Fried Rice Paradigm: An Interview with Dick Lee

For followers of Singapore music, there is a bit of Dick Lee in every decade. For many, the most recent impression of Dick is that of the nation’s songwriter with labels like SG50 and NDP inextricably tied to his music brand, and songs like ‘Home’ and ‘Our Singapore’ being the first port of call for many to Dick’s music. About a decade ago, he was the most recognisable judge on singing contest Singapore Idol. In the 90s, he was the composer behind a dozen musicals including Snow.Wolf.Lake, Forbidden City, A Twist of Fate, Hot Pants and Sing to the Dawn. (Not to forget the iconic Beauty World, though technically a product of the 80s) A particularly illustrious part of his early career saw him emerge as a cultural icon for his unique ability to mesh the sounds of Asian folk and pop together. That was the era of ‘The Mad Chinaman’, a.k.a the beginning of ‘mainstream-Dick Lee’.

The last decade, Dick of the 70s, is the one people know least about. But it is also the decade that has been on Dick’s mind most of the time over the last year. Dick of the 70s was a restless teenager, struggling to get his music out on the radio airwaves, unsure of whether his music-making had a place in a Singapore where rock concerts banned. Wonder Boy, Dick’s movie-making debut, is a love letter to this lesser-known past of his and a look at how it all began for him. In one candid hour with SINdie, old and new converged. Dick unveiled the world of that awkward, relatively-unknown misfit he once was, while he also recounted the excitement and lessons in this new filmmaking journey he had just embarked on.

Let’s start from the music. Let’s talk about the music in the movie.

This is a movie about music but not a musical. There is a lot of singing in the movie but not La La Land style. There is also a lot of music that has never been released to the public. These are actually not new songs but just songs written during an early part of my music career.

The movie covers the years 1972 to 1974. It was, I wouldn't say experimental, but my early stage of songwriting when I was just writing songs for myself. Looking back, I think it was quite ambitious and a bit beyond my age at that time. For example ‘Life Story’ is a song about someone who has passed away and I was only 16 years old when I wrote it. My music was neither very pop nor very commercial. Perhaps I was trying to classify myself as a singer-songwriter in the same category as Elton John or Joni Mitchell?

There is an EP that is coming out with the movie and it contains some of these songs that have never been released before. The rest are remixes. There is also ‘Life Story’ and ‘Fried Rice Paradise’. This collection of music will be sort of ‘new’ to many people. A lot of people know me from my ‘Mad Chinaman’ days and a whole new generation of people know me from ‘Home’. There's also a generation that knows me, or rather knows my Chinese songs or Cantonese songs, but they may not know I have written them. In Wonder Boy, I want to share about how it all began for me musically.

I think it's interesting that you chose to focus on a chapter in your life instead of telling the whole story.

At first it was going to be the whole thing then I thought it was too much. There is enough material in those three years of my life to talk about.

So what's the story like?

It's about a nerdy boy who is trying to find his place and identity in the age of Talentine. A lot of singing competitions were going on at that time and he was just playing his music at home, until one day he decided to join a singing group and take part in Talentime.

The era was not a very good time for young people who wanted to do music. Rock concerts were banned and long hair on men was banned as it was associated with rock music and drugs. So there was this situation in which the booming music scene in the 60s just died in the 70s. All the local bands like the Quests disappeared. Also, many of the band members got drafted into national service (NS) which started in 1969 and this story started in 1972. So with NS pending, this boy was trying to write songs. However, no one was interested in original local material or folk music.

In fact, many parents didn’t want their children to play music or see their children strum the guitar. I used to jam in a band I had to do it secretly. If you tried to be trendy, or if you grew your hair a little bit longer, you could get arrested by the police and this is depicted in the film.

At the same time, if you look back, it is also good that we cleaned up because, as depicted in the film, it was so easy to get drugs anywhere. At the age of 14, I was already smoking marijuana because it was so readily available and cheap. So, many young people went that way.

Were your own parents supportive of your music-making?

Definitely not. I mean I failed so many subjects in school and literally had only four ‘O’ Levels to my name as my highest educational level. And these were all subjects I didn't have to study, such as Music, Literature, Art and English.

Ultimately, this is a story about the obstacles I faced wanting to make my own music when no one was interested. Through the movie, the message I want to inspire others with is that if you want something strongly enough, it will happen for you. For the older audience, this is a movie about the times I grew up in, so this movie is for my peers as well.

You've had a long music career over so many decades. Have you at any earlier point of time thought of making a movie?

No, this came completely as a surprise to me. (pause) When I was first approached by mm2 Entertainment or rather Melvin Ang, the CEO, I declined as it wasn't really on my bucket list. I also turned it down as I didn’t think people would be interested to know about my life.

During that time, I actually proposed another story called Sunshine Girls. Then two things happened. For Sunshine Girls, we couldn't find a good script and we actually kept writing and rewriting. Then I became the creative director for two NDPs back to back in 2014 and 2015, which made it impossible for me to do anything else then.

Then in 2016, Melvin contacted me again and asked me ‘so how?’ (pause) Turning 60 last year helped me change my mind about doing it and also my mother passed away in 2015. This made me rethink that option because she was such a big inspiration to me in my life. If anybody did, she did all the talking to my dad about my music-making. And when I did my 60th birthday concert, there was a lot of looking back and I thought okay, maybe let's give it a try. So yeah finally I relented. It wasn't something that came to me naturally but now that I've done it, it's a whole different story.

I'm working on a couple of projects already because I enjoyed the process. I actually didn't think I would enjoy it because I thought it might be too difficult and the satisfaction is not immediate like when you do theatre. However, eventually, I found the process to be quite similar. As a director, you are creating a scenario, only difference being that you are creating this on film.

Apart from showcasing the 70s and how it all began for you, what else is significant about this chapter?

There is a sub-theme about my Singaporean identity in the film. I am a very Singaporean artist so I want to also show where that came from. You will see in the film that ‘Fried Rice Paradise’ was written as an expression of being Singaporean when there was no sense of what being Singaporean meant in 1973. The idea of being Singaporean was not formed properly yet and Singapore still had influences from being a British colony and a former part of Malaya.

So this nationalistic thing that we see today was not there at all. There was no sense of emotional connection with the nation and there was no way to express how it felt being Singaporean. So I wrote this song that had Singlish in it. And it became so-called ‘viral’ during that time. It was the first-time Singlish was used in a song! So when that became popular, it made me aware of the fact that I had to pursue this idea. The other songs that I had written were mimicking Western pop songs and the public had no interest in them. The minute I did something Singaporean, it happened again for me.

This is not part of the film but just to share….In the 80s when I came back from the UK, I did an album called ‘Life in the Lion City’ in 1984. The response was not good. So I gave up for the time being and started to do other things, like Jazz and music that was more Western. But during that time, the national songs like Stand Up for Singapore, Count on Me Singapore etc. started appearing. I also composed for local musical Beauty World which was a huge sell-out. That was when I decided to come back with an 8th album, using the same technique as ‘Fried Rice Paradise’, called ‘The Mad Chinaman’, 10 years after ‘Life Story’.

In fact, because I used Singlish in both ‘Fried Rice Paradise’ and ‘Rasa Sayang’, both songs were banned by the government.

Really? They played ‘Rasa Sayang’ during my school assembly in Primary Six!

Wait. ‘Rasa Sayang’ was banned from radio for a week or two after it came out but because the media was so supportive of the song, the government decided to lift the ban and that’s how it ended up in your school. As for ‘Fried Rice Paradise’, as a result of performing it in Talentime which was organised by Rediffusion, (which did not follow the ban) my song was played on Rediffusion. In fact, Rediffusion was very popular in that era.

So these are major struggles and frustrations that shaped me and made me realise that my Singaporean-ness is very important in my work. The album also got me to Japan because it was so different from anything else that existed during that time.

Did anybody ever think of turning the musical ‘Beauty World’ into a movie?

I have of course and I'm still trying to pursue. If given the chance, I want to do it in Chinese. However, Chinese musicals have had a bad track record. Basically all the Chinese movie musicals did not do well at the box office. (pause) I would like to revisit Sunshine Girls at some point. Sunshine Girls plays tribute to the golden age of Cantopop in Hong Kong, from the late 80s to the mid-90s. I would like to do it like a jukebox musical, think Mamma Mia, using all the Cantopop hits of the time.

After headlining the Singapore music scene for so many years and more recently NDP, how do you feel about revealing the darker side about your life, like the drugs and all, in the movie?

The thing that helped me go ahead with it was that I'm already 60. If people want to think any differently about me after watching this film, so be it. But I don't think they will suddenly stop singing ‘Home’ haha. They can think what they like and my past has made me what I am today.

How did you know Benjamin Kheng? I know you started working with him in the 2012 theatre production ‘National Broadway Company’(NBC).

That's where I met him.

How did you find him to act for NBC?

I didn't. He was already cast when I joined the production. I was the last member to be cast because they needed an emcee. I was in fact involved at the last minute when everybody else was already rehearsing. (pause) And then they said they found this very talented young guy to be me and he learnt to play the piano just for that. So I was very impressed and indeed he has proven to be a great talent. (pause) I told him after the production, if I ever make a movie about myself, I want you to play me. So here we are with Benjamin in Wonder Boy.

Three years down the road, having gotten to know Benjamin a little better, in what ways do you think you are similar or different from him?

We are similar in the sense that I was once a struggling musician and he is an up-and-coming musician dealing with a very strange Singapore market. We are both making music in English which is something that hasn't really worked here. So in fact, I’d like to see how I can help to guide him along the way. (pause) I mean I would like for everyone to have a long music career. A lot of musicians in Singapore come and go. Sometimes, after one release, you don't see them anymore. No matter how talented they are, I see that all of them face the same challenges. Like after gaining some following on YouTube, what’s next? And how to earn money in that journey.

You mentioned that the production turned out to be not as difficult as you thought. So how was the filming experience in the end?

At first, I thought the idea of filming was very for forbidding for me, especially when people say ‘oh you will die…..hours are very long…. You need to film whole night… all night’. And I am someone who likes to work regular hours. I'm a kind of a work-life balance person. (pause) However, what I found was when I was doing it, you get lost in it and suddenly it's morning! And when you are there, time just flies because you're so focused. It's the actors I feel sorry for. I don't think I will ever act in a film because they are just waiting and sleeping in between takes!

Finally, what is one interesting thing you learnt from the production?

I'm only starting to learn how editing can change a lot of things. Our first cut was 2 hours 15 minutes and it is now 1 hour 40 minutes or so. We took away 20 precious minutes. But I'm okay with that because when I write musicals, songs get thrown out even though every song is a baby in a way. I am actually used to whole scenes being removed but if anything, it was interesting just to observe what filmmakers go through in this process. We had a lot of comments from mm2. Allowing me to see their rationale, I learnt from there.

I think I'm ready for my next film, in other words.

Is this the dawn of a brand new decade for Dick? Only time will tell.

Wonder Boy is out in cinemas on 3 August 2017.

Interview by Jeremy Sing

Read our interview with Dick's co-director Daniel Yam here.
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