Dick Lee’s return to the live stage chronicles his journey of self-discovery as one of Singapore’s foremost singer-songwriters.
Contributed By Sarah Priya
You just can’t keep a good man down. It may be due to a case of seven-year itch—his last soldout show, Life Stories, was in 2004—that Dick Lee, the multi-hyphenate, is back with a brand new musical, The Adventures Of The Mad Chinaman. Based on his 2004 autobiography of the same title, the singer, songwriter, playwright and designer aims to bring audiences on a journey of discovery about his cultural identity. It will include hits such as “Rasa Sayang,” “Fried Rice Paradise” and “Home.” Lee’s popular stage works include the musicals for Beauty World (with playwright Michael Chiang) and Fried Rice Paradise.
He shares about the challenges he faced writing his autobiography, his identity crisis and why he calls himself “mad.”
Tell us about your autobiography The Adventures Of The Mad Chinaman.
It was written in 2004 to mark the 30th anniversary of my first album, Life Story, I wanted to tell the story of how I got to become the Mad Chinaman [The Mad Chinaman is Lee’s sophomore album released in 1989.] At first there was talk of a ghostwriter but then I decided to do it myself—which was quite difficult, I must tell you that.
The hardest thing I face when I write anything, whether it is a book or a musical, is that I can’t focus when I am here in Singapore. I have to go away to a nice resort because I am fussy, and that becomes a costly exercise. I took a year to finish the book in spurts, but because you can’t stay in a resort for a year, so I go for a few days, write a few chapters and then come back. At one point I thought I would never finish it.
Will there be new songs that we can look forward to?
There will be some songs that will be new to the audience because these are songs that I wrote during a period of self-discovery in the 1970s and 1980s. Some were recorded but some were not. A lot of people knew about me only when The Mad Chinaman album came out. That album was full of music that inspired me; it’s got fun folk songs such as “Rasa Sayang.” But that is not all the music that I do. Through the concert, I want to show that there are other genres of music that I like to play as well.
On a scale of one to 10, how Chinese are you?
That was one of the things that caused me to come up with this title for my musical. I am Chinese but I never really felt that in my childhood and youth. Being brought up in a very conservative and a rather colonial Peranakan family, there was a bit of confusion for me. I was also very westernized, so identity has always been an issue for me.
I have always been trying to explore this through Chinese music, which is unfamiliar ground to me.
But it’s been an interesting journey and over the years, I have become more comfortable with myself—including the parts that make me Chinese Peranakan and ultimately, Singaporean.
Why the “mad” Chinaman?
When you are looking at a reflection in a mirror that is made up by other people, you wonder “Is it really me?” Because on top of the Chinese Peranakan identity, there’s the Asian tag as well—when you go out into the world, that’s what people see.
So you have to deal with all these things, all types of perceptions created by external forces. These are the things that have confused me a lot and the “mad” in “Mad Chinaman” refers to that confusion.
The Adventures Of The Mad Chinaman plays from May 24 to 26 at the Esplanade Recital Studio. Tickets at S$48 and S$68 from SISTIC and the Esplanade box office.