Revisiting Dick Lee’s most iconic contributions to the arts and culture in Singapore
Singapore’s iconic singer-composer Dick Lee returns to stage this June at Esplanade’s PopLore – A Year of Singapore Popular Music, a series of live concerts, podcasts, and an exhibition that celebrates Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay’s 20th anniversary.
A 2014 Cultural Medallion recipient, Lee’s upcoming performance is a collaborative effort with Omnitones, a band of young musicians, featuring vocal trio Third Degree. Audiences can look forward to fresh renditions of well-loved ballads like Return to Beauty World and Rasa Sayang, alongside new compositions created by Lee and Omnitones.
In the spirit of commemorating popular music in Singapore, The A List spotlights five of Lee’s most notable contributions to the arts in Singapore over the years.
1. Fried Rice Paradise (1974, 1991, 2010, 2019)
“She opened Fried Rice Paradise
Nasi Goreng very nice
That’s her speciality
Fried Rice Paradise, a song Lee wrote in 1974, is perhaps one of his most iconic compositions. However, it turned out to be a masterpiece ahead of its time as it didn’t receive quite the same acclaim when it was released.
Citing liberal use of Singlish, the song was immediately banned by the local radio station Radio Television Singapore (RTS). Despite that, the song received support from other channels like Rediffusion, a subscription based cable-transmitted radio station in Singapore.
After enduring its most difficult years, Lee expanded Fried Rice Paradise into a musical, debuting it in 1991. It was restaged in 2010, albeit with a different narrative. In 2019, it made its way to local television in the form of a drama series set in the early 80s. The TV incarnation follows the trials of a young lady named Choo Bee Lian who dreams of opening a restaurant featuring dishes based on her late mother’s recipes.
2. The Mad Chinaman (1989)
While Lee’s first attempt to embrace colloquialism and his Singaporean identity through his music began with a rocky start, his grit paid off when he released The Mad Chinaman in 1989.
The song’s lyrics represented Lee’s journey of reconciling with his Singaporean roots in the backdrop of the Tiananmen Square massacre that happened in the same year.
The Mad Chinaman was well received, becoming a crowd favourite and a platinum hit. It was played across Asia and won awards in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan. The mass appeal and tours across the region crowned Lee with both fame and the iconic moniker “The Mad Chinaman”.
3. Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress (2002)
Inspired by the story of one of China’s most powerful rulers, Empress Dowager Cixi, Lee took a page out of China’s ancient history and turned it into an alluring musical experience.
The empress dowager’s legacy was marked by her intelligence and ruthlessness. The musical, however, explores the human side of Cixi as a mother, wife, and lover. Starring Singaporean singer and actress Kit Chan in the leading role, the musical has been lauded as “the most successful original musical ever to be produced in Singapore.”
First staged in October 2002 as part of the opening festival of Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, Forbidden City was so well loved that it was restaged in 2003, 2006, and 2017. Lee’s composition for the musical even won the Life! Theatre Awards for Best Music in 2004.
4. National Day in Singapore (1997, 2002, 2015)
A big part of the National Day celebrations in Singapore is the original homegrown songs – both old and new. Renditions of the country’s favourite tunes such as Home, We Will Get There, and Our Singapore can be heard weeks before and after the national holiday in schools, around the city, and on our televisions.
Most would recognise Kit Chan’s and Stefanie Sun’s unique voices in these songs, but only few know that these three hits were composed and written by Lee himself. Lee wrote Home in 1997, We Will Get There in 2002, and Our Singapore in 2015.
5. Wonder Boy (2017)
Lee might be known best for his prolific compositions, but that is not all he excels in.
In 2017, Lee co-directed his first film Wonder Boy with filmmaker Daniel Yam. Wonder Boy recounts the trying times of Lee’s teenage years – specifically the three years after the release of his first album Life Story.
Taking audiences back to the Singapore that young Lee grew up in, the film depicts Lee’s struggles as a young musician, how he stuck to his beliefs, and the relentless pursuit of his dreams.
Lee’s contributions to the arts in Singapore are nothing short of significant, and it continues in his upcoming performance, held on 18 Jun, at the Esplanade Concert Hall.
Get tickets to Dick Lee & Omnitones ft. Third Degree here.
(Photos: Esplanade, Singapore Repertory Theatre, Biblio Asia, National Library, The Straits Times, Dick Lee Asia)
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