Interview – TFI speaks to Dick Lee about The Mad Chinaman – Sep 2019

This year marks the 30th anniversary of Cultural Medallion winner Dick Lee’s iconic album The Mad Chinaman and he’s celebrating it with a very special concert with Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra and The Joy Chorale, conducted by Adrian Tan and with special guests Denise Tan and Jacintha! But did you know that this will only be the first time that Dick is performing all the songs from that album in Singapore? Aileen Tang talks to Dick Lee to find out more about his take on Singlish and the future of the Singapore Arts scene.

The Flying Inkpot: Tell us a little about how this 30th-anniversary concert on 15 Sept is going to present a Mad Chinaman for 2019.

Dick Lee: When I realized that this year marked the anniversary of the album that changed my life, I also realized that I had never performed all the songs here, as I moved to Japan 4 months after its release in 1989. Then, as I was thinking about what to do to mark the occasion, my good friend and musical supporter, Adrian Tan approached me to do a concert with the Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra (which he directs), so we combined the two ideas and this concert came about. Those familiar with the album will be surprised at the powerful orchestral treatment, enhanced by a 100-member choir!

TFI: The album was banned here when it was first released because of the use of Singlish. What is your response to the debate on Singlish?

DL: In the 70s and 80s we were still living in what remained of the shadow of the British Empire, and were as yet unsure of who we were as Singaporeans, at least culturally. This is an issue that has pervaded my creative rationale for most of my life and explored in my work. It was perplexing and disappointing to have my early attempts banned (Fried Rice Paradise, 1974), simply for the “improper” use of English, but by 1989, we had come a long way in the quest for national identity, and the media played a big part in getting the ban on “Rasa Sayang” lifted.

TFI: How do you think the concept of a “Singaporean song” has changed since you penned the songs for this album 30 years ago? Is there such a thing as a “Singapore sound”?

DL: I always thought that the Singapore Sound had to be obvious and easily identifiable aurally. That’s why my first tries used folk songs and other Asian pop songs I knew. However, through the years, as I have become more confident in who I am as a Singaporean, Chinese, Peranakan, Asian, I feel that our Singaporean-ness comes from within. “Home” for example is identifiable as having a Singaporean soul without any reference to ethnic sounds.

TFI: Your name instantly comes to mind when we think about the arts and culture in Singapore. What do you see as the direction of Singapore arts? Where do you think we should be going and what are the challenges that might hinder that journey?

DL: When former PM Goh Chok Tong announced his vision in the late 80s for Singapore becoming a world-class city, I was skeptical and hopeful at the same time. However, I’m proud to have been part of this miraculous evolution and to be working in creating in this place which once was a cultural desert. We now know that the power to shape our identity and future lies in our hands, and with greater local support, the Arts scene can only grow.

TFI: What do you hope the audience coming away from this concert will be saying about Dick Lee and The Mad Chinaman?

DL: That I am a Son of Singapore – truly!

Dick Lee’s The Mad Chinaman 30th Anniversary Concert plays at the Esplanade Concert Hall on 15 Sept 2019. For ticketing information, please visit

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