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DICK LEE――Ironies, Fate, and Folk Songs: Developing an Identity and Rootedness through Music

Interview / Asia Hundreds

Relationship with Fukuoka and Japan

Takiguchi: After its Singapore premiere in August, the international premiere for Wonder Boy was at this Focus on Asia Fukuoka International Film Festival. Were you nervous at all? You seem quite at ease here in Fukuoka.

Lee: When I first visited Fukuoka in the early 1990s, I felt an affinity with the city; I felt it embraced the connection with Asia. Here, there was this attitude like, "Yeah, we are Asian. Asian culture is very common." In Tokyo or Osaka, however, I don't get quite the same impression.
Fukuoka was quite unique; they had already started the Asian Month in 1990 which has evolved into the Asian Party, and the Fukuoka International Film Festival has been a major part of this initiative.

Plus, I received the Fukuoka Prize's Arts and Culture Prize in 2003 as a singer-songwriter which was quite a significant achievement because that was the first time that a serious organization acknowledged my work and they recognized pop music as "art." And then a few years later, I won the Cultural Medallion in Singapore. It was as if the Singapore government said, "Oh, if Japan can accept him, why don't we do the same?" The Fukuoka Prize changed the elitist mindset of our government, I think, which until then only validated so-called high cultures like operas or symphonies. They finally recognized what I did for reaching out to the wider audience.

A photo of Dick Lee at the Asia Focus Fukuoka International Film Festival 2017
Dick Lee at the Asia Focus Fukuoka International Film Festival 2017

Takiguchi: Japan must be a special place for you, I guess. You once were based in Japan in the 1990s, and have a large fandom here. Can you talk about your relationship with Japan?

Lee: Well, that is a big question. Let me begin with a personal story of my father because my initial impression on Japan and the Japanese came from this episode. We have to go back a long way—to the days when Singapore was colonized by Japan during World War II.
The Japanese occupation of Singapore was an interesting phenomenon. The way it turned out was quite different from the experiences of other Asian countries because the attack was very short; it lasted only two months. Everyday life for Singaporeans just carried on even after the ruling power changed from the British to the Japanese. There were no more bombings and all the citizens just tried to live their daily lives on the island and administration which was renamed Shōnantō.

I have to be honest here: a lot of people had very bad experiences with the Japanese during the war. But, while I would not say my father had a good experience, he made friends with a colonel who lived next door. And this man was very kind to my father and his family, and eventually they struck up a very close friendship. This Japanese colonel was about twenty-seven years old; a fresh graduate from the University of Tokyo with a degree in Law who was appointed to Singapore as a military judge. The British surrendered in February 1942 and this man arrived in Singapore around May of the same year. Everything was starting to settle down when he came.

My father, who was seventeen then, wrote a diary about this man and I made a play titled Rising Son, based on that. It was staged in 2014 by the Singapore Repertory Theatre and featured just three characters; a man modeled after my father, his younger sister, and a colonel modeled after the Japanese colonel.
One day, the colonel came to my father's house with some extra food he had made and offered it to my father's family. It is how their friendship started. My father visited his house and found out that the colonel loved literature. He had many books on Shakespeare and British poetry which he lent to my father. His room was like a library, according to my father's diary; he was a very educated and cultured person. They had something in common; they became very close.
I'm afraid I'm digressing from your question…

Takiguchi: No worries. This is very interesting.

Lee: The point is that after the war, my father almost had nostalgia for Japanese culture, which is what I grew up with. He didn't speak of Japanese as villains or monsters. He had almost a fond memory of Japan which was something I initially could not quite understand. I initially thought, "How can you have fond memories of the people who invaded your land?"
But reading his diary, I could make sense of what he told me. Rations and supplies were not sufficient; people had to get their daily necessities through the black market. But life went on; my father went to work every day and everything was normal. He simply developed a friendship with his neighbor who just happened to be a Japanese colonel.

My father's younger sister was fourteen years old when the Japanese came, and because of the fear of being raped, she was locked at home. She was like a prisoner for four years in the house. By the time the end of the war was near, she was already eighteen; the colonel was the only man she knew, and this man developed feelings for her. One of the main plots of Rising Son is about that relationship.
The friendship between my father and the Japanese colonel was very delicate in many ways. My father always had to ask himself, "Can you openly befriend a Japanese colonel? Should I allow the relationship between him and my sister go on? Is it acceptable?"

When we staged this show in Singapore, some people from the Japanese Embassy came to watch. They loved the play and were crying; probably because I was not glorifying anything—I was just saying that there are two sides to a story, especially with war. Not everyone wanted to fight, and I'm pretty sure that, in general, Japanese soldiers just followed instructions from their superiors. This colonel was very educated and was a pacifist. The situation was not simple, and that was the very reason why my father was nostalgic after the war. That formed my initial impression on the Japanese and Japan.

Takiguchi: And then, when you were growing up, Japan was quickly recovering from the defeat and also re-entering Southeast Asia—but this time on an economic terrain.

Lee: Yes, Japan rebuilt herself in the most incredible way. When I was a teenager, we all had forgotten the war and the popularity for J-Pop started to emerge in Singapore. Some Japanese singers such as Hideki Saijō, Akina Nakamori, and Shōnentai—they were a bit later though—were very popular. Another thing I was crazy about Japan was the 1970 Osaka Expo. I actually visited Osaka for it. I think that was when Japanese pop culture in general started to develop.

Then, there was a big turning point for me when I was studying in London. I think it was in 1979. I went to HMV and saw albums of Yellow Magic Orchestra and Sandii & the Sunsetz on the shelves. I was amazed and thought, "Wow, look at these Japanese artists! Asian acts can be released in the West!" That gave me some hope. I can't say they were very popular, but they were known there. And this Asian guy found out about these Asian artists in London. That is quite ironic, isn't it?

And then there came another turning point in 1989—it first started back in 1986. I received a letter from a man called Hiroshi Shinozaki. He was the writer in charge of music at Asahi Shimbun.

Takiguchi: Yes, he wrote a book titled Boku Wa Maddo Chainaman[I'm a Mad Chinaman: Dick Lee and the Future of Singapore] (Iwanami Shoten, 1990), which introduced you to the general public in Japan.

Lee: He was interested in Asian music in general, not just me, but he had all of the albums I had released by then. He came to see me in Singapore—it was my first contact with "contemporary" Japan. Later, when I released my album Mad Chinaman in August 1989, he sent it to everyone he knew, including famous journalist-producer Toyo Nakamura, because he liked it so much. I didn't know that. He just did it.

Then in December 1989, I got several fax messages asking for a meeting from a man who identified himself a producer. The fax message was in a sort of broken English and I thought it was a joke. I threw away the first one, but he kept sending me messages. And, after I ignored the second message, he called me directly and said, "I want to produce your album. I want to come and meet you. There is somebody who wants to work as your manager. And we love your album."

Then he came to Singapore with a lady who later became my manager. And this man who was sending me faxes turned out to be Makoto Kubota, a member of Sandii & the Sunsetz. So exactly ten years after I saw his album in London, he came to see me in Singapore. Isn't it freakish? The connection with Japan was just meant to be. I feel it was all planned for me.

Then something very strange happened. I guess I can talk about it now... I was with Warner Music Singapore when Makoto approached me. There was a man at Warner Music Singapore who signed me in 1984, and I had recorded albums with him since then. In 1989, however, he felt he was not going to stay at Warner for much longer. He did not tell me anything though. When he learned that Warner Music Japan was interested in me, he quickly arranged to transfer my contract from Singapore to Japan, and shortly after completing that deal, he left. If he had left before transferring my contract, I would have been stuck in Singapore.

Again, it was a strange twist of fate. It was with the support of Makoto Kubota, Hiroshi Shinozaki, Tōyō Nakamura, and all others, that my career in Japan started. In 1990, I came here for the 19th Tokyo Music Festival and my manager got me a show promoter in Japan. My first Japan tour, which happened in four cities across the country in July 1990, was sold out in a day. And, I moved to Japan after that. OK, now you know the story. Haha!

A photo of Dick Lee

Takiguchi: Your relationship with Japan goes back quite a bit in history.

Lee: Yes. And it all happened because my father had a good friend who was a Japanese soldier. If my father was tortured or arrested, I would not have had this feeling. So the kindness of this man really affected my life.

Takiguchi: When you became popular in Japan, your music was actually discussed in the context of "Asian" music rather than Singaporean music. The concept of "Asia" was imagined and consumed in Japan which at that time was enjoying the benefits of the bubble economy. Were you comfortable with that kind of recognition?

Lee: Well, to answer this question, let me share another story from my history. My album was released in Japan at the very good time. During the late 1980s, when my music was introduced to Japan, the United States was very critical of Japan; Japanese cars were being burned in demonstrations and other anti-Japan movements. Do you remember that?

But if you go back further, there is another ironic thing. My theory is that Japan started to look to the West when the country rebuilt itself after World War II. The U.S. bombed Japan; U.S. was the victor. And Japan started to turn its back to its own culture. Thus, in the 1950s and the '60s, Japanese people were into things like rock-n-roll and created their version of American fashion, which then filtered down to us in Singapore. That is how "Sukiyaki" by Sakamoto Kyū became a number one hit on the billboard chart in 1963. It was the only time in history that a Japanese song topped the charts in the U.S. The Japanese people were looking toward the West and saying to themselves, "Our own culture is no good because we created this havoc. We admire and want to follow Western culture." That brought about the whole Westernization of Japan during that period.
And this backfired in the late 1980s. Americans were unhappy with the Japanese who took over their industries and properties, so they reacted aggressively against Japan. In response, the Japanese began to reflect on their culture again. And that's when I turned up with my music, right at that point when everyone could not identify with any culture.

Everybody said, "This music is strange. But it's so interesting; it's so contemporary. And it's from Singapore... What is Singapore?" That whole generation of Japanese—those of my generation—turned their backs on the war and history, and did not really acknowledge the occupation of Asian countries by the Japanese army. That was a bit embarrassing for me. They vaguely knew that bad things happened in the region but they were not taught it in school; the bad memories were wiped out from history books. So that generation, particularly in their twenties and thirties, knew nothing about Asia. They just thought that there were only fishing villages in "Asia."

I had the most shocking experience in Japan during my first interviews. The interviewers said, "Oh, you are from Singapore. You are Asian." They kept calling me "Asian." I replied, "No, excuse me. We are all Asian. If you and I walk in New York, they won't be able tell the difference." But almost all the journalists said, "No, no. You are Asian; we are Japanese." That was the attitude around 1989 and 1990.

I was also surprised with their comments like, "I didn't even know you have pop music," "You have tall buildings in Singapore?!" and, "Is it true that all Singaporean girls want to be air hostesses?"
I realized that Singapore—or more precisely, "Asia" in general—was associated with such a low image, and even the journalists had limited knowledge about us. I had to keep saying "yes" to them; "We have pop music and tall buildings in Singapore."

Then, there was the so-called Asia Boom in Japan. Everything happened in a very short span, and the change in society was enormous. Suddenly Japanese tourists started to rush to visit Singapore. Large tour groups came to various places in Asia—Bali, Hong Kong, Bangkok. I might have contributed to this boom; for example, I was the one who brought and introduced gamelan music to the Japanese pop culture scene. Japanese people started to explore these Asian destinations, and many of them came back again and again because they found these places were safe enough.

My music occupied a certain place in this huge Asia Boom in Japan, but I was kind of unique because I sing in English. Record stores placed my albums in three sections: the International section which was mostly for Western music with English lyrics, the World Music section as I am "Asian," and the Domestic section because I belonged to a Japanese record company and was based in Japan. They did not know where to place me. They called me "Asian," but the term was not clearly defined.

Takiguchi: It sounds like Japan was struggling to find a way to deal with the whole idea of "Asia," and trying to search its own identity in the region.

Lee: Exactly; "where does Japan fit in Asia?"