Dick Lee “Wonder Boy” – Interview in Fukuoka
Singaporean performer and composer Dick Lee came to Fukuoka for the Focus on Asia Fukuoka International Film Festival 2017, in which “Wonder Boy”, the biopic of Lee’s formative years, made its international debut. Fukuoka Now’s publisher, Nick Szasz, chatted with Lee on the day before its first screening. There will be one more screening on Saturday, September 23 from 18:15 at United Cinemas, Canal City Hakata. Full festival information here.
Wonder Boy opens in Fukuoka, the first city overseas. How was the reaction in Singapore? Any surprises?
Yes. We had a very good response, very good comments from the audience. A lot of those are my fans who’ve known me for a long time, didn’t know all these things, a lot of what is revealed in that film because it covers a very early part of my life. So yeah, they were quite surprised.
But how about you, were you surprised by anything?
I think it was more like they were surprised. Some songs that I have always been performing actually came from that period. That, a lot of people didn’t know. That they were written so long ago, which is – we’re talking about 1972 to 1974, that period. There’s a song called “Fried Rice Paradise” which I sing all the time. And people are quite surprised that, “oh, it comes from that!” And the film also tells about how that song came about and why I wrote it. It links to something that’s very close to me which my audience knows, which is about my search for my own Singapore identity through my music. And that song, the writing of that song is tied to that. So all these, I think, was new to a lot of the people.
So details about those early days weren’t well known.
Yeah… Not about that part. I’ve been around so long, so they know maybe the second half, outside my career.
You wear so many hats. As a musician, fashion designer, producer, and now as film director. Which hat fits you the best?
I guess if you ask me just to tell you what I see myself as, I would just say I’m a musician, I’m a composer. Because everything I do, as all the other hats are aware, stem from that. So it’s always music that leads to everything. Even this movie is about my music.
This is your first time to direct a film. How was it and do you want to do it again?
Being a movie director was never part of my bucket list. I don’t know why. I love movies and everything, but you know, it’s not something I wanted to do. So when I was actually first approached, I declined. Because I thought I wouldn’t have the patience. But having done it, and now adding that to my list of titles, ‘movie director’, and loving the experience, I really enjoyed it. I’m thinking, why not? Why not do another one? And then suddenly I’ve got two other offers to direct.
Yeah! So that’s quite surprising, like coming so quickly. And I’m flattered, of course, and I’ve accepted.
In 2003, you were awarded the Fukuoka Asian Cultural Prize. Can you tell us a little bit about that experience and what it meant to you?
First of all it came as a surprise, yeah, because this is a very prestigious and quite serious award. The thing that surprised me most was that the committee regarded what I did, which is pop music, as serious enough to merit an award. I was very happy about that because it just proved that whatever it is we do, whichever genre we are working with, whichever medium, whether it’s in fine art or pop art, it’s still culture. It’s still cultural. For me, coming from a young country – Singapore – 2015, two years ago we just celebrated our fiftieth anniversary, we had no identity. This has always been my struggle. I’ve used pop art to try to define what I am as a Singaporean. Because I can’t rely on traditional culture. Because being an immigrant, you know, from China, if I use my Chinese side, that’s from China. And Singapore has its own, is its own entity in itself. But still too young to have a kind of an identity. So I use pop culture and I was very happy to have been recognized, and the year after that I won a national award, in my own country, it’s what we call the Cultural Medallion, also for the same thing. And in both cases, I was the first person to get the award for pop culture. Before that it was all more serious. So that’s quite something.
So now you’re back here and participating in the Focus on Asia Fukuoka International Film Festival. I suppose you couldn’t have foreseen this day when you received the Fukuoka award?
Yeah, but you know something? I lived in Japan in the 90s. And immediately forged a strong connection with Fukuoka because of, well, at the time I’ve always thought of Fukuoka’s and Kyushu’s proximity to Asia made Kyushu the most Asian part of Japan. And so I connected very quickly. When I came here for the first time I immediately saw that it was different from, say, Tokyo or Osaka in terms of its acceptance and raising of Asian culture. And this is particularly significant for me in the early 90s because when I first came to Japan in 1990, bringing my music from Singapore, and meeting the Japanese media at that time, they were – of course, first of all, curious about somebody like me coming from this island, South Pacific, called Singapore – and they were curious about how come I do what I do, and about Asian culture. And I’m like hang on, aren’t we all Asians?
But almost all the media replied, no, no, no. You are Asian, and we are Japanese. It was quite alarming. But I didn’t feel that here in Fukuoka. So that was the thing that made me feel closer to this city. And of course then I learned of the – later on I learned about the awards and how it has a strong focus on Asian culture here.
Did you visit Fukuoka in the 90s?
Yeah, I came here as part of my tours. And I always stopped here. In fact last year I came here for an exhibition at the Fukuoka Art Museum where my family donated some ethnic costumes to the collection.
You’re sixty years or so young…
One, sixty one actually!
OK, 61, and this is your first movie. Why now?
Because the opportunity presented itself. Basically I was approached actually to do this, by the producer and then to do a film of my life and I immediately rejected it. No, why, why are you interested. And this was in 2014. 2013, I think. I turned him down, and then I got tied up with a lot of very big projects. I did our big National Day show, in 2015 which was the 50th anniversary of our country, so that was a huge project for me. Then the year after, 2016, last year, I turned sixty. And I started to, you know, think about my life, and you know – I did a big concept, a sort of birthday concept. Then I thought, yeah, you know looking back, maybe it’s time.
To tell your story…
Yeah, so last year, I went back to him and was like, oh, are you still interested? And then we did it.
What kind of challenges or difficulties did you face in making Wonder Boy?
Well, writing it, I wrote it, writing it in itself was tough. Should I expose so many skeletons? But then my mother passed away two years ago. I really wanted to make this as a tribute to her and how’s she’s supported me and how she was so important to me and everything. So I took it from that point of view and of course then I was a nightmare, I was a kid, I must have hurt her a lot and I wanted to just put it all out there. When we were at the shoot, some moments were quite difficult.
Yeah, those times were relived. The art direction was so good that it was really like I was at home in the 70s. All the costumes are actually vintage. So everything looked so authentic. When sudden scenes were played out, I had to stop and take a step back. I had to suddenly step away. But luckily I had a good director, Daniel, who was very, very instrumental in making this happen because I’ve never directed before, so I needed advice and his technical help and I was very insecure about this whole process but having him there pulled me through.
If you had the chance to return to that age what advice would you give to yourself?
I think my musical journey was necessary. I learned through them. Not only that, the struggles that… I had the struggles because of the situation at the time when the government was cleaning up the acts and cleaning up all the men, Singaporean men, getting them out of drugs, national service had just started. For your information in the 1960s, Singapore had a booming music industry. There were bands with screaming fans, and it was a huge industry. EMI, the recording company, ruled. But then when national service started in 1967, everyone got drafted. And the whole industry literally died. Completely died. So that when I was then ready to come out and do music, I was 15, you know, there was no more industry. And not only was there no more industry, rock concerts were banned, long hair was banned, long hair on men because you know it was associated with drugs. If you play the guitar, you were labeled a drug addict. So that was a time when I started to do my thing and that was really really difficult also and I had to go through that. But the one thing I would probably change was maybe try to be nicer to my family. I guess I was such a brat!
I saw that in the film.
Yeah! I wasn’t such a nice guy.
Your first big success was with the song Fried Rice Paradise. Why do you think it resonated with people at the time?
I think they recognized something in themselves. There was something Singaporean about it. The whole idea of being Singaporean had not been explored. Nobody knew what being Singaporean meant. And we never even bothered to think about it. We were just out of being independence and prior to that we were part of Malaysia, part of the British Colony, and being Singaporean was not important, not even considered. And I think Fried Rice Paradise was the first time somebody put it out there for everybody. And as you can see from the film, the first thing that happened was the ban. Because the government was a bit embarrassed like… this was normal, this was colloquial. But the public embraced it. And that has always been the secret to my success, as it were, is the public. The public always supports what I do no matter what the critics say, no matter what the government says, the public like what I do and what I do is for them, is Singaporean.
You amplified or nurtured their sense of identity?
Yes. And I’ve put a mirror up, basically, for Singaporeans. And they like what they see, and they laugh! They laugh.
You’ve applied that concept to other projects, correct?
Yes. I mean, once I saw that that worked, I realized that this is what I need to do. You know, don’t forget that I make music in English. And this causes a problem because I get lumped in with all English language music in the world. I get put in there. You know I had this problem when I came to Japan for the first time in 1990, for my album The Mad Chinaman, was released here, which was basically my third attempt. I did another attempt in 1984, called Life of the Land City where I tried to put my Singaporean-ness in an album, but that didn’t work. But in 1989, the Mad Chinaman worked and was successful enough to get picked up here. And on the cover of the album, I had full Chinese opera makeup. The reason I did that was because I wanted to go, I’m very Westernized but here’s the other representation of me. I go completely the other way, you know? And did this Chinese opera theme. Very super ultra-traditional. But the music is very pop inside with multicultural themes. And when it came here…do you remember Wave, the record store that was… in Roppongi?
Yes, of course.
That was like the hit record store, there was often CD shops who were still thriving and I remembered the first time I went in there to find my album, I found it in the international section, in the Japanese domestic section, and I also found it in the world music section. Like they didn’t know where to put it. It had no… it sort of defied classification. And so I think that was exciting for me because I’m everywhere, my music can be part of everywhere.
Yeah, you told me already that you’ve got a couple of other movie offers. Can you tell us anything about them or is that too early?
A bit too early, yeah. One I’m writing and the other one is something that is a directing job. But then I write musicals which is my main thing, you know. And I have coming up a new musical, coming up next year, which is a retelling of the legend of Mulan that Disney made famous but I’ve re-imagined it in Shanghai and in 1930s. They’re staging that in November next year. Right now I’m working on a charity show for children. It’s a fundraiser that raises money to give children school, textbooks and things. So this is a really interesting choice. 170 kids performing and I wrote a loose story and directing the show, that’s in November this year. I’m working on that now. And then I have some very interesting… I just did a multimedia projecting in the new Changi Airport Terminal 4 which is a like a movie being played in the transit lounge and they liked it so much that they just commissioned a second one so I have to start working on that like… tomorrow!
You’re busy! You’re busy.
When will we see you again in Fukuoka?
You know something? In July, I just did a tour…
You were here?
No, but in Osaka, one show, and two shows in Tokyo. And that was so great to see all my fans. And I was wondering, why didn’t I go to Fukuoka?
You have to!
So maybe if you organize it, I’ll come! You present it. And talk to the local government.
This city is really becoming very–
Vibrant. I can feel it.
You’d be very welcome here.
We look forward to seeing you again. Thank you for your time and good luck with the film.