Saturday, 7 April 2012

THE RETURN OF THE MAD CHINAMAN / Dick Lee and Singapore Chinese Orchestra / Review

Dick Lee & Singapore Chinese Orchestra
Singapore Conference Hall
Thursday (5 April 2012)

This review was published in The Straits Times on 7 April 2012 with the title "Musical Peter Pan returns".

If one wondered if there were such things as a Singaporean song, as opposed to a Chinese, Malay, or Tamil song, then look no further than the creations of Richard Lee Peng Boon. He is, of course, Cultural Medallion recipient Dick Lee, whose songs and musicals remain the most recognisable and regularly performed of local compositions.

The Return is the sequel to The Adventures Of The Mad Chinaman (2011), but now backed by the Singapore Chinese Orchestra conducted by Yeh Tsung. Fears of whether Asian contemporary pop and traditional Chinese instruments would go down smoothly were unfounded, as the orchestra served like an Oriental version of the Boston Pops Orchestra, complete with drum-set and electric guitar. Furthermore, timbres of the sheng, suona and erhu all lent a typically Chinese feel to the proceedings.

The sequence of songs followed Lee’s career in Japan and Hong Kong, where he made his name as pop icon and garnered a cult following. The titular bestselling cassette of 1989 had nothing to do with lunacy or psychosis, but rather the outpouring of grief and anger following the Tiananmen massacre, which sparked an earnest search of his Asian identity.

Popular Asian songs, such as Sukiyaki (Japan), Bengawan Solo (Indonesia) and Xiao Bai Chuan (Korea), were updated, given a rap beat, English lyrics and even counter-melodies. The result was a metamorphosis. The songs, while still recognisable, had become shared between different cultures.

Lee’s friendships with Hong Kong’s top pop-stars also spawned hits, such as Traces Of Love (the late Leslie Cheung), Lover’s Tears (Sandy Lam) as covers, and his original song Love Is Eternal from Snow.Wolf.Lake (Jacky Cheung). The latter and The Search Of My Life (Jui), showed he was convincing and idiomatic in Cantopop, a feat without being conversant with the Cantonese dialect.

His musicals have become a quintessential Singaporean phenomenon, despite borrowings from Broadway and the West End. Who could deny the Peranakan inspiration to the nostalgic Bunga Sayang (Kampong Amber), in collaboration with writer Catherine Lim, or not snigger at the local hawker references thrown up in his early 1974 song Fried Rice Paradise?

Lee’s two guest vocalists (above) complemented his crooning voice and piano-playing well. Tay Kewei’s winsome songstress in the Chinese numbers was a pleasing sight, while the massive lungs of Alemay Fernandez in Single In Singapore (Beauty World) and When All The Tears Have Dried (Sing To The Dawn) threatened to steal the show. On the instrumental front, Zhao Jian Hua’s erhu luxuriated in the sicilienne rhythm of China Rain.

The encores brought on a standing ovation from the sold-out house, a rare sight at the Conference Hall. Home, cheekily referred to as “the song the government forced everyone to sing” and Life Story seemed to sum up his enduring legacy. Dick Lee, who turns 56 later this year, will forever be Singapore’s musical Peter Pan.

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