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Home>Chung Wai Ming Writes on Radio Drama

"Radio Drama – A Summary"

by Chung Wai Ming

Hong Kong’s broadcasting history began 75 years ago, on 8 October 1928. Then, the population was small and air time was very limited, only a few hours each day, and contents were at first confined to just news, songs and music. Despite that, it was a significant beginning, since in 1928 only one other British colony, Kenya, had a wireless radio station.

In the following decades, radio broadcasting in Hong Kong made vast progress, making the city one of the world’s leaders in the industry. Broadcasting time continually expanded so that there is now 24 hours’ broadcast and the range of programme types is immense. Radio dramas were popular.

Radio dramas in the 1940s were mostly adapted from famous stage plays such as “Thunderstorm”, “Sunrise”, “Wilderness”, the trilogy “The Family”, “Spring” and “Autumn”, “Gold Worshipper”, “The Wedding March”, “Deep in the Clouds”, “Returning South” and “The Artists”. Sound effects too were produced the same way as on stage. For example in “Thunderstorm”, the sound of thunder was made by rolling a dumbbell over a long wooden board, while the sound of rain was produced by shaking peas in a sieve – when it was raining hard, the peas were shaken more vigorously. Although the method was old, the effects were surprisingly good. Radio Hong Kong was then located in Gloucester House in Central (the site of today’s Landmark) and the studio was on the third floor. We had a lot of fun producing the drama programmes. I still recall those days vividly and have very warm memories of them.

In the absence of recording facilities, all programmes, including drama, were aired live. No matter how many rehearsals we had done or how much preparation we had made, when it came time for the show, we could not help being nervous, and mistakes were unavoidable. Sometimes, actors would botch up the dialogue. Sometimes, sounds intended to be a baby’s crying would come out sounding like a dog barking, or gun shot sounds became the sounds of cannon, due to the sound effects man slipping up.

One of the most unforgettable and funniest incidents happened while we were broadcasting the story of “Journey to the West”. The monk Xuanzang and his three disciples came upon the Flaming Mountain and were unable to pass. The Monkey King went to see the Bull Monster in the hope of borrowing the banana leave fan that belonged to Princess Iron Fan to put out the fire. When he arrived at the entrance of the cave, a little monster came out to meet him and he explained to the little monster his reason for coming. Unfortunately, the Bull Monster had just gone hunting. However, the actor who played the role of the little monster misread the script: instead of saying “gone hunting” he said “gone waxing”. As soon as he said this, all the other actors broke down laughing and had to move around so that their laughter would not be broadcast inadvertently. Luckily, Zhong Pu, who played the Monkey King, stayed calm, and rather than laughing like the others, he improvised by saying that when the little monster said “gone waxing”, he really meant “gone hunting”, and added that he knew because he understood the small monster’s language. Zhong managed to save the day and the audience probably assumed this was how the script was supposed to be.

In those days, apart from movies and Cantonese opera, the radio was the only other form of popular entertainment. Radio dramas were especially popular. Whenever a drama was to be broadcast, information about the programme would be published in the day’s newspaper, such as the name of the performing group, the title of the play, the plot, the names of performers and other staff, the time it would be broadcast, etc. Every detail was given, and sometimes the announcement was even illustrated to make sure it would catch people’s attention. When the programme was due to start, there would be a musical prelude, followed by the announcement: “This is the Hong Kong Radio Station ZEK; the programme which we are about to air is a radio play, undertaken by so-and-so, the play’s title is so-and-so, the script is written by so-and-so, directed by so-and so, and the characters are played by so-and so,” and so on. At the end of the announcement, the title of the play would be repeated once more before a gong sounded and the programme itself actually began.

Many of the radio drama performers were amateurs working for fun; some also acted on stage. Well known among them were He Chuyun, Cheung Suet-lai, Chen Bingqiu, Leung Ming, Chu Hak, Lam Fei, Tam Yat-ching, Mei Zi, Ma Chiu-chi Zhong Pu, Fung Chin-ping, Dan Ping, Li Pingfu, Yip Ha-lei, Ye Menghen, Ye Runlin and Ling Zhi.

Radio drama is more difficult to perform than one might imagine. Instead of addressing the audience visually, the radio actor can rely only on his voice. To give the audience the same experience as a stage performance, the radio worker must convey the plot of the story, the expressions and actions of the characters through the way they deliver the dialogue, aided only by music and sound effects.

In the past, it was thought that there were eight forms of art: literature, music, dance, ceramics, sculpture, architecture, drama and film. Radio drama, which combines all the techniques of broadcasting, was known at the time as the “ninth art form”.

On 22 March, 1949, Radio Rediffusion was opened by the Governor, Sir Alexander Grantham. The station was then located at the junction of Arsenal Street and Hennessy Road, where Asian House is now situated. From the very beginning, the Silver Station (Chinese) and the Blue Station (English) broadcast daily from 7 am to midnight. To receive the service, all the customer had to do was pay ten dollars for the installation fee and another ten for the monthly rent; this covered license fee, electricity and repair services. The sound reception was perfect, with no need for any antenna; nor was it affected by humidity or thunder and lightning. To enhance its appeal, there was a wide variety of programmes. In addition to the “Novels on the Air” series narrated solo by Li Ngaw, folk tales by Fang Rong and comedies by Tang Kei Chen, other types of drama were produced in abundance. The driving force behind the Chinese Silver Station were Yao Ke and Shen Jianhong. Yao, nicknamed the foreign educated zhuangyuan (the most successful candidate of the traditional civil service examination), was also a master of drama. He had the novel “Ten Years of Marriage” by Su Qing adapted for radio; it was narrated by Piao Yang and acted by Ngai Mun, Chung Wai Ming and others. It ran for several months and touched many people with its moving story, and established the trend of multi-episode dramas. The characters in the story, Xun Chongxian, Su Huaiqing and Ying Qimin became indelible in listeners’ minds. Many of the radio play series such as “Strange Tales”, “Literary Fiction”, “Social Fiction”, “Detective Stories”, “Strange Tales of the Night”, “Martial Arts Stories”, “Mysteries”, “Under the Stars”, “Night Conversations in Hong Kong”, “Weekend Comedy”, “A Mother’s Tears”, “Family Mottos”, “Romance of Rainbow Bay”, “Revenge on the Lijiang”, “Romantic Music”, “Deep in My Heart”, “After the Divorce”, “A Remindful Poem” “Secret Love from Afar” and “Exploring Mars”, were so popular that their rights were bought by filmmakers and made into very successful movies.

The very captivating genre of detective stories began with “The Cases of Detective Kwok Lam”. This was co-written by two senior Rediffusion staff members, Kwong Tien-pui and Lam Kwok Kai, and the name Kwok Lam was made up by taking one character each from their name. However, because the word “Kwong” was too difficult to pronounce, it was changed to Kwok instead. The crimes in this series were all very complex, but with the amazing skill of Detective Kwok Lam and his very capable assistant, Ah Leung, the criminals could never escape the long arm of the law. This always made the audience feel good. This detective series and other drama series were later sent to Singapore and Malaysia and became very popular there. It was said that some people would close their shops for half an hour during the programme so that they could enjoy it in peace, and learn Cantonese as well. I heard this from a senior person in a Singapore radio station.

Also worth mentioning is “Tales from Midnight”, a series of ghost stories written by Lu Qiwen. Each episode opened with spooky music and sound effects, making the audience tremble in horror. Then a voice, low and mysterious, announced the title of the series, sending a chill down the listener’s spine. In the winter, many people listened to the programme tucked snugly in bed, all warm and secure; this kind of tension, of being torn between fear and the inability to resist what was feared, is still remembered with relish by many fans of the series.

On 26 August, 1959, Commercial Radio Hong Kong was established, becoming the second commercial broadcaster. It was also the only one dependent on advertising for revenue. It operated one English station and one Chinese. Like Rediffusion, it produced a rich array of programmes to cater to the tastes of the audience. Access to it became greatly enhanced with the spread of transistor radios, and advertising increased as a result. In fact, to meet the demand of advertisers, Commercial Radio had to expand its air time, and a second Chinese station was inaugurated in 1963. Its broadcasting actors included Run Fung-ling, Lam Bun, Yeung Kwon-pui, Kwan Kin, Jin Gang, Kum Kwai, Ou Songbai, Ding Ying, Mo Peiwen, Cheng Hong-kwai, Ma Shuk-kau, Cui Bi, Ka Pik, Cai Yun, Zhu Xuemei, He Yanyan, Ye Jie and Chung Chi-keung. In addition, actors also crossed over from Rediffusion, with Fung Chin-ping, Li Ngaw, Ma Chiu-chi, Stephen C.K. Chan and Zhao Shujian among them. Some of the best received radio dramas were “Blue Lamp Novel”, “Diary of a Husband”, “Justice”, “Crime and Punishment”, “The Songstress Madam Rose”, “Flat 18C”.

By the 1970s, with three radio operators in Hong Kong, competition was fierce. Each week, Radio Hong Kong produced 52 half-hour dramas, and one one-hour play adapted from world literature in order to maintain and enlarge its market share. This was quite a record – it should have been registered with the Guinness Book of Records. To meet the demand, manpower was increased to beef up the drama team. Among male actors were Yin Duoming, Lu Qiwen, Chung Chi Ming, Chung Wai Ming, Chen Bingqiu, Zeng Yongqiang, Lau Yat-fan, Yuan Jiaxiang, Peng Cheng, Ha Chun-chau, Lu Rutian, Zhao Guangpei, Luo Biao, Huang Zhaoqiang, Xiong Liangxi, Cheung Ping-keung, Li Xiawei, Lee Hok-bu, Xiong Decheng, Antony Ngan, Lin Yourong, Poon Chi-min, Wan Chun and Shen Yaoxiong; among the women were Cheung Suet-lai, He Chuyun, Lau Ching, Mei Zi, Kot Kin-ching, Zeng Lizhen, Long Baotian, Chan Yee, Fung Shiu-chun, Xie Wenyi and Yang Lixian.

On 15 April 1976, Radio Hong Kong started FM Stereo broadcasting, the first station in Southeast Asia to do so. Radio drama was first broadcast through FM Stereo in 1981. Among these programmes were “The Luck of the Stars” led by Lisa Wang and Alan Tang, “journey” by Albert Au, Deng Ailin, Lee Hok-bun and Che Shenmei, and “The Refuge” by Run Fung-ling, Chung Wai Ming and He Chuyun. These were all one-hour single-episode stories, and one was aired each month. Soon to follow was the science fiction series “Old Cat” adapted from the novels of Ni Kuang. By providing more depth, stereo broadcasting greatly enriched the audience’s listening experience.”

- Chung Wai Ming 1990

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