not really into computer games and all that, we were always outside doing something.”
“My dad lived in the town area – we have a place there and we also have a place in my mum’s village. On weekends we go to the village, and spend time with my cousins.”
Sport, and rugby in particular, was a big part of life in Papua New Guinea, recalled Wong.
“Rugby league (played by 13-a-side teams) is like religion in PNG (Papua New Guinea), it’s really big, and it’s a different rugby from the one (rugby sevens) I’m playing now,” added Wong who had represented his province at the junior level.
ARMY DAZE BEFORE ARMY DAYS
Wong had to return to Singapore in 2013 to complete his National Service obligations. And a particular movie got him ready.
“I watched Army Daze and it was so funny how the guys were (behaving) in the army,” explained Wong, who also recalled frequently catching other local movies such as Liang Po Po. “I don’t know how many times I watched that, it was so funny. But I came here, then it was a bit different.
“There were two feelings, first was that I’m going to leave home now, it’s going to be sad leaving my family. I had to try to adjust too because it is city life in Singapore and where I come from is a town and it’s super different.
“I’m thankful for my dad, he helped us adjust a little bit, he told us what to expect when I came here.”
Not that Wong was by any means dreading his enlistment in Pulau Tekong.
He said: “When you watch movies and you see Rambo, you say: “I wanna be like that.” I was looking forward to it.”
Wong coped well with the demands of NS and became fast friends with many of his BMT section mates.
“I did feel a bit different at first but the guys were really good,” Wong recalled. “Most of my friends were in the army and without them I wouldn’t make it through.
“Even now, we do go for dinners and lunch. It felt like home – back at home I have a lot of cousins, so many cousins on my mum’s side. I really liked it.”
Wong was later posted to Specialist Cadet School, before crossing over to Officer Cadet School (OCS). He was eventually posted back to Pulau Tekong as a Platoon Commander.
And it was in OCS where Wong’s platoon mate Max Ducourneau, a national team player, noticed his ability during a touch rugby match. Ducourneau invited him to train with the Singapore national team.
“The next day I tried out for the team and I trained with them,” said Wong, who had to master the rugby union format – played with 15 players.
‘I FELT LIKE I LOST EVERYTHING’
One of Wong’s biggest supporters was his late mother, July.
“She was a rugby league fan, we supported the same team – Brisbane Broncos in Australia,” recalled Wong.
“She was really supportive like how mums are, she would always support me in everything I did,” he added. “She liked it when I played rugby.”
While July had witnessed her son play in Papua New Guinea, she never had the chance to watch her son represent Singapore. She died of cancer in early 2016.
This came as a huge blow to Wong.
“After my mum passed I felt like I lost everything,’ he said. “She was my number one supporter.”
Wong even considered moving on and giving up the sport altogether.
“I didn’t want to play, I just wanted to work and forget about things,” he explained.
“The coach then was Inoke (Afeaki), a former Tongan national player. After he heard about my mum’s passing he was the one that comforted me.
“He talked to me and told me, this is the time that you express yourself in rugby. So kudos to him as well … I was quite affected but because of the people around me, I could express myself.”
Coaxed back into the national fold, Wong made his debut for Singapore in a rugby union friendly against the Barbarians later that year.
He scored a try, and immediately looked up to the heavens.
“When I score tries or do something good in the game, I’m doing my mum proud,” Wong explained. “During games, after games, I just talk to her.”
Wong then made the switch from the rugby union to rugby sevens format in 2017, representing the nation at the 29th SEA Games in Malaysia.
“I had no idea what SEA Games was!” he explained. “Now I know it is like a big thing, but last time I thought the SEA Games was just another tournament.”
As he stepped onto the pitch at Kelana Jaya Stadium in Selangor two years ago, it finally dawned on Wong what the Games meant.
Nothing prepared him for the reception during the rugby sevens final between Singapore and Malaysia.
“Malaysian crowds are the worst, they shout like they want to kill you,” Wong told CNA. “It was filled to the brim. I’d never seen a crowd like that in my life. I’d never played in an atmosphere like that.
“In PNG (Papua New Guinea) people just sit down – some climb trees or fences to watch games,” he recalled.
What’s worse was that he was taking to the field with not one, but two torn hamstrings.
Wong had torn one during a Gold Coast training session two weeks before the Games. Already walking wounded, during the semi-finals of the tournament, he tore his right hamstring.
“It was so painful, I felt like giving up but what kept me going were the brothers beside me going through to the final,” he said.
“I thought of all the sacrifices we had to make for the Games – be it work or studies that held us back … And I just thought of my family during the last game and just wanted to make them proud. So I gave it my all for the last game, whether we win or lose, at least we gave it our best.”
Singapore would fall 7-22 to their rivals but the memory of that defeat continues to spur Wong on.
“After Malaysia beat us, I felt that I had more to learn,” he explained. “I felt that I can be better than that. It was a really bad feeling after losing – I felt we can beat them but most of us were injured.”
Fast forward two years, and Wong is ready to once again do battle at the Games – this time in the Philippines.
Singapore’s campaign will begin on Dec 3 and the Republic will once again face strong competition from rivals Malaysia.
The team has grown in confidence, believes Wong, but he declined to give any specific predictions on a medal target.
“Last time I said (we wanted ) gold we got silver so I’m not going to say anything. I’m not going to jinx it,” he said.
But what he does elaborate on is his pride at once again representing the nation.
“I’m pretty proud to represent this small country – it’s an honour,” Wong said. “But, I’m not only representing Singapore, I’m representing my family.”
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