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

Interview / Asia Hundreds

Looking for an Identity through Music

Takiguchi: And at the same time, it was an issue of Singapore as well. From the very beginning of the country's establishment, it struggled with the conundrum of identity building. The cultural and language policies have reflected the government's desire of making a rooted community and a nation.

Lee: And multiculturalism was a problem too. There has been a huge question on who we are. Are we Chinese? Are we Indian? Are we Malay? Can we allbe Singaporean? Recently we elected a new president who is female and Malay, and there was a huge debate in the process of election. The question of identity is still very immediate and actual in Singapore, probably because we are only fifty years old.

But Japan is different. It has a history of thousands of years, and what the Japanese did was, I think, revisit the values they deemed were good. I noticed it in fashion, in particular; there was a resurgence of Japanese style. Young people started to wear yukata and kimonos around 1990. People returned to their own culture.
We could see the similar trend in music as well. My long-time friend, Kazufumi Miyazawa—I call him Miya—is a good example. He was interested in traditional music in Japan and learned the skill of playing traditional musical instruments. But he was also interested in combining Japanese and other Asian elements. I would say that I influenced him quite a lot in this aspect. He learned to play the gamelan and used it in his music; he also used Okinawan elements in his extremely popular tune, "Shima uta [Island Song]" (1993). There were a lot of cross-cultural trials, and the Japan-Asia thing was probably the most interesting during that time.

Takiguchi: Revisiting their own cultures as a repercussion of the admiration for Western culture is an interesting phenomenon. In Wonder Boy, your song "Fried Rice Paradise" symbolized the Singaporean-ness you found in the course of developing your own style of songwriting—it is a song about a girl who opens a restaurant that serves local dishes. The lyrics are basically in English but mixed with some Malay and Chinese words reflecting the multilingual society of Singapore.
The nature of this song—of it reflecting a quality that is specifically Singaporean—which your mother in the movie described "quite cute," was a key component for your popularity in Singapore at the very early stage of your career.

A photo of a scene from the movie
Dick Lee, Wonder Boy (still), 2017
Constance Song as Dick Lee's mother.

Lee: And I am pretty sure mine was the very first attempt to infuse Singaporean identity into pop music. A local band called Matthew and The Mandarins followed me with their hit song called "Singapore Cowboy" but that was about three years later.

Takiguchi: In a sense, it seems that there was a shared desire in the society for rootedness, to build a Singapore identity back then. The government also introduced many policies that were meant for that purpose. Did you think that your approach resonated with the government's attempt?

Lee: No, definitely not. As you saw in the movie, my song got banned because of the usage of Singlish—colloquial English spoken in Singapore. My sense is that there was no clear direction in the 1970s. We were not sure what to be . The government simply considered Singlish as "bad" English and thought that accepting it would mean they were officially endorsing bad grammar. Thus they banned it on the media broadcasting. It was confusing for me. I had to question, "Should I be ashamed of who I am?" It was as if I was being told to give up being Singaporean for the sake of being more "international." But the government did not clearly say so.

Then, I tried again to use Singlish in the first track of Mad Chinamanin 1989. I thought, "OK, some years have passed. We should be ready." So I did a rap. I was Singapore's first rapper of a sort, in Singlish. And the song got banned again.
Even in 1989, which was fifteen years after "Fried Rice Paradise" got banned, the government was still uncomfortable with Singlish. They banned the song from air play. However, the media supported me and the ban was eventually lifted.

Takiguchi: Very little on Singapore in the 1970s has been openly discussed, I guess. Anecdotal references are made on some extreme policies, such as prohibiting the entrance of long-haired males at the airport, but there are so many untold stories. With Wonder Boy, you unfolded a hidden history of Singapore.

A photo of a scene from the movie
Dick Lee, Wonder Boy (still), 2017

Lee: Yes. That is what I went through. And it is something that no one talks about. People just talk about our independence in 1965. We celebrated the Golden Jubilee of our nation in 2015 under the badge of "SG50," and the history told in that celebration was about 1965 and the years prior to the independence.
But our struggle in finding our identity in the following years is seldom talked about. As we kept ignoring the period, our memories are quickly lost. I remember that at one point in time, around the early 1980s, many old shop houses were torn down; the cityscape changed very rapidly, and our social memory was wiped out. That is quite scary.

Takiguchi: Do you think Singapore has already found its identity?

Lee: Let me use myself as a kind of mirror. I feel that I have found my identity; I am more confident of myself as a Singaporean after years of searching through my music. At the end of the movie, I perform a song called "Home," which I wrote as a theme song of the National Day Parade in 1998.
To me, that song is a testament; it is a song that all Singaporeans can sing. People say it is even as popular as our national anthem. Everybody sings it and feels proud as Singaporeans; people just feel something for that song. I think that is one step towards knowing who we are, and it is interesting that it comes through music.

When I did Mad Chinaman, I experimented with folk songs such as "Rasa Sayang [Feeling Love]." The whole album is full of folk songs. But none of them is ours; they come from their respective countries. We Singaporeans did not have our own folk song!
Of course, we are a very young country with only fifty years of history, and the language would be a big issue in the multiracial society. What language should that folk song be in? Chinese? Yes, Chinese is the largest ethnic group in Singapore consisting of about 75 percent of the population. But if the song is in Chinese, Malays won't sing it.

"Home," which is in English, is now eighteen years old and everyone is still singing it. So maybe that is our folk song. That is the proudest achievement in my life. I had always hoped to write something like that—something to contribute to our national identity.

Takiguchi: In Wonder Boy , after "Fried Rice Paradise," the scene jumps to 2016 and you yourself sing "Home" which does not have any distinctive Singaporean elements. We, the audience members, have to think what happened in between…

Lee: I covered only three years of my life in this movie. We need to make sequels! There still are the 1980s and the 1990s, which are also filled with a lot of episodes—so many things happened in Hong Kong and Japan.

Takiguchi: That means you will continue to direct films?

Lee: I am working on two projects right now, actually. Both are commissioned works so they are not my own projects unlike Wonder Boy. I am writing a script for one of them and directing the other one. Maybe they liked what I did. And both of them have some elements of music which might have been another key. The latter is a Chinese film.

Takiguchi: So you are still looking to work beyond the borders.

Lee: Yes, especially with China at the moment. I'm hoping to do more in the Chinese world. And I cannot speak Chinese! But at the end of the day, it does not matter; I cannot speak Japanese but I work here. Where you live and where you work right now is so global.

Takiguchi: Do you have any plan to come back to Japan?

Lee: I would like to do more in Japan, too, because Japan is where everything kicked off for me. Because of Japan, I was able to give up my work and become a musician. So I really owe a lot to the country.
And Japanese fans are the best. I just had a concert this summer for the first time in twenty years, and those who had come to my show in 1990 came this year with their children this time! Sometimes the opposite happens—through their daughters, their mothers also become fans. It is incredible.
I wish I could come back more. It is no big deal; just give me a piano, that's all I need. Just put a piano there for me, and I can entertain everyone for two hours!

On September 16, 2017 at Canal City Hakata

More Information:

Dick Lee Official Website

Asian Shakespeare Intercultural Archive

Wonder Boy Trailer

Interviewer: Ken Takiguchi
Ken Takiguchi is a dramaturg and translator. Takiguchi was based in Malaysia and Singapore from 1999 to 2016 and has participated in numerous intercultural theatrical productions. Holding PhD from the National University of Singapore, he is a founding member of Asian Dramaturgs’ Network, and one of the Deputy Directors of Asian Shakespeare Intercultural Archive, an online database of Shakespearean performances in East and Southeast Asia. He is currently working at the Japan Foundation Asia Center and teaching part-time at Tokyo University of the Arts.