In Conversation: Singaporean Cultural Icon Dick Lee



Styling TOK WEI LUN 


By now, no one expects less than constant reinvention when it comes to Dick Lee. The multi-hyphenate personality (singer, songwriter, restaurateur, visual artist, designer, creative director and soon filmmaker) needs no introduction and shows no signs of stopping well into his 40th year in the arts and entertainment industry.  At age 57, Lee has casually placed yet another feather in his cap with his first-ever solo exhibition, Imperfect Memory, at Galerie Belvedere. And in case his recent appointments as creative advisor for the relaunch of Capitol Theatre, director for National Day Parade 2014 and opening a Jakarta branch of his successful M.A.D restaurant (Modern Asian Diner) isn’t quite enough, Lee is back to flex his musical muscles, after a brief lull, with a new epic multi- million dollar musical production, Lightseeker.

Dick Lee

Lightseeker marks a return to this genre after a six-year break from musicals, his last new musical being P.Ramlee the Musical in 2007. 2010’s Fried Rice Paradise was an update of the 1991 hit. Teaming up with industry veteran and vice president of Resorts World Sentosa, Andrea Teo, Lightseeker is a fantasy-scifi musical that is big on theatrics: heart-stopping high-wire stunts and martial arts sequences, elaborate sets that took 15,000 man hours to assemble, the use of computer-generated imagery from a ten-ton LED wall, and boasting an international cast from ten countries. The creative head behind the spectacular musical has come a long way since his days as a teen performing in a lounge in Peninsula Hotel to an audience of cabaret girls.

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Back in 1971, at the age of 15, Dick participated in various Talentime contests with his first group, Harmony. “Back then, Talentime was the rage. It went on all the time. Every occasion from trade fairs to night markets, everything had a Talentime,” he recalled. Lee eventually found his way into the spotlight, releasing his debut album Life Story in 1974. And in the proceeding decades, he’s championed the inclusion of Asian elements in his music, in his quest to create his flavour of Singapore pop. But it wasn’t until his 1989 album, the iconic The Mad Chinaman (it went platinum in Singapore in three months), that he perfected his brand of Singapore music that he’d spent the seven albums fine-tuning. The popularity of that album shot him into prominence beyond Singapore to much of Asia – in particular Japan. The following year, he pursued his solo career in Japan and collaborated with the who’s who of Asian pop, including Sandy Lam, Anita Mui, Andy Lau, Japanese group Zoom and Jackie Cheung in the acclaimed Snow.Wolf. Lake – just to name a few. 

In the book Theatre and the Politics of Culture in Contemporary Singapore by William Peterson, Lee is credited with indigenizing Singapore music, where he took a large part in developing a significant body of the musicals over the decades which touched on Singapore’s obsession with food (Fried Rice Paradise), censorship (Mortal Sins), homage to Cantonese melodrama and capturing the defining era of Singapore in the 1960s (Beauty World), while garnering critical and commercial success from audiences of varying walks of life. His game-changing musical came in 1992 with Nagraland. Directed by Krishen Jit, it reportedly scored a third of its financial backing from Japanese electronics giant Mitsubishi, when the $6.4 million theatre production opened in Japan. Seventy per cent of the 20,000 tickets were snapped up way before the show even opened. This was a groundbreaking record, still unbroken, with no other Singaporean production generating that volume of interest and financial support in Japan. Lee earned this appraisal from The Straits Times in 1995, declaring his work “the closest thing around to a uniquely Singapore theatre form.” Not to rest on his laurels (of which he has plenty), the Cultural Medallion recipient and Steinway Artist is on a mission to tackle the world of filmmaking as a film director next year.

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What’s the idea behind Lightseeker and how long did it take for the musical to be produced?

Lightseeker is a collaboration between myself and Andrea Teo, who wrote the story. It’s something new for me, as it has a science fiction and fantasy setting, a genre I haven’t explored before.

Why another musical?

It’s like asking David Bowie, “Why another album?” I write musicals, that’s what I do! I love writing musicals best, as I’m able to express myself purely without taking into account the music market or a particular singer. Most of my songwriting is written “to order” or commissioned for a specific singer or project. Musicals allow me to write a series of songs that make a whole, rather than limit my ideas to one four-minute song.

You recently held an arts exhibition Imperfect Memory – how did it come about?

I went to art school in London after my National Service, and studied fashion design. However, the thing I loved the most about the course was illustrating my designs rather than sewing them. I have always enjoyed drawing and always knew that I would revisit that passion someday. The chance came when my friend Rasina Rubin invited me to do a show at her gallery. The process of making the artworks – which took about a year – was cathartic and liberating. As I had not drawn for many years, I decided to focus on what I did best – the human figure. The works feature portraits of my mother as she was in the 1950s, as well as depictions of a carefree social life during that period.

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Please describe your artistic style. After such a long and illustrious career, is there anything in the arts that you would love to do?

I basically have been doing the same thing all my life, and hope to continue doing the same for as long as I can. Where I once dabbled, or did them as hobbies, I now am able to do them professionally and on a much bigger scale. Where entertainment is concerned, I am now moving towards the visual arts, and will be directing my first movie next year. I wrote the story, set in the Chinese music industry, and so there will naturally be lots of songs. I also am working on several television series for next year.

Other exciting projects I’m involved in are the re-launch of Capitol Theatre in 2015, where I serve as the creative advisor; directing National Day Parade 2014; creating English content for the newly re-launched media company Rediffusion; and adding my touch to KOP Group’s Montigo Resorts and their upcoming Singapore Pinacothèque de Paris in Fort Canning. Ongoing activities are my restaurant Modern Asian Diner (or M.A.D.) which is opening a new branch in Jakarta this month and my advertising agency, Dick Lee Concepts.

What’s your take on Singapore’s arts and music scene today compared to what it was like when you began your career?

The scene now is something I’d always dreamed of – I remember when I moved to Tokyo in 1990 and wondering if Singapore would ever be as culturally vibrant – and it definitely is! I do however miss the early days when there was no scene, and so we had to create it!

You are the first Asian Steinway Artist, joining the ranks of Billy Joel and Diana Krall – what does this mean to you as an artist?

It’s an incredible honour and something I never would have expected in my lifetime. This is a wonderful and meaningful endorsement, and recognition of my work, especially to be named alongside so many of my heroes!

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You mentioned in a previous interview that you’ve succeeded in creating ‘Singapore music’ back in 1989. What does Singapore music mean to you?

I’ve always felt that Singapore music should refer to Singapore in some way, but I feel that not enough musicians are paying attention to the context. If we don’t create our own identity, no one will be interested in “Singapore music” per se.

If you could go back in time what advice would you give your former self?

I’m really happy at my progress, because I was patient and also set short term — and more comfortably achievable — goals. It couldn’t have happened any differently because of situations, circumstances and opportunities.

Do you consider yourself a pioneer, sailing through uncharted waters?

I guess many of the things I’ve done can be considered “firsts.” For instance, my musical Beauty World (1988); my Singlish song Fried Rice Paradise (1973); bringing local designers together to show as a group in SODA (1984); creating the first young designers market Hemispheres (1986); the first local creative director for a National Day Parade in 2002 – among other things.

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How do you find inner peace in this competitive and fickle industry?

To do so many things I have to be very disciplined and have learnt how to focus on my projects one at a time, and also focus on switching off. I’ve trained myself to switch off the minute I come home, and home has become a great sanctuary for me to ease my mind. Of course, fabulous nearby resorts help too!

How do you define love?

Love is an extreme version of pain; beautiful yet agonizing.

Looking back, what are some important lessons that life has taught you?

Always have a plan, set a goal, no matter how impossible. Be practical and realistic (have a plan B too), be patient and don’t force the issue. Things will come to you when the time is right. I became a full-time musician at 33, and will direct my first movie at 58!

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Share with us some important people in your life that influenced who you are today.

My mother; her love of music and dancing, her life- and-soul-of-the-party spirit, optimism, ability to laugh loud and hard — without a doubt, has been the single influence behind everything I do and everything I am.

If you could change one thing about Singapore today, what would it be and why?

I love this place for its plusses and minuses, except for one thing – the oppressive humidity which kills me when I wear the suits I love to wear!

This may sound morbid, but what legacy do you wish to leave behind?

And what do you like to be remembered for? Next year I celebrate the 40th anniversary of my career. There’s quite a bit of stuff left behind from those years, and I’m happy with that.

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