The Lives They Live

The Lives They Live: Blast from the past of Rediffusion's heyday

While the pioneer leaders were the original architects of Singapore, everyday heroes helped build society here. This is another story about such people in the series, The Lives They Live.

Mr Lim Leng San, 67, recalls his days working as a Hokkien voice actor back when Chinese dialect programmes blared from Rediffusion sets in people’s homes.

Former Hokkien voice actor Lim Leng San is a man of hidden talents. Bump into the 67-year-old in his Bukit Ho Swee neighbourhood and you won't guess he once had a reputation in Rediffusion for vocal shape-shifting.

"They called me qian mian yan yuan (actor with a thousand faces)," said Mr Lim, whose career at the radio broadcasting company spanned the late 1960s to the early 1980s. "I played all sorts of people in the (drama) shows... Old, young, good people, bad guys, idiot kids, lecherous men, rich playboys, even 'ah gua' (transsexuals)."

Rediffusion, Singapore's first cable-transmitted commercial radio station, started broadcasting in 1949, and reached its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s when Rediffusion sets were a common fixture in people's homes and coffee shops. Its offerings ranged from English pop songs to dialect dramas.

Mr Lim's decision to join the company began with a childhood love for its dialect programmes.

The retiree, who slips effortlessly between Mandarin, Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese and a smattering of English, recalls spending many an hour listening to Rediffusion, even as a schoolboy - first at his grandmother's attap house in Kim Pong Road in Bukit Merah, then at his Housing Board home in Tiong Bahru. He was spellbound by voice actors such as Ong Toh and Lee Dai Sor.

For Mr Lim, Rediffusion held more appeal than the black-and- white programmes on television, which did not show as many serial dramas in dialects.

Above: Former Rediffusion voice actor and retired security guard Lim Leng San, 67, lives alone in his two-room flat in Beo Crescent, near Jalan Bukit Ho Swee. The lifelong bachelor still croons the tunes of old Rediffusion theme songs. For him, the past is very much alive. PHOTO: DON WONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Speaking in Mandarin at his two-room flat in Beo Crescent, he said: "During my secondary school days, they played Ha Gu Hi Geok Hua Siao Suat (Hokkien Drama Stories) from noon to 12.30pm, but I could listen to it only till 12.15pm because that was when the school bus arrived. I'd hear my mum yell, 'The school bus is waiting downstairs!'"

In 1968, at age 18, Mr Lim, the son of a bus driver and the eldest of seven children, applied to be a part-time voice actor at Rediffusion after he saw an opening being advertised in the Rediffusion magazine. After three rounds of auditions, he landed the job.

He recorded his first show, Sioh Giap Ang Ho Giap (Little Warrior Red Butterfly), around 1969, playing the good-natured man Ah Buay, one of the main characters.

"They gave me a lot of opportunities. I was very lucky," he said.

Mr Lim left school after Secondary 3. After national service, he returned to Rediffusion.

His recording studio on the third floor of the Rediffusion building in Clemenceau Avenue was roomy and air-conditioned. He began each session with two hot cups of kopi-o. When he was not busy recording shows - done weeks in advance rather than transmitted live - he worked as a security guard.

While Mr Lim might have begun without any acting experience, his versatility and can-do attitude soon landed him a lot of major roles.

Above: Audio cassettes of Hokkien shows that Mr Lim acted in. PHOTO: DON WONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

One of these was Zhu Ba Jie (Di Bat Kai), the "pig" in Seh Yeoh Gi (Journey To The West) - one of the longest-running shows, with more than 500 episodes over three years. In Wei Ji Doh Si Mia (Gambling Your Life For Money), he played the role of a transsexual, after another actor turned down the role. "He thought it would spoil his image," Mr Lim said. "But since we were just doing a show, it shouldn't have mattered.

"We earned $20 for every recording we did, and $40 if we recorded two shows that night. In those days, $40 was a lot of money."

So convincing was his acting that his aunt once heard her young nephew voice an old man on Rediffusion but did not believe it was him, he said.

Mr Lim had his fans. "Many listeners rang me up to ask me questions, like how old are you, why don't you get married..."

He fondly recalls a publicity event in Bukit Ho Swee where he and other actors were ambushed by fans.

Mr Lim's career at the broadcasting company came to an end in 1982, when it stopped airing dialect programmes. This was three years after the Speak Mandarin Campaign was launched to encourage Chinese Singaporeans to use Mandarin instead of dialects.

Mr Lim's swan song was Ha Gu Gi Qing Goh Su (Hokkien Strange Stories), recorded for broadcast on Dec 31, 1982, in which he acted as a playboy. "When I walked into the room for the final recording, my eyes were red. Everyone's mood was heavy."

For more than two decades after that, the lifelong bachelor worked as a security guard, as well as a cleaner, in places like Clarke Quay. He also helped out at his brother-in-law's hawker stall in Tiong Bahru. "It was a difficult period. I had to do this to get food on the table," Mr Lim said, adding that in the 1980s, he would occasionally reunite with former Rediffusion actors to perform live Hokkien shows.

Mr Lim still croons the tunes of old Rediffusion theme songs. For him, the past is very much alive.

Carefully arranged on his living room table are photos of family and old colleagues, and cassette tapes of Hokkien shows he acted in.

These days, Mr Lim leads a simple life. He reads the Chinese newspapers, watches TV, visits the market and attends getai shows in the neighbourhood. A digital Rediffusion set on his living room table does little besides remind him of yesteryear. It sang its last notes on April 30, 2012, when Rediffusion went off the air, before resuming services on the Internet a year later.

Above: On Mr Lim's living room table are photos of family, friends and former Rediffusion colleagues. The digital Rediffusion set there does little besides remind him of yesteryear. PHOTO: DON WONG FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

"On the last day, I was sitting there in my living room, listening to it until 12am. The broadcasters were saying 'goodbye, goodbye', then we heard the national anthem," he said. "(Rediffusion owner) Chang Mei Hsiang and the others talked about being able to listen to Rediffusion on the Internet, but I am not so interested in that. I don't have a computer."

Nor does he own a mobile phone, radio or even a cassette player - deciding not to replace his old one as he thought it was too expensive.

Mr Lim lives alone, subsisting on his money from his Central Provident Fund and monthly welfare aid.

When asked if he gets lonely sometimes, he said: "No, I am used to it. As long as I have the TV to keep me company, it is fine."

He points to the Rediffusion set on the table. "I could never bear to throw it away, but looking at it makes me feel so sad."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2017, with the headline 'Blast from the past of Rediffusion's heyday'. Subscribe