Below is a keynote speech by Dick Lee (renowned Singaporean composer) on music in Asia and his own music career period during the Asia Television Forum:
2nd December 2009
Asia Television Forum (Singapore)
Keynote Speech by Dick Lee (Singapore Composer)
Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen.
I’m honored to be invited to make the keynote speech today, although I
have wondered why I – a humble musician – was asked to do so. To me,
the words “key” and “note” have a completely different meaning from
what I think it means here today. When I’m before an audience, I usually
perform, but as that’s not expected of me, I thought I’d touch on a
subject close to my heart, and perhaps relevant to this meeting.
The dilemma I faced as a young musician growing up in Singapore led me
to spend a good part of my career exploring the notion of who I was in
the context of my work. My problems began with my influences and
The Singapore of my childhood was a Malayan state and a British colony.
I was brought up in a Peranakan, or Straits-born Chinese household, with
an English and Malay-speaking father, and an English and Cantonese-
My family home reverberated with music all day long – my dad’s big
band jazz and Indonesian keroncong, and my mum’s collection of
Chinese pop songs and American top-forty hits of the day.
English was my mother tongue, and indeed, the main language of multiracial
Singapore, and so it became my language of choice when I started
to write songs at the tender age of 10. I carried on this way throughout
my teenage years, risking my reputation and freedom, as the 70’s in
Singapore was a dark era for degenerate Western pop music, all forms of
which were recklessly linked by my government to drug-taking and other
evil behaviors, such as loutishness and long hair on men.
I persevered, however, and found myself one day in London, (where I
was studying in the late seventies), presenting my songs to an executive
at Warner Chappell Music Publishing. I had sent him my demos earlier,
and he had listened to them, and accepted the appointment. But when I
walked in and he looked up, his face registered confusion and I think,
dismay. He didn’t expect an Oriental, it seems, because my music was so
Western. He then asked me the one question, which shaped my future: I
wrote good songs, but did I have nothing to say as an Asian?
I was frankly stunned, as the though had never occurred to me. As much
as I saw myself as Elton John or Neil Young, the world saw nothing but a
gangly bean sprout of a Chinese boy. Unfairly dismissed by my lack of
pink pigments, I retreated in shame to reconsider my aspirations. Surely
there must be some hope for an Asian singer-songwriter, who worked in
I decided to explore the situation in other Asian countries and made
some interesting discoveries.
First of all, the undisputed leader of trends in Asian pop culture was, and
still is, Japan. Having swiftly reinvented herself after the Second World
War, Japan evolved a hybrid culture of East-meets-West, voraciously
engulfing and adapting the modern culture of their defeaters: The rockand-
This continued a trend which began with the pre-war Hollywood
invasion, a phenomenon that inspired the sophisticated lifestyles of
Shanghai, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Singapore in the 1930s, the
proliferation of which was fuelled by those cities’ large expatriate
populations. Nightclubs in the grand tradition were creating Asian
songbirds backed by Oriental jazz bands, who sang Latin-inspired jazz
tunes in their native language, producing the first fusion superstars on
The rest of Asia was slow to catch on, largely hampered by the war and
revolutions of certain moguls and megalomaniacs. Also, much of Asia
was dealing with the cultural confusion caused by colonists, who
inadvertently stemmed the advancement of local culture by enforcing
the adaptation of their own. The prevalent attitude of Western
dominance caused a stigma of West is better than East, which made
progressive Asians turn their backs on all things traditional.
Interestingly, local culture is the most advanced and refined in the two
Asian countries which were not obfuscated by Western domination:
Japan and Thailand. Both have highly developed parochial culture and
surviving monarchies, but the difference is that Japan had her national
pride crushed with her defeat in the war, and had to regenerate her
rebirth with a vengeance to repair her wounded psyche.
However, youth being what it is, it wasn’t long before the kids in Kanto
were walking around with Brylcremed quiffs and can-can petticoats,
propagating pop culture in the comeback of the century.
By the early sixties, wild American dance-forms had found their way to
Asian capitals, and the age of the United Nations saw a healthy exchange
of Asian pop crossing borders. Indonesian singers were popularizing a
Chinese tune in the form of Dayung Sampan, and Indonesian hit
Bengawan Solo was being sung by Rebecca Pan of Hong Kong and Hibari
Misora of Japan in their respective languages.
But it was still Japan that was sountracks ahead when Kyu Sakamoto’s
Sukiyaki made it to number one on the Billboard charts in 1963, the first
and only time an Asian song has made it to the top in the United States.
Asian pop had finally arrived, something I hadn’t noticed when I was
discovering the Twist in our living room when I was nine.
This fact resonated more than ten years later when I had to rediscover
myself in late-seventies London. Discouraged by the “meanie” from
Warner Chappell, I decided to expand my horizons and listen to a wider
variety of music. One day, flipping through the racks at HMV on Oxford
Street, I came upon a couple of albums which had distinctly Asian faces
on their covers. The artistes were Yellow Magic Orchestra and Sandii and
the Sunsetz, both from the Land of the Rising Sound! This discovery
began my long-term relationship with Japanese Pop, or J-Pop as it was
later to be termed, and I began my self-awareness as an Asian writer.
Ask any young Asian, and they will all agree that Japan is by far the
coolest place in Asia, if not the world. Old crimes are easily forgotten
when presented with the multitude of must-have gadgets that Japan has
produced. It all started for me with the metallic blue walkman, and
continues to this day with my endless upgrading of flat-screen TVs.
The gadgets only complement the music and fashion that Japan vomits
out in copious quantities – innovative and eccentric, but unmistakably
Japanese. Walk around the streets of Seoul or Hong Kong or Bangkok,
and you see kids undeniably influenced by Harajuku street fashion, and
their older counterparts in Comme Des Garcons.
And how do we know how the Japanese dress? Why, from their media
of course! Japanese-style magazines and television variety shows are
widely distributed and admired, and blatantly copied all over Asia. When
a trend breaks in Tokyo, Taipei is sure to follow – as in the mania for all
things Korean that started in Japan and has now taken over Asia (I want
nobody nobody but you!)
Today, a different scenario exists. The widely predicted Pacific Century
has taken awhile to launch but is most definitely here. And now that
China is throbbing and Luang Prabang has an Aman Resort, a new Asian
identity is starting to be recognizable.
No more the Madam Butterfly of Pucchini, the Mao Zedong of Andy
Warhol, or the Charlie Chan and Suzie Wong or Hollywood, but instead
Jackie Chan and Rain, Nobu and Wagamama, Sony and Samsung, Uniqlo
and Shanghai Tang. Pop culture is most certainly shaping the new Asian
identity for the world and more importantly, for Asians. And it all begins,
but not necessarily ends, with Japan.
As for me, I eventually made it to Japan, discovered, incredibly by
Makoto Kubota, the band-leader of Sandii and the Sunsetz. Like how I
encountered his band, he came across my album in 1989, got in touch
with me and subsequently introduced me to Warner Music Japan. My
entry into the Japanese market acquainted their jaded public to the
wonders of Asia, and that was the start of an Asian presence in their
My career spring-boarded itself into the rest of Asia and allowed me to
collaborate with artistes from many countries. In other words, if I was
cool in Japan, I was cool to the rest of Asia. I had an amazing time as a
born-again Asian, but one of my proudest moments was in 1998 when I
was eventually pursued by, and finally signed to, the biggest publishing
company in the world at the time: Warner Chappell.
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