Concert Review: Dick Lee’s The Mad Chinaman 30th Anniversary Concert

Dick Lee, with the Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra, Joy Chorale and Adrian Tan

Dick Lee’s The Mad Chinaman 30th Anniversary Concert

Dick Lee
Jacintha Abisheganadan & Denise Tan, guest artistes
Nawaz Mirajkar, tabla
Adrian Tan, conductor
Khor Ai Ming, choir mistress
Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra
The Joy Chorale

Sunday 15 September 2019
Esplanade Concert Hall

Review by Aileen Tang

My first encounter with the music of Dick Lee was many years ago when my schoolmates and I were looking for a song-and-dance item to represent Singapore at a concert for United Nations Evening. We chanced upon Dick Lee’s The Mad Chinaman album and – with some resourceful acquisition of minus-one tracks – we went on to perform “Rasa Sayang Rap” and “Mustapha” with great gusto.

Dick Lee’s The Mad Chinaman 30th Anniversary Concert was thus a must-catch for me – and the full house at the Esplanade Concert Hall obviously agreed with me. This is our Cultural Medallion winner, the composer of that favourite NDP song, our 国宝 (“National treasure”) who was more loved in Japan before our country accepted him, Singlish and all. This concert was to be the first time that Lee would perform songs from his 1989 album live, idiomatically orchestrated by Mohd Rasull, and accompanied by the Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra (BHSO) and The Joy Chorale.

After a suitably sentimental overture of Lee’s most well-known songs – including “Home”, “Beauty World Cha-Cha-Cha” and “Life Story”, the Mad Chinaman himself came on stage in a spiffy bright pink suit to cheers and applause. The audience’s response was so overwhelmingly enthusiastic that he flubbed the lyrics to the eponymous opening song, “The Mad Chinaman”. But that only endeared him even more to the audience and he fell into an easy banter with us, explaining that his strained voice was due to a nasty bout of laryngitis (“Thank God for the man who invented steroids!”) earlier in the week.

The Mad Chinaman is an album about the exploration of identity and the concert wasn’t just a celebration of its anniversary, but a glorious snapshot of Lee’s career – from “Life Story” to the instrumental “Windows”, written specially for this concert and dedicated to the memory of his late parents. He showed off his Peranakan-Chinese-Singaporean identity with songs like “I am Baba” (complete with a delightful anklung introduction scattered through the orchestra’s string section) and “The Ding Dong Song / Let’s All Speak Mandarin”, a response to Singapore’s Speak Mandarin Campaign of the 1980s. 

Not only did the audience join in the party, clapping and singing along to local folk songs like “Chan Mali Chan” and “Rasa Sayang”, but so did conductor Adrian Tan. With a background in Theatre Studies, his conducting moves complemented Lee’s songs perfectly and he was truly the other man to watch on stage. Best of all, Tan did not just lead his orchestra as an independent unit – he watched and responded to Lee with the kind of rapport that must be on every singer’s wish list. 

Lee made sure to commend BHSO (“Now we have an orchestra, I can sing these songs!”) and The Joy Chorale, and gave them ample opportunities to perform on their own – BHSO with “Yehenara” (used to pitch Lee’s musical Forbidden City: Portrait of an Empress to the Esplanade) and The Joy Chorale with a medley of Asian folk songs. Frankly we were not there for a choral symphony and it would be harsh to judge the choir and orchestra with that expectation. BHSO often substituted majesty with sheer volume and did better with the quiet, more subtle accompaniment, while The Joy Chorale sounded like a communal singalong. Nonetheless, they looked like they were having the time of their lives decked out in jewel colours up in the choir gallery,

Lee was joined by guest artistes Jacintha Abisheganaden and Denise Tan. Theatre veteran Tan, a self-declared mega Dick Lee fan, hammed it up with Lee in “The Ding Dong Song / Let’s All Speak Mandarin” and the Bond-esque “The Centre of Asia”. She certainly lived up to Lee’s gushing description of her as “a fantastic singer and a fantastic actor”. Jacintha – Lee’s muse, best friend and one-time wife – fared less successfully. Perhaps it was an off-day for her but there were multiple hiccups in the entries and coordination for “Mustapha”. Adrian Tan looked worried too, watching carefully to bring singers and orchestra into alignment. Being one of the songs which my friends and I performed, I had high expectations of hearing it sung by the original singers. I remember us running around the stage Bollywood-style as we warbled “Cheri je t’aime, cheri je t’adore”, and somehow I couldn’t help thinking that our version was no worse than tonight’s rendition. 

It was a veritable jamboree on the rather cramped stage and more than once, I felt a tingling in my toes (I’m sure the Esplanade ushers would not have taken kindly to my dancing in the aisle though). When the stage erupted with “Rasa Sayang Rap” after a rousing “Fried Rice Paradise”, I realised I could still remember every word of the rap – and even the accompanying choreography my friends and I had rehearsed. Talk about a flashback! Lee would have been proud of us.

At the end of the day, nothing is quite as magical as Dick Lee at the piano. It was there that he gave us his most heartfelt encore – “Life Story’ and “Home”. The choir and audience made the scene even more magical by waving their mobile phone torchlights and I am convinced that I was not the only one who was moved to tears. And if that wasn’t already the perfect ending to a truly nostalgic evening, Lee rewarded the standing ovation with a few glistening lines of 追 (“Chase”) written for the late Cantopop artiste Leslie Cheung. 

One might be forgiven for thinking that Dick Lee is just about NDP and musicals, but his songs represent so many diverse slices of Singapore and what it means to be Singaporean. His inimitable blend of rustic folk tunes, tongue-in-cheek Singlish and sophisticated harmonies testify to his proud claim that “Being Singaporean makes me the musician I am”. For me personally, this concert brought me back to a more carefree time in my life when just listening to a great song was enough to make my day.

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