Our performance – titled Call It Singaporeana – is a music and spoken-word collaboration focused on telling Singapore stories.
Each piece integrates an original song by General Lee with a poem or literary text written by me, in response to their music, where we bring together music, theatre and literary arts to imagine (or reimagine) Singaporeana – Singapore stories of our country’s history, myths and legends, and to tell (or retell) them through word and song.
General Lee will also be arranging their music in collaboration with The Good Company to incorporate acoustic instruments integral to American folk music such as the fiddle, the banjo and the mandolin.
The Good Company – comprising Kailin Yong, Kelly Olafson and Mark James Garratt – is a collective of musicians well-versed in the acoustic instruments that define the sound of Americana, or American folk music. This includes country, bluegrass and old-time music of the Appalachian Mountains.
A little teaser about what’s new and different from the previous show:
We’ll be debuting two new works: Murder in Toa Payoh x Confidence Man and No Place for the Blues x The Yellowgreenhouse.
While General Lee’s songs from their eponymous debut album released in 2016 form the bulk of the collaboration, “Murder in Toa Payoh” is one of their newer songs that hasn’t been released on an album yet.
“The Yellowgreenhouse” is a monologue written in response to “No Place for the Blues”. It’s a bit of a departure from poetry as I wanted to try something a bit different and I felt the form was better suited to the theme and subject matter of my response to their song.
Playwright and director Lucas Ho provides dramaturgy for this performance.
A big thank you to JK for the humorous and engaging discussion. You can listen to the interview on the Camokakis app, by downloading the podcast “#JKAYA EP54 GENERAL LEE & LAREMY LEE”, published on 1 May 2022.
I’ve also included a transcript below for archival purposes.
JK: And welcome to the show, Laremy Lee. Hello, Mr Laremy Lee.
Laremy: Hi, JK, nice to meet you.
JK: As well as Lin from General Lee –
Lin: Hi –
JK: – which is a local band. OK, I gotta ask a question right now. I’m a bit confused. So Laremy’s surname is Lee and then the band is called General Lee. Laremy – are you the general from this band?
Lin: General Lee consists of four guys who coincidentally do not have the surname “Lee”. There are two Lins and two Chens. [We’re a] rock n’ roll band; [we] wanted something that was catchy and represented some form of seriousness at the same time.
JK: Just to confirm, none of the band members have the rank [of] General?
Lin: No, the highest ranking member is Isaac who is a…
Laremy: He’s a Major.
Lin: He’s a Major, yes.
JK: So a little bit more to go before getting a General rank. All right, Laremy Lee. Tell us more about yourself.
Laremy: I’m a writer – I’m not the General of the band! We happen to be good friends; we’ve been friends since university and as well as collaborators in the arts.
JK: I wanna ask you about this collaboration, ‘cos I first heard about you guys through PIONEER and there was a bit of an NSman aspect behind the story. So can you tell us more?
Lin: I guess this started at the start of the pandemic. The band – we were trying to think of ways to keep ourselves out there and relevant and try to showcase our music; [we] wanted to kind of stand out. First thing that we thought of was, maybe a cross-medium collaboration with another artist. We thought, maybe let’s do something different and find a poet and the first name that came to mind was Laremy [who is] established in the literary scene.
JK: Your songs have a lot of heritage and culture, right? Laremy, I’m pretty sure that since you are the writer, you can tell us more about this heritage and culture in the songs. It’s not just about, you know, the TikToks and stuff. It’s got meaning; it’s got history.
Laremy: Yeah, you know I think when the guys approached me, I was like truly delighted because I’ve always respected the band because of how talented they are. They’re so dedicated to their craft, you know, and when they asked me to join them in collaboration during the circuit breaker, I was, like, yeah! Immediately, I said yes. Because their songs are so rich and full of meaning and history. The band covers Singapore myths, legends, historical issues, such as the legend of Redhill –
JK: I know this one. Is it the [one about] swordfish?
Laremy: That’s very interesting because I was having a conversation with a separate group of friends, but apparently, like, not everyone actually may have had that PETS reader, you know, so not everyone knows about the legend. And again, you know, that’s where I think the band comes in, because they fill that gap in the musical and literary scene in terms of telling people, you know, not just our generation but the generations across Singapore about our own culture and heritage. And so, on that note also, one of the popular songs that people like, from the band’s repertoire, is “Opium Hill”, which tells about historical events in Singapore’s history, about how Lieutenant Adnan Saidi and his platoon bravely defended the knoll from the invaders in World War II.
JK: That’s modern day Bukit Chandu, they call it.
Lin: Yeah, that’s right – Bukit Chandu. I think they have something opening up real soon, like an exhibit over there, so people can go down and check it out. Really good story and lots of visuals.
JK: Absolutely brilliant. Now, I want to ask you: where can we listen to the music that you all play and have created?
Lin: [Our songs are] available on most streaming platforms: Apple Music, Spotify and [YouTube]. Yeah, we only have one studio album, so there are lots of songs that we have not recorded – also about Singapore’s history and myths – that’s not [uploaded] there. But you can find the main album, which is on all the main streaming platforms.
JK: So make sure you search for General Lee. And do we put Laremy in there as well?
Laremy: I think, for our collaborations, we’re in the midst of releasing some of the videos from the gig. Am I right, Lin?
Lin: Yeah, that’s right, we’re going to be putting them on Facebook mainly.
JK: Fantastic stuff. Now, I wanna ask about the collaboration. There was a show that happened not too long ago, a few weeks back. So what exactly was the show and, you know, you said there’s going to be clips coming up really, really soon on your Facebook page, General Lee. Tell us about this show.
Lin: We approached Esplanade to do this cross-medium presentation. It was really exciting. We did it about a month back. We invited instrumentalists to also reinterpret the backing track to Laremy’s poems. It turned out to be a very fulfilling and exciting night for us. The music was very moving. The poetry brought our stuff to a different level. Hopefully, that can be represented well in the videos that we’re going to release on Facebook soon.
JK: Very, very nice. And just to wrap things up because it is, of course, a very special Own Time, Own Target edition of the show – can you tell us about your NS days? So let’s start with Laremy. What did you do during NS?
Laremy: Wow… I think we might need another episode, you know, if I’m going to tell you my entire NS history. I’ve had a very interesting NS experience, but in my most recent posting NS posting, I was a platoon commander in 696th Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment. And, yeah.
JK: You said it was a very interesting experience. Tell us about this journey, man! We want to hear the stories.
Laremy: To summarise it a bit because it’s really quite long – actually, when I started my full-time national service, I’m actually – I’m not combat fit; I’m actually PES C.
JK: How did you end up being a commander?
Laremy: Precisely, yeah, so back then there was a scheme – Service-Fit Volunteer Scheme. Back then we had to just – I think we had to get a silver or a gold for our NAPFA test. From there, you know, I volunteered for combat, then, yeah, I went through the entire range of training, but again, there were some bumps along the way. I’ll leave that for my memoirs.
Lin: He’s actually lying, you know. Back in our schooling days, he played rugby competitively, so I don’t know where this comes from.
JK: You know it’s always the fit people – I don’t wanna reveal, but a lot of my fittest friends are PES C and PES E –
JK: – so I’m not sure what’s happening there. OK, how about Lin, since you’re a band member of General Lee – the leader. Tell us more about your NS history.
Lin: I was a scout team commander with 2SIR and then when I transited into my reservist stage, or my NSman stage, I was with 754SIR.
Lin: Lots of walking, lots of carrying, not much fighting, actually.
JK: Yeah, you’re all there, you know, looking and getting the binoculars out and reporting back.
JK: Very nice! Anyway, thanks so much for joining us on the show. Remember – you can check them out on General Lee – Facebook page – and Laremy, you wanna tell us how we can find you as well?
GENERAL LEE – SINGAPORE’S HIGHEST RANKING BAND // STORY BY BENITA TEO // PHOTOS BY CHUA SOON LYE & COURTESY OF INTERVIEWEES
How did Redhill get its name? Who was Radin Mas and why are so many places named after her? Why is Opium Hill an important part of Singapore’s history?
Many of us may have forgotten these local myths and legends. Rock-and-roll band General Lee is hoping that through their music, Singaporeans will remember the stories of their childhood, and re-discover our country’s rich culture and heritage.
Formed in 2013, the band is made up of lead singer 3rd Sergeant (3SG) (NS) Lin Jiahe, 40; guitarist 1SG (NS) Victor Chen, 41; drummer Corporal First Class (CFC) (NS) Lin Hanrong , 38, and bassist Major (MAJ) (NS) Isaac Tan, 40.
Having honed their craft in other bands, playing covers in pubs and bars, the members of General Lee came together to release their eponymous album of original music in 2016, singing about famous local landmarks in songs such as Redhill Remorse, The Ballad of Bukit Brown and Radin Mas Ayu.
PIONEER catches up with the band in the studio, where they are rehearsing for their upcoming Esplanade show, titled General Lee/Speaking: Singaporeana. This time, they have a fifth “instrument” – poet Lieutenant (LTA) (NS) Laremy Lee, 39, who will be adding a new dimension to their music with his spoken word performance.
Thanks for letting us crash your rehearsal! Tell us more about your upcoming live show! 3SG (NS) Lin: It’s a music and spoken word performance that’s part of Foreword, Esplanade’s annual festival of spoken, narrated and musically interpreted words, stories and literary texts. We’ll be performing songs from our album, accompanied by Laremy’s poems, which were written specially for the show.
Your songs put a unique spin on the stories of our heritage and culture. Why did you choose this topic? MAJ (NS) Tan: We often hear young Singaporeans say things like: “Ah, Singapore’s history is so manufactured, we have no heritage, unlike other countries.” But if you dig deeper, you’ll find the heritage, culture, history and mythology that many of us overlook. And Jiahe does a brilliant job at writing about history, rather than frivolous stuff about girls, rock ‘n’ roll and drinking—
1SG (NS) Chen: —although we do have a song about girls, rock ‘n’ roll and drinking! (laughs)
It’s not every day we see a performance that marries rock-and-roll and poetry. 3SG (NS) Lin: We wanted a cross-medium performance that is not commonly seen. We thought about working with a poet, and Laremy was the first person who came to mind.
All of us were from the same hall of residence at NUS (National University of Singapore)! We first worked with Laremy in 2020, when we made a video of The Ballad of Bukit Brown and Laremy wrote a poem that was a response to the song. We put it online and people loved it.
1SG (NS) Chen: This time, we’ve rearranged our music to suit the poetry better. We also have musicians accompanying us on instruments like the mandolin and banjo, which gives the performance an American folk music flavour.
One of the songs you’ll be playing is Opium Hill, which recounts the iconic battle of Pasir Panjang and the heroism of LTA Adnan Saidi and the Malay Regiment’s 1st Battalion. What was the inspiration behind this song and its complementary poem, Hung, by the legs, on a cherry tree? 1SG (NS) Chen: When I was researching for this song, I noticed that a lot of old American country songs were written about historic battles such as the Civil War.
Singapore also fought a number of battles during World War II (WWII), and Opium Hill (or Bukit Chandu) is the site of the battle that we read the most about in history textbooks. Such songs also tend to have a personality attached to them – in this case, LTA Adnan is the hero.
LTA (NS) Lee: While I was researching about the battle, the phrase “hung, by the legs, on a cherry tree” kept appearing. I’m always looking at duality. When the Japanese did this to LTA Adnan, it was to dishonour him for decimating their soldiers.
But at the same time, it has become a symbol of pride for us, because he is a son of our land who defended us. The same image (represented) honour and dishonour at the same time.
Did your experiences in National Service (NS) influence the writing of Opium Hill and Hung, by the legs, on a cherry tree? LTA (NS) Lee: Definitely. Writing the poem made me recount my own experiences during military exercises when I was a Platoon Commander in 696th Battalion, Singapore Infantry Regiment (696 SIR).
I recall the anticipation, the adrenaline rush and the smell and cacophony of blank rounds being fired, and thinking: so this is some semblance of how people feel in wartime. Thinking back about my experience helped me channel some of these ideas and emotions into my writing.
3SG (NS) Lin: I was an Infantry Scout Commander in 754 SIR. I fondly recall a particular knoll in one of my training areas that gave me the inspiration for Opium Hill. The image of soldiers lying in wait in a defensive position on top of that knoll was what I envisioned the brave 42 probably saw and felt in that dire situation as they fought to defend their homeland.
1SG (NS) Chen: As an Explosive Ordnance Disposal Specialist, I was on standby as part of 36SCE’s (36th Battalion, Singapore Combat Engineers’) first response team the day after September 11 in 2001. Watching the events unfold that evening before I booked into camp was a sober reminder that Singapore’s defence lay in our hands. I wanted to convey that sentiment by portraying the bravery at Opium Hill in the medium closest to my heart – music.
CFC (NS) Lin: I used to be a drummer in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) Band before being posted as an infantry soldier to 812 SIR, where I carried out island defence. I recall us writing Opium Hill when my unit was preparing to be operational. The battle simulations helped me see through the eyes of our war heroes when we were writing this song.
MAJ (NS) Tan, you’ve been a ROVERS (Reservist on Voluntary Extended Reserve Service) since 2019 and you’re currently the S3 of 737 Gds (737th Battalion, Singapore Guards). What gives you the motivation to keep serving? MAJ (NS) Tan: I used to be an Officer Commanding (OC) in 745 Gds – a rather unwilling one. But my turning point was this one mission – I was exhausted and my men surrounded me and gave me water. Someone said: “Sir, if you peng (collapse) now, who will lead us?” To this day, that’s what’s kept me going, and I ended up seeing them through to the end of their ORNS (Operationally Ready NS) cycle.
It was also my wife’s idea! When I asked her if I should continue to extend my service, she said to me, “If not you, then who?”
I feel a sense of duty towards the junior and senior commanders and all the men who rely on me, and I want to help them understand why they must defend this land. At the end of the day, as long as they can go out with good memories that they can share with their families, and build strong, long-term friendships outside of In-camp Training, I’m satisfied.