Rey Chow — The Sounds and Scripts of a Hong Kong Childhood

Rey Chow, Not Like a Native SpeakerIn “The Sounds and Scripts of a Hong Kong Childhood,” the final chapter of Not Like a Native Speaker: On Languaging as a Postcolonial Experience, Rey Chow explores elements of her own upbringing in colonial Hong Kong. In the following passage, she discusses her mother’s career as a popular radio broadcaster and performer:

So, how does the story end? What happens to that woman character? And her frail cousin, the one who is secretly in love with her husband? “Please tell us!” According to my mother, such were the questions with which she was besieged in the maternity ward when she was about to give birth to her first child, me. As the labor pains became advanced and she was rolled into the hospital’s delivery room, the nurses on duty were still far more pre­occupied with the plot developments of the dramas they had heard her nar­rate on the radio. This family legend of fandom gone amok at the scene of my birth offers a unique glimpse into the way people could be mesmerized by stories in the form of sound broadcast in the days before television be­came the predominant mass medium. What was it like then, when it was an ordinary matter to be hooked into a fictional world purely through sound?

A few years later, when I reached the age of five or six, I experienced firsthand something of my mother’s aura as a popular broadcaster. I was sit­ting in a movie theater with some older friends, who had taken me to see a film adapted from one of her radio plays, Yun hoi sheung chor/ Renhai shuang chu (Two young children in the human world). That much was what I consciously knew. To my great surprise—and in a luminous im­age that has remained vivid in my mind to this day—my mother appeared on the screen as the film began. As though I had been transported to an unfamiliar locale in a dream, everyone around me started clapping. “This is Mama,” I remember thinking matter-of-factly, sitting in the dark, mysti­fied. “Why are people applauding her?” But the crowd’s enthusiasm quickly took me over. Without understanding what was happening, I joined in and started clapping as well.

My mother had been filmed as the narrator, offering an introduction (jui sut/xu shu) to the story that was to unfold within the next couple of hours. She was, if my memory is correct, seated at a desk, addressing the audience directly. In the broadcasting world of Hong Kong in the 1950s and 1960s, she was a widely recognized name, known for her many successful radio plays, some of which were adapted for film. Her personal appearance in Yun hoi sheung chor was, I suppose, part of the film company’s strategy of promotion.

I was of course unaware that epochal changes had been taking place in the mass media even as I gleefully participated in the audience’s celebration of my mother’s image on the screen. The happenings of a middle-class up­bringing, the little wonders, mysteries, expectations, and sorrows that con­stituted my daily life as a precocious schoolchild in a British Crown colony in the Far East were, in retrospect, happenings of historical import—but only in retrospect, when I have acquired a certain perspective and vocabu­lary in which to talk about them in a more impersonal manner.

The presence of a narrator in a dramatized story on the movie screen was symptomatic of the ambivalence that characterized the transitioning of fic­tion from the older modes of storytelling to the newer, more direct me­diatizations on radio and in film. My mother’s career was emblematic of that transition and its ambivalence. A verbally gifted young woman with a passion for acting, she had started working for the British broadcasting company Rediffusion (Lai Dik Fu Sing/Li Di Hu Sheng) in the early 1950s as a Cantonese announcer, steadily gathering fame as she as­sumed the female lead in a story called Git fun sub neen/Jiehun shinian (Married for ten years). One of the high points of this early phase of her career was the production of Chi mo lui/Ci mu lei (Mother’s tears), a story that became a hit on the radio and was subsequently made into an equally successful film, followed a few years later by the publication of a novella based on the radio play. My mother’s radio voice so captivated audiences that for years afterward strangers she chanced upon in different settings—taxi drivers, shopkeepers, street vendors, and other anonymous listeners—often recognized her instantly when she spoke.

Even though my mother was interested primarily in acting, she soon dis­covered, while playing different roles on the air, that the supply of good scripts was scarce. In frustration, she began experimenting with scriptwrit­ing and eventually became a major radio scriptwriter and producer while continuing to act on many occasions. It was as a scriptwriter that she helped put firmly in place a fundamental change in the presentation of radio fi c­tion in Hong Kong—specifically, from the storytelling form, involving a single narrator, to the dramatic form, involving dialogue among multiple characters.

In the first decade or so after the end of the Second World War, demands on the entertainment industry in Hong Kong were, relatively speaking, still simple. Rediffusion (a truncation of the term relay diffusion )—the first commercial, London-based broadcasting house to be set up (in 1948) along­side the government-sponsored Radio Hong Kong (in operation since the 1930s)—at first provided only popular music, news, and “fictions,” though the fictions were in the main adapted from traditional Chinese literary genres such as jeung wui siu suet/zhanghui xiaoshuo (the linked-chapter novel) and suet sü/shuoshu (storytelling based on the oral nar­rating of texts). There was usually one voice, that of the narrator, who, while speaking as the omniscient consciousness, simultaneously assumed different roles (by slight adjustments of tone). Among my mother’s older colleagues, Lei Ngor/Li Wo, whose nickname was “You Me” (in English), was a master of this craft—what was in Hong Kong’s broadcasting history known as daan yun gong sut/danren jiangshu, single-person narration. As is obvious from this brief description, the center of this kind of narration remained the persona of the classical storyteller: the life of the story, so to speak, was a spinoff from that voice performance and that voice perfor­mance alone.

In terms of methods of fictional representation, what was interesting about the single-person narration was that the storyteller was by no means the only available generic precedent. Th e first part of the twentieth century was a time when China and Chinese-speaking audiences, like audiences elsewhere in the non-Western world, had become receptive to dramatic forms from the West, and Chinese playwrights themselves were actively ex­perimenting with a new, Westernized form of drama, the realist wa kek/huaju, which was drawn from modern European and American models. And yet stage drama, because of its readily visible format, did not as a rule require the assistance of a narrator to communicate its meanings. For this reason, perhaps, there did not seem a way at first for the presenters of radio fiction to draw on the dramatic form of wa kek/huaju for their own invisible creations. Instead, conceiving of radio fiction primarily in terms of a single person engaged in the act of narrating, they adopted the much older liter­ary genre of storytelling. They did not initially seem to grasp that the mode of production specific to the radio differed from traditional storytelling in a fundamental manner—namely, that the radio “voice,” so to speak, was technologically mediated and thus a radically new locus for simulation and manipulation. Even though attached to the person of the broadcaster, the voice of the radio storyteller was in effect already part of the fragmentary mass mediatization processes in which the performer, unlike the one in the more traditional setting of a live performance (including stage drama), was technically cut off from her audience even as she performed emotively with her entire being (in this case, in front of a microphone, behind closed doors, at a broadcasting studio). In other words, even though the early narrators of Hong Kong’s radio fiction were still basing their performances on the clas­sical Chinese genres of storytelling, the palpably technologized specifics of their medium were propelling them in a very different direction.

My mother’s early work, then, consisted primarily in the consolidation, through experimentation and practice, of a presentation format that was to become the way all radio dramas would henceforth be conceptualized. Instead of using the single-person narration model, she created what became known as hei kek fa siu suet/xijuhua xiaoshuo —literally, drama­tized fiction—the presentation of which resembled stage drama insofar as it involved dialogue and used actors and actresses to play diff erent characters. Instead of the voice of a single narrator who must, apart from narrating, as­sume the roles of all the characters, now multiple voices and thus multiple personalities were involved in the production of a story. Dialogue enabled more elaborate character developments by sharpening tensions and con­flicts, which in turn enhanced the intricacies of various plots.

But dramatization on radio was not simply stage drama, either. The ra­dio medium meant that no matter how complex the drama and the char­acterization were, a play must come to terms with the fact that the audi­ence had no tangible bodies and things on which to rely for grasping what was happening. The abstract, because invisible, nature of radio broadcast made it necessary for some means to be devised that would bridge the gap between the story taking place in midair and the listeners at the receiving end. The narrator—the kind that my mother and other scriptwriters placed in the radio plays, which otherwise proceeded through dialogue—was thus the crucial link that explicitly inaugurated, commented on, and at times concluded a story. This narrator was no longer the one in the single-person narration model in that he or she now had to “step aside” and let the various characters’ voices carry out the actual dramatization. At the same time, this narrator was not simply another character. Addressing the audience with opening remarks such as “Members of the listening public, in the previous episode we got to the point where . . .”, this narrator was the formal mechanism by which the rationale of the drama was clarified in an expressive environment that was otherwise purely imagi­nary. A superfluous voice or voiceover in one regard, the narrator was in fact the necessary supplement and supplier of common sense that ensured the accessibility of the radio plays, whose listeners included many who were poorly educated, semiliterate, or illiterate. Although the narrator seemed a remnant of the older storytelling conventions, his or her anachronistic pres­ence in amply dramatized situations was indicative of the conditions specific to radio broadcasting, in which a new type of socialization, a connectivity between fiction and audience that was thoroughly entangled with the me­dium itself, was coming into being.

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