There was a boy who had a dream, which seems normal enough in the scheme of things. But this was in the 1970s, a time when men were legally banned from keeping long hair and rock was deemed the Devil’s music. Most people’s dreams quickly get extinguished by the stifling cultural oppression because it was a lot easier to colour within the lines. But not this boy whose mother called him Boon when she was being affectionate and by his full name Lee Peng Boon whenever he did something wrong.
Everyone else just called him Dick.
The boy grew up unafraid to dream in spite of it all. One of, if not the, most prolific creative personalities in Singapore, Dick Lee has transcended the arts and culture scene to become a household name in the country. He has that rare quality of being able to connect with anyone on any level, from haute to plebeian, high tea to kopitiam.
“I have done musicals. I have designed clothes. I have directed National Day parades. My first album came out when I was 18 and I am now a film director at 60. I think I been fortunate to pursue the dreams of my life,” Dick replies when I ask him whether there is anything left on his bucket list.
He ponders for a while, then teases. “Well I have always wanted to be on the cover of AUGUSTMAN. And now I am,” he roars with laughter.
Tell me about your film Wonder Boy.
In 2013, I was approached by MM2 Entertainment’s CEO Melvin Ang about whether I wanted to create a film about my life but I thought it was a bit odd, you know, since films about someone’s life usually come out after they’ve passed away (laughs). So, I declined.
Then, in the middle of 2015, my mother passed away and she had been a huge influence on me. In fact, I would not be doing what I am doing today if not for her. She had always backed me. She was the one who explained my aspirations to my father who expected me to join the family business. So this film is dedicated to her.
And you’re directing it too.
Yes. I was asked to direct it, and I have never directed a film before. Sure, I’ve directed theatrical productions but it’s not the same thing. So I asked Daniel Yam (award-winning director behind Open Doors: Singapore and Gift) whether he would like to come on board.
It’s actually not as difficult as I thought. It’s still very much about translating your vision and I have done that my entire life. But our budget was small and we had to complete the shoot in 18 days, so I had to be crystal clear about what I wanted, which suits me anyway because I am quite decisive.
From what I understand, there are going to be some controversial scenes in the film.
Yes. Life was really like that. Drugs were easily available in school. I used to study at St Joseph’s Institution, which is now the Singapore Art Museum, and the sarabat stall opposite was where everyone bought marijuana.
Everyone did it, you know. I’m not hiding anything. It’s funny, I got into a little bit of trouble for saying this in The Straits Times because those who actually didn’t do drugs made a fuss. But I guess what I meant by, “Everyone was doing it” is a bit like saying “Everyone wore bell bottoms.” There are people who didn’t wear them but most did.
Aren’t you afraid of the repercussions?
I experienced it. I’m not making it up. Of course, we were careful about how we portrayed this in the film because it would affect our audience rating. And believe it or not, I am not a controversial person. I am pro-government.
That’s quite ironic, considering most people deride the government for over-censorship.
I have been criticised for this. But I follow the rules simply because I believe in them. I do not think we could have got to where we are today without those rules. I lived through the riots, the drugs and our country would have been a disaster without those rules.
But don’t you think that it hampers creativity?
I have never felt hampered. In my career, I have done so many things. For example, ‘Fried Rice Paradise’ was banned the minute it was released. None of the radio stations touched the song, but Rediffusion played it. Also banned were The Mad Chinaman album and the ‘Rasa Sayang’ rap. But the media supported me and I’ve always eventually come out on top.
So, for Wonder Boy, we had to decide who we wanted to see this film. It’s strange but I actually have a lot of young fans, some as young as nine and 10 who are in primary school now.
Goodness, that’s young.
I know, right? I’m guessing they know me from National Day songs. Anyway, I am feeling a bit sorry that they cannot see Wonder Boy because we are not going to do a PG cut. Right now, we are rated at NC16 and even to get this rating, we had to remove a lot of scenes. But censorship isn’t hampering me. After all, if I wanted to just do what I want, I would have included everything in and it would have been rated RA. But I really wanted young people to see this film.
And who do you want to see Wonder Boy?
That’s an interesting question. MM2 Entertainment has only been doing Chinese films, so it is treating this like an arthouse film because it’s in English (laughs). Let’s be honest, an English language local film tends to get less support here. But I appeal to the mass audience, so to speak. So what I hope will happen is that people who would normally not watch an English local film will be intrigued enough to buy tickets.
The local entertainment industry needs a lot support but the problem is that to get this, the product has to offer a certain kind of quality that people are willing to support. And all my life, after working in so many countries, I find that being accepted in my own country is the most challenging task. But I did it. How?
By bridging the mass market with high art form. For example, when I did my first musical Beauty World back in 1988, I brought Singaporeans into the theatre who had never stepped into this world before because they could relate to the subject matter. People like to watch the Ah Boys to Men films because they can understand them.
I experienced [the drugs culture]. I’m not making it up. Of course, we were careful about how we portrayed this in the film because it would affect our audience rating. And believe it or not, I am not a controversial person. I am pro-government.
Would you say that is your hidden strength – marrying high art with the mass market?
Yes, I would say so. You know, I think a lot of art practitioners here are too precious about what they do. They just want to stay in their own sphere, which can be frustrating. They sort of look down on going mass. As a creative, you have to open your mind (shakes head).
Why did you choose Benjamin Kheng to play the pseudo-you?
So, in 2013, Esplanade commissioned a show titled National Broadway Company, which was kind of a revue, for its anniversary. They brought in all these actors to play different theatre personalities and Benjamin played me. That’s how I met him. I wasn’t just impressed because he sang and played my songs on the piano, but that he learnt to play piano just for the show. That kind of dedication is nothing if not impressive, so I told him, “If I ever do a movie, about my story, I’d like you to play me.” And that’s how it happened.
And what do you want your legacy to be?
I guess I am known for ‘Home‘, so that would be my legacy. Honestly I have done so much since I was young. When I was 18, my album came out. I became a full proper pop singer when I was 34 and I became a movie director at 60. Everything I wanted to do I did. So I’m actually quite happy. I think I have done quite a lot and I think it just took guts, belief and perseverance.
So James Lipton has these 10 questions he always asks his guests. I want to ask you them as well.
What is your favourite word?
I would say kindness.
What is your least favourite word?
What turns you on creatively, spiritually and emotionally?
What turns you off?
Ugliness. Within people.
What sound or noise do you love?
What sound or noise do you hate?
What is your favourite curse word?
I suppose the ‘F’ word. It’s such a rich and round word.
What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Teacher. Being able to share my knowledge and all the beautiful things in the world with people. They don’t have to be children.
What profession would you not like to do?
Construction. It’s too tough!
If Heaven exists, what would you like God to say to you when you arrive at the Gates?
I guess, “Welcome. I’ve been waiting for you.” Oh, maybe, “Welcome. Your mother and sister are waiting for you.”
Wonder Boy is out in cinemas islandwide now