The Mad Singaporean

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Dick Lee, who has truly been an ambassador of Singapore to the rest of Asia with his amalgamation of the diverse Singaporean identity.

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Probably the most celebrated face in Singapore’s music scene, Dick Lee shares how he journeyed around the world to finally find and identify his roots, his culture and heritage drawing relevance to Singapore and its people.

By Leela Jesudason

I

t is certainly no easy feat to be the kind of artist who is appreciated and sought after by people from different generations, cultures and even languages, but Dick Lee seems to have achieved this almost effortlessly. Having journeyed through the milestones and developments of Singapore, Lee’s own life story almost mirrors the triumphs and accomplishments of the young nation, that has come into its own in a spectacular way.

“I grew up in colonial Singapore,” starts Lee, “during a time when we all idolised Western culture. It wasn’t within our reach like it is today, so it was all the more sought after. So many of us wanted to model ourselves after our Western counterparts, but there was limited information about them, other than the few television programmes and the magazines that arrived in Singapore months after they were published in the West.”


 

“Singapore in the ‘60s was neither here nor there, especially in terms of pop culture, which meant that many of us felt that we didn’t have a clear identity.”


“Singapore in the ‘60s was neither here nor there, especially in terms of pop culture, which meant that many of us felt that we didn’t have a clear identity. We felt and acted Western, but when we looked in the mirror, we knew we were certainly Asian. I was completely obsessed with wanting to discover myself; I felt that I was in no man’s land.”

It was Lee’s years as a student studying fashion in London that opened his eyes to his sense of self and gave him cause for pause in his relentless pursuit of “all things Western”.

Like many who had gone before him, and many others who have gone after him, Lee’s identity as a Peranakan-Chinese Singaporean came bursting to the fore when surrounded by all things English.


 

“I didn’t realise I would become so fiercely Singaporean when surrounded by all that I had aspired to be. It simply made my Asian-ness much more apparent to me, and the realisation came upon me: I would never be white.”


“I surprised myself!” exclaims Lee. “I didn’t realise I would become so fiercely Singaporean when surrounded by all that I had aspired to be. It simply made my Asian-ness much more apparent to me, and the realisation came upon me: I would never be white.”

Though Lee had already started his musical career in Singapore in 1971 at the age of 15, it was really after his time in London in his early 20s that he started to draw upon his Asian identity and culture to inspire and shape his music.

It was also at this time that Lee realised that he had evolved not only as an artist, but also as a person, learning to define his own culture and identity because of his many experiences he had in other countries.

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Dick Lee, seen here with executive producer, Andrea Teo, has had a prolific career in writing musicals, including the recently staged LightSeeker, which was held at Resorts World Sentosa.

The albums that he launched in the ’80s and ’90s defined and solidified his now clear position as a modern Asian musician who was unabashed about infusing elements of the Singapore identity into his otherwise Western-flavoured music. But perhaps the most definitive statement that he made about embracing the Singapore culture was his musical, Fried Rice Paradise.

“It was the first time that the ‘Singaporean-ness’ of Singapore was acknowledged and celebrated,” explains Lee. “It showed our own pop culture for what it was —a breath of fresh air!

“I eventually moved to Japan in 1990, when Japan was viewed in Asia as the leader of Asian pop culture. J-pop was huge back then, and when the opportunity presented itself, I took it. It seemed that the Japanese were so cultured and knowledgeable about different music genres — the market was so large, there was room for almost any and every music genre to thrive and grow. That excited me!

“While the Japanese were developing at their own pace and doing their own thing, the rest of Asia was watching them. Then strangely enough, I found myself an ambassador for new Asia.”

This happened when Lee first staged his oriental pop operetta Nagraland in Tokyo in 1992. That turned the tide and the Japanese community suddenly saw him in a completely new light.

“From their point of view, I represented New Asia,” says Lee with a laugh. “They were rather shocked and fascinated. From the point of view of Asia, they saw that I had broken into the otherwise exclusive Japanese community.”

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Lee continues to perform at selected events, most notably fundraisers that reflect his personal involvement in children’s charities

Lee goes on to explain how the prevalent attitude then of ‘I am Japanese; not Asian — you are Asian’ helped him assert himself as a New Asian (being Chinese, Peranakan — and everything else that represented Southeast Asia).

“After seven years in Japan, I found myself at the crest of the trend; I had evolved in different things, and around that time, the Korean popular culture started gaining momentum and the focus shifted away from Japan to Korea. I had finally exhausted the ‘mission’ I was on. There was no more for me to do. So when an opportunity arose for me to work in Hong Kong, I took it.”

It was then when he was tapped by Sony to handle Artists and Repertoire for Asia.

Lee spent three years in Hong Kong working as a “paper-pusher”, managing artists and quickly realised it wasn’t his “thing”. But he didn’t rest on his laurels, as he found opportunities galore in Hong Kong. He wrote a musical for Jacky Cheung — Snow.Wolf.Lake in 1997, which was a huge success, and rose on to become one of the biggest-selling albums for Cheung.

“Overseeing artists and talents from 11 countries in Asia-Pacific meant I could draw on my knowledge of Asia…. But it wasn’t a creative job, which meant that I felt drained and sapped of energy. It was at that time that an interesting job offer opened up for me in Singapore, and that’s when I decided it was time to go home.”

Lee came back to Singapore to work for the now-defunct MediaWorks as a Creative Director feeling that he had now truly found himself and his unique identity as a Singaporean, Chinese and Peranakan. Unfortunately, due to financial woes, MediaWorks closed a year after his return.

It was clear that his return to his homeland was heralded as the return of a conquering hero who had made his mark in a country such as Japan, which has always been somewhat closed off from the rest of Asia. The fact that he was able to break into that market with his uniquely Singaporean flavour of music and theatrics, was a testament to the positive strength of his influence on audiences — no matter what their cultural or language backgrounds were.

Much to his delight, Lee was appointed the Creative Director for Singapore’s 2002 National Day Parade; an honour that he undertook with great gusto, especially as his song, We Will Get There, was selected to be the theme song of that year’s parade.

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Lee has been winning awards throughout his entire career, making him Singapore’s most iconic and visible musician.


 

“Coming back to Singapore after my time in Japan and Hong Kong, I had full knowledge of myself, and a better understanding of what pop culture meant to different people and communities. I also now knew how to do new things, and I was keen to bring back the influences of the cultures and countries I lived and worked in, to my work and interpretation of music to Singapore.”


It seemed that his versatility had no boundaries. From writing songs, musicals, directing massive national events, to choreographing fashion shows and writing his autobiography, Lee firmly took his position as one of the country’s key influencers and commentators of the Singaporean pop culture as experienced through music.

“Coming back to Singapore after my time in Japan and Hong Kong, I had full knowledge of myself, and a better understanding of what pop culture meant to different people and communities,” explains Lee, “I also now knew how to do new things, and I was keen to bring back the influences of the cultures and countries I lived and worked in, to my work and interpretation of music to Singapore.”

His position as one of the country’s most prominent and respected music icons was further cemented when he took on the role of judge in Singapore Idol in 2004, which was the same year his composition Sandarken won the Best Malay Pop trophy at the COMPASS Awards, underscoring yet again, his ability to appeal to a wide range of audiences.

Now also a prestigious Steinway Artist, Lee embraces the many aspects of pop culture that has enabled him to be so influential in so many different aspects of Singaporeans’ lives. He has even collaborated with the Tung Lok Group (a chain of high-end Chinese restaurants) to open a restaurant aptly named MAD (Modern Asian Diner), where his distinct personality clearly infuses every aspect of the restaurant; from the food to the décor, And, of course, the music.

But Lee isn’t resting on his laurels. He continues to compose music for other artists in Asia — he’s just finished writing a song for Sammi Cheng in Hong Kong, and is currently working on a musical in Malaysia (his third), and is actively overseeing his charity, The Sunshine Project.

“I see myself as a cultural ambassador to and for Singapore. Singaporeans are partly clueless about their identity. Before I went to Japan, I was the only champion of the Singapore identity through pop culture.”

Though that has changed, and a new generation of pop culture icons have arisen in Singapore, Lee continues to keep himself relevant to the rapidly evolving cultural context of the country, given the portal of social media to the rest of the world.

“It’s all about personal branding. Some have criticised me for being overly “marketed”. But that’s how I stay active and relevant to the different communities where I still work and perform. People come to me because of this relevance and my understanding of our identities.”

Though Lee is well into his 50s, he still looks sharp and up-to-the-minute with his stylishly coiffed silver hair and trendy clothes. His ability to happily reminisce about the ‘good old days’ and then effortlessly segue into the latest topics and trends is what keeps him in the spotlight, as perhaps one of the most enduring cultural influencers of this time.


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