Pia Leong has realised her dream of designing for operas on the other side of the world. Not to mention heading off on an epic bike tour of South America…
Pia cycling in the outskirts of San Pedro de Atacama in the Atacama Desert, feeling rejuvenated from a swim in a waterhole.
Being an emigrant is never easy but Pia Leong’s grandfather, well-known former Townsville businessman Philip Leong, tackled the challenge head-on. Now his grandchildren are making their own way in the world. Take one of his youngest grandchildren, Pia, for example. Pia now lives in Berlin, Germany, and has already realised her long-term goal of designing an opera.
“I was working in a wannabe classy hotel, breaking my back and wearing a horrid brown uniform when I got the call from the managing director of the Komische Oper,” Pia recalls. “It was the 1927 theatre company asking if I would design their next show. It was a real fork in the road as I’d been planning to leave on a long-term bike trip around South America with my partner Jimmy. In the end I did the opera and the bike journey! We premiered in January this year and the show will tour next year.”
In her student days at the National Institute of Dramatic Art, where she studied set design, working for the Komische Oper seemed like a far-away dream.
“Sometime during my second year I knew I wanted to work in Germany. Thanks to my German mother I have a German passport and I thought that, given Germany has the most opera houses, the most governmental funding for performing arts and some of the best theatre-makers in the world, moving there would be a good move,” Pia says.
“So I followed my heart to Berlin, where my mother’s twin brother was living.”
Loaded up with a week’s worth of supplies for crossing the Sico Pass (Argentina to Chile).
Pia was starting to wonder if she had made a stupid mistake when everything changed. After much persistence, she was offered a work experience position on one of the operas at the Komische Oper Berlin. Soon after she was offered the assistant role on Barrie Kosky and 1927’s now multi-award-winning production of The Magic Flute. She must have done a good job because Barrie requested her as assistant many times following that, which led to her being hired as a designer. Thanks to the money she earned from the high-profile design gig, Pia’s planned bike journey took on more epic proportions.
“I knew nothing about bikes, nothing about South America and spoke no Spanish but my partner Jimmy had previously cycled from Berlin to Japan and speaks Spanish, so I was in good hands,” Pia says. “He’d also begun a video blog on that journey, which we used to pitch a film idea to a language-learning company. It worked and we got a contract to produce a web series from the road called Remote Encounters.”
On the bike trip Pia was pleasantly reminded of how incredibly kind and generous people can be.
“Jimmy and I were often overwhelmed with the kindness strangers showed us. Whatever food people had – whether it was two handfuls of toasted grain and a bite of cheese between a family of four or an Argentinian red steak – we were invited in,” Pia says. “In Southern Argentina we must’ve received a dozen jars of home-made jam from people we met on the roadside. I’ve never been as fit as I was at the end of that journey, having crossed the Andes mountain range back and forth many times at high altitudes. It changed my life and I strongly recommend taking a journey like that to anyone who can sit on a bike. We met other bicycle tourists from all over the world, each with their own epic story. People cycled with their dogs, their toddlers and we even met a couple in their mid-60s living it up and glowing from the inside out.”
Despite her love of travel and the open road, Pia says she does often miss ‘home’.
“I miss waking up to the sound of birds in the garden, the smell of frangipanis and mangoes in the afternoon sun, and the sound of the rain on the corrugated tin roof,” Pia says. “I have fantastic vivid memories of growing up in Townsville and know very well how lucky I am to have these. I grew up with my amazing mother in a gorgeous wooden Queenslander in Belgian Gardens where she still lives today. People would always be popping by for a chat, to share some dinner or to show us something special.”
Covered in mud after a day travelling in the rain.
Thanks to her mum, who ran the Café Nova on Blackwood Street, Pia also got to meet lots of artistic types.
“At the cafe, Mum would have live music, local art exhibitions and homemade German cakes,” Pia recalls. “It was the go-to night cafe and bar and, later, we went to lots of openings at The Perc Tucker Gallery and Umbrella Studio, where artists would come from all over the world to mingle in Townsville.”
Pia’s father and his five sisters were the first generation of Australian-born Chinese in her family. Most weekends, she and her mum would visit her grandfather, Philip Leong, where she would explore all the ‘Chinese things’ in the house, like three-dimensional cork landscapes trapped behind glass and her grandmother’s Mahjong table.
“I especially loved the set of musical side tables and jewellery boxes with wooden inlay decorations,” Pia says. “There are actually 13 of us who had ‘Gong Gong’ as a grandfather, and I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say we are more than grateful for the fact he made us proud to be Chinese Australian.”
“Whatever food people had – whether it was two handfuls of toasted grain and a bite of cheese between a family of four or an Argentinian red steak – we were invited in.” – PIA LEONG
So what’s next for Pia and her partner Jimmy? More adventures of course!
“This month we’ll set off on our next journey. After the success of our Remote Encounters web series, we’ve been lucky enough to snap up another film-making contract that will show us crossing the Alps from Germany, across Austria and to Venice,” Pia says.
“This time we won’t be taking as much luggage and we’ll be changing up our terrain touring bikes for mountain bikes so we can get further off the grid.”