It’s been 30 years since Dick Lee’s Mad Chinaman album was released. To celebrate the pearl anniversary of what to some was—and still is—the definitive Singaporean album, Mr Lee staged an orchestra-backed concert at the Esplanade. Was it a fresh sound to a vintage recording, or was it strictly for fans?
By Cooper Low
I am guilty of listening to Dick Lee’s 1989 album Mad Chinaman back in, well, 1989. Guilty as in the feeling that is also linked to pleasure. Mad Chinaman was not an album I typically enjoyed in those days. I was very much into The Cure’s Disintegration—an album of heartbreak (then, a recent discovery) and melancholy that was tremulous of the songs’ epic-ness (even on cassette tape!). The guitar intro of Pictures of You entranced me, rather than the almost-juvenile synthesised keyboard and drums of Mad Chinaman’s. Besides, most of the people I knew were listening to either ‘harder’ machismo-affirming stuff such as Nirvana and Aerosmith, even Beastie Boys, or, conversely, the diva-esque—Kylie, Madonna, or Lisa Standsfield.
Except one, my friend Bong, who had been listening to the songs of Dick Lee and following his career since the 1974 debut album Life Story. When I finally paid attention to Mr Lee’s music, it was not even sung by him. During a period when I was totally mad about Depeche Mode, I also discovered Silence, the 1983 album Mr Lee wrote for Jacintha, her first. This was way before Drama Mama (which, I have always suspected to be Mr Lee’s creation)—eight years before, I believe. Silence opened my ears to something I had not yet hear in songs written and produced in Singapore. For a while, my Walkman played almost nothing else except Silence and Jacintha’s clear, rich, warm, unique, believable, pre-Ben Webster voice enthralled me. This was Singa-synth-pop! And catchy too. Bong and I sang to every song; we were especially crazy about the still-unforgettable interpretation of the Bee Gees’s Run to Me, the touching and relatable Still Burns, and the duet with Dick Lee, It Takes Two (I can hear Jacintha singing you wouldn’t leave things so one-sided, would you?). That was the last track, I remember, and it would bring us back to the first, Bad News, and we would instantly break into dance! Bad news will find a way to bring you down, any time, any place… Gosh, I can still sing it.
Mad Chinaman was… a pastiche of sounds, both singing and instrumental, that I thought grated
Truth be told, when I first heard Mad Chinaman, I did not quite like it. While Silence was synth-smart-and-sophistication (Fender Rhodes and Jupiter 8 now sound so quaint!), intriguing/catchy chord progressions, and clever word play, Mad Chinaman was—how do I put it delicately?—a pastiche of sounds, both singing and instrumental, that I thought grated. I admit that there was some snobbery at work here. Mr Lee is still proud to be one of the first local songwriters to use Singlish in his songs (and he would, years later, repeatedly regale the audience with the proud recount of how the songs were once “banned”), but back then, the lyrics sounded a little rough to me, or, to use a favourite Peranakan word that describes the unrefined, kasar. And Mr Lee does not have the voice to make them more lembut, soft. You can understand why I might be embarrassed if other people found out about my musical taste, which can be called many things, but questionable.
My hesitation with Mad Chinaman at first hearing was also compounded by another 1983 album I had grown to love and rather intensely—the more ‘serious’ sounding, Lou Reed-influenced, and polished Regal Vigour by Zircon Lounge, whose frontman was the non-pop Chris Ho, a radio (Rediffusion!) DJ I had held in considerable awe. Dick Lee, too, was in that seminal album, co-producing it and playing, unsurprisingly, keyboards, but any madness or Chinaman was held in check. Jacintha, too, was in Regal Vigour, although I now cannot remember on which track. These albums, including Mr Lee’s, were part of a strong body of work released by Warner Music Singapore (WEA) in the late ’80s. Sadly, WEA dropped Zircon Lounge as quickly as they picked the band up because the debut album reportedly sold a sad 1,000 copies, while Tracy Huang’s three albums that year, such as the Lou Reed-free Love of Angel (天使之戀, from rival Polygram), averaged 50,000.
But I did give Mad Chinaman further listening. And some songs started to shine. At around this time, I discovered the Hong Kong duo Tat Ming Pair (達明一派) and was most sold on their second album, 1987’s The Story of The Stone (石頭記). The titular track stood out for me as it was unmistakably oriental, yet it sounded far from the Canto-pop that was heard and enjoyed at that time. If you took away lead singer Anthony Wong’s distinctive and clear vocals, this could be a track released by 4AD or one of the British indie bands I was listening to. Together with the massive hit Angels of the Road (馬路天使), I was certain that the Tat Ming Pair was the future of Asian pop, even not quite commercial they might have been.
Mad Chinaman, I thought, was not as subtle, urbane, and polished as The Story of The Stone. But in the former, I could hear something I had earlier heard in the latter: a sound, one that reflected the city in which it was made, and so evocative you could see and smell the place. Dick Lee has always had a sense of what is local and how that could be worked into his melody-making, which was influenced by the pop music of the ’60s and ’70s. While the Tat Ming Pair freely incorporated historical references and folk tunes into their music, they were usually less barefaced. Mr Lee’s were, of course, more perceivable—a lot more. By his own admission, Mad Chinaman “was not really written” by him since half were based on existing tunes, identifiably so.
There was nothing special, but somehow the unembellished, not-Idol-style singing and the English lyrics to what I knew as a Mandarin song appealed…
While I was not grabbed by the ditty-like Ni Ni Wo Wo, the kitschy Mustapha (supposedly of Egyptian origin, featuring Jacintha en route to becoming Drama Mama), and the erred-on-the-cheesy Rasa Sayang and Bengawan Solo, I took to the titular track, the anthemic Centre of Asia, The Windchime Song, and, strangely, Little White Boat that I knew as the Chinese xiao bai chuan 小白船, reportedly a Korean folk song, now sung by Mr Lee in English. There was nothing special about this track, but somehow the unembellished, not-Idol-style singing and the English lyrics to what I knew as a Mandarin song was really appealling. The reason was not apparent to me until a few years later when I heard the lullaby-like 是否真爱我 (shi fou zhen ai wo, or Do You Really Love Me?), which Mr Lee wrote for Tracy Huang, and was later sung in English as Everything I Know: Dick Lee has a knack for melodies that can be sung in more than a single language without one sounding worse that the other.
Although Mad Chinaman is now touted as “an attempt to create a Singapore soundtrack”, the idea had, in fact, appeared in Mr Lee’s 1984 album Life in the Lion City, which he had called “an enthusiastic (but unappreciated) expression of being Singaporean”. Until Mad Chinaman, Mr Lee’s work was largely Western pop, conceived for an audience of mostly friends-as-listeners who also enjoyed similar pop of the West. While the folk tune Rasa Sayang appeared in Mad Chinaman as a full (rap!) song, a refrain was first sung by Mr Lee at the end of Culture, from Life in the Lion City. Was this a foretaste of things to come? Did Dick Lee, in fact, predate the Tat Ming Pair whose first album appeared in 1986?
Cut to the present, it felt strange listening to Mad Chinaman again after, well, thirty years, as Dick Lee reminded us in his one-night-only concert at the Esplanade last night. Surprisingly, the album has never been performed here in its entirety, except in Japan, where, presumably, it had novelty value. Still, this was familiar territory for Dick Lee: going back to where he started or left off. If you have been to any of his concerts, you would have been familiar with the inevitable look-back, the easy, one-sided banter and the okay singing. I think people still attend his concerts because 1) he truly has many supportive friends, 2) his songs are entertaining for their ability to jolt the memory, and 3) the majority don’t listen to The Sam Willows, unless, perhaps, it is Benjamin Kheng singing Fried Rice Paradise.
What struck me last night was how few there were the under-twenty-fives. Many of the attendees could be Mr Lee’s contemporaries—Merdeka Gen, we call them now—or older, who would certainly remember the government campaign that he sang about in Let’s All Speak Mandarin. Lyrically, much of Mad Chinaman stood rooted in a particular time. Throughout the two-hour long concert, words that I had forgotten now stuck out: “the ketupat at Satay Club” (Rasa Sayang) and “a star from SBC” (Let’s All Speak Mandarin), so unambiguous b efore Soundcloud and, definitely, IG. Unless you are from Choo Bee Lean’s era, “…selling rings and things from China…” (Fried Rice Paradise, sung for its popularity and to stretch what would have been a 50-odd-minute-long album into a two-hour show), is really the mega-e-biz known as Taobao. Maybe, Dick Lee had, after all, the gift of foresight?
Soaring strings to familiar tunes may be appealing to those who no longer have the patience for one note misplayed, but the songs too require something far more fun
The concert had the backing of a full orchestra, which was the opportune moment for Dick Lee to declare, perhaps a little too earnestly, “I am a serious musician, and it takes an orchestra to prove it!” (I noticed he didn’t say ‘singer’). To be sure, the Braddell Heights Symphony Orchestra (BHSO) that accompanied him is no SSO. Still, they played competently—hiccups aside, but Mr Lee’s music, especially Mad Chinaman, requires not just competence, but cheek. Soaring strings to familiar tunes may be appealing to those who no longer have the patience for one note misplayed, but the songs too require something far more fun—which has always characterised Mr Lee’s music and musicianship. What was needed was what Nigel Kennedy might have called “pathos”, not perfection.
Mr Lee was accompanied by “muse-my-whole-life” Jacintha, who no longer appears as the vivacious and immensely listenable side-kick she once was. Predictably, she came on to duet with Mr Lee on Mustapha, a song given a “Bollywood movie theme song” treatment. Ja, as she is known to music industry veterans, could once possibly be Singapore’s Sade (her version of Smooth Operator—never, as far as I am aware, recorded—surpassed any version I have ever heard), but now with a hardcore, traditional jazz recording career, she seemed unable, last night, to give Dick Lee songs the girlishness and, at the same time, sultriness they require. What surprised me was how self-conscious she appeared and sounded, and how unable she was to deliver, near the end of the song, “you naughty, naughty” with the Indian impishness it deserved. Dick Lee’s music, as one of my friends noted, can be quite camp. He needs Jacintha to deliver it. As for the other guest star, Denise Tan, if Caldecott is no more, so should that sound.
Perhaps, I no longer listen to Dick Lee’s music for reasons of nostalgia. When I was an impressionable teen, the Mad Chinaman’s music was charming because it was amusing. Perhaps I have grown up and Dick Lee has not. Thirty years later, I was hoping for something more full-bodied, but, despite the orchestral backing, got something quite thin. (Sadly, the song I was most hoping to hear, Little White Boat, was omitted. Or, did I, somehow, miss it?) Approaching the Esplanade last night, haze hung like a heave, I had hope this could be how Spandau Ballet re-recorded their back catalogue in the 2009 album, Once More. Instead, I left, thinking, not again.
Photos: Chin Boh Kay