AM Honour for Musical Director Chong Lim

“As fate would have it...”

Chong Lim’s (OGC 1977) journey from a self-described “country bumpkin” from Ipoh, Malaysia, to one of Australia’s foremost musical directors could have gone dramatically off-track. If fate hadn’t intervened on multiple occasions, Chong could instead have become an engineer. He would certainly never have received an AM in the 2018 Queen’s Birthday Honours for his service to the performing arts and the community.

Chong began playing piano when he was about six. Upon finishing his Malaysian schooling, he moved to Australia to board at The Geelong College for Year 12. “When they figured out I was interested in music, they were very supportive and Hartley Newnham (Director of Music) organised a jazz piano teacher and helped me organise a little jazz combo… and that gave me a kickstart to thinking maybe music is what I really wanted to do,” he said.

He then studied mechanical engineering at Ormond College in Melbourne University, where he started a cover band with David Hobson (now a prominent classical soloist) and James Valentine (now a radio announcer in Sydney). Word travelled about Chong’s piano skills and he was soon playing regular gigs.

“I would be distracted. I’d be studying for a physics exam or something, and somebody would be like, ‘hey, do you want to do a gig at 9pm tonight at the whatever hotel’? And I’d go ‘of course, who cares about the exam, I’m  playing’.”

Chong returned to Malaysia to further his engineering career. Working in a Kuala Lumpur consulting engineering company, fate pushed him towards music. One of the draftsmen heard that Chong was a musician and told him that his cousin needed a keyboard player for a top Malaysian band. From there, he was offered a role in a national jazz television program, going live to air every Sunday night while still working full-time. “So then I was caught up in music again.”

Coming back to Australia to start a Master’s degree on torsional vibrations of spinning rotating shafts, Chong was still headed for a life in academia. “I kept thinking, ‘I really want to be in academia, I really just want to study for the rest of my life and research and stuff’, but as fate would have it, I got a call and there I was playing again, and I thought ‘you know what? I think fate is telling me something’.

“I’m not that good but maybe there’s a chance. So, I decided to put a hold on my studies and give music a go… I thought if in a year’s time it all falls in a heap, maybe I’ll pursue something else. I don’t know what it is, but I’ll give it a go. And fortunately I haven’t stopped.”

Chong’s prominent music career has included being the musical director for Dancing with the Stars and the Sydney Olympics. “That was a very exciting time, I had so many secrets in my head that I had to keep from everybody else,” he said of the 2000 Olympics. “Meanwhile I was composing music, recording music, meeting new people,  planning and then of course, Sydney and Australia came alive during those two or three weeks.”

His adventures have also included playing with the John Farnham Band, Olivia Newton-John and Kylie Minogue, and working with Sir George Martin and Sir Barry Gibb, among others.

“I’ve had a very exciting time but every gig’s a good one, whether it’s to 20 people or to 20,000 people. It’s really about the music and when you have fun playing, that’s the best feeling.”

This article appeared in issue 135 of The Geelong College's Ad Astra magazine.

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