The busy Mad Chinaman

Dick Lee, fresh from directing the recent National Day Parade, will hold a solo show on Thursday

Dick Lee is also working on a play titled Dancing Girl, inspired by his late mother.
Dick Lee is also working on a play titled Dancing Girl, inspired by his late mother. ST PHOTO: DESMOND WEE

Long before he became associated with National Day parades and national song favourite Home, Dick Lee was hamming it up with Singlish and Singapore's multi- cultural influences in pop albums such as 1989's The Mad Chinaman.

But he says that seminal album would not have had the same effect if it were released in the context of today's pop music world.

"Nobody knew or cared where Singapore was. So my motivation for putting Singapore in my songs was much stronger. I was experimenting and I played with Singlish, with food and things that are very Singapore. You don't have to do that now but you still need to be aware of it," says Lee, who turned 59 last week.

Speaking to Life ahead of his solo show, Dick Lee: The Adventures Of The Mad Chinaman Upsized, on Thursday, he says home-grown artists and songwriters who sing and write in Western pop genres lack local flavour in their music.

"Most young songwriters today are basically apeing. They are copying because the only way to start is to copy, to mimic. At some point, they need to try and put the Singaporean-ness in it."


  • WHERE:Esplanade Concert Hall

    WHEN: Thursday, 7.30pm

    ADMISSION: Only $38 tickets left from Sistic (go to sg or call 6348-5555)

He points to Home, which does not have "obvious" Singaporean elements, but has become a national favourite. "What we are talking about in trying to create Singapore music is that it comes from the inside, it needs to feel like Singapore music, it needs to be spiritual, almost like, and the only way to do that is to be confident about how you feel."

Lee, the creative director of the recent NDP, says he is open to the idea of playing mentor to younger songwriters. "It's not so easy, you need to experiment and discuss it. Maybe someone should organise a forum and veteran and young music-makers should get together to have a discussion."

Rapper Shigga Shay and soul-pop singer-songwriter Dru Chen are among the new generation of singer-songwriters that he singles out for praise. He picked them to sing with him at the Sing50 concert at the National Stadium on Aug 7 and Chen, 25, will also perform at his upcoming Esplanade show.

The Mad Chinaman is one of a string of high-profile projects that have kept him occupied this past year. These include the recent SG50 NDP, touted as the country's grandest one to date and one which he describes as "the best thing" he has done in his career.

He reveals that he has declined an offer to direct next year's NDP, the first one to be held in the new National Stadium. "I've done two years in a row and it's quite taxing; I'm drained," he says.

Lee also had to contend with losing his mother, who died of ill health two weeks before the recent NDP. Despite his bereavement, he soldiered on with his professional commitments.

"My whole life, I have been able to compartmentalise my life, I'm very disciplined and that's why I can multi -task," he says.

"When I go to an NDP thing, she is blocked out. Although you may think it's impossible, the pain is there, especially after she died, but I was able to completely focus on the job. I had to, I had a whole country wanting to see a good event."

His mother is the inspiration for a play he is working on, titled Dancing Girl, the second of a trilogy of stories based on his family. The first, a play called Rising Son, was inspired by his father's experiences during World War II and was staged last year. The third story will be a film based on his life that he will start work on next year.

He is also conceptualising Singapore Repertory Theatre's upcoming production based on Chinese legend Mulan and, for the first time, will handle directing duties in the fifth run of local musical Beauty World, which he co-created with playwright Michael Chiang.

For now, though, he is busy with preparations for Thursday's show, which is touted as an extended version of The Adventures Of The Mad Chinaman series of gigs that he staged in 2011.

As in those gigs, Lee will not only play songs taken from his four decades in music business, but he will also regale the audience with stories from his musical journey.

"In 2011, literally half the show was talking. I played only something like 10 songs, the rest of it was talking. This time, I don't know. I'll gauge; if I feel that I'm losing them, I'll go straight into the songs."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2015, with the headline 'The busy Mad Chinaman'. Print Edition | Subscribe