Interview with Siow Kee Lin of Fusan Records

 Back in 2009, I was researching for a book about the Chinese-Singapore pop albums I had been collecting. As part of that process, I tracked down the owner of one of the grooviest labels, Sakura Records, owned by a man named Siow Kee Lin. I interviewed him with my wife translating. That interview, about 100min long, is downloadable in its entirety at this link:

The book project transmogrified into a CD called Singapore A-Go-Go that was released on Sublime Frequencies and is still available. I had already drafted the introduction to the book that would have focused mostly on the album covers and much of that material wound up in the liner notes to the CD. While the notes were extensive, they were not exhaustive.

 Instead of letting the unused material just sit on my hard drive, I figured I’d post it here. So here’s the excerpt based on the interview.

[please also check out my interview with Huang Qing Yuan, the ‘Elvis of Singapore’: ]

fusan records

Sakura Records was the trademark imprint of a manufacturing company—and what we would think of as a production company—called Fusan Records and Radio, operated by a man named Siow Kee Lin and his family. Mr. Siow is still living. He runs a small shop under the same name—Fusan Records and Radio Co—that sells electronic household appliances as well as music CDs in an arcade above the steamy clank and clatter of a hawker food center in Geylang, not far from the glittering skyscrapers of the financial district and near the location of his original shop on Old Airport Road. Fusan Records existed from roughly 1967-1980 (Mr. Siow couldn’t quite recall the exact dates). Very much a businessman, once cassette tapes began eating into his bottom line (easier to pirate the music), Mr. Siow stopped producing vinyl records and got out of the industry.


The business model of Sakura Records was standard for the industry and it worked something like this: There were only a few guitar bands in Singapore that would sell a-go-go and cha-cha records, The Stylers, The Melodians, and The Silvertones being perhaps the top three, though other bands such as Tony and the Polar Bears and The Travelers also appear on many labels. Each band had a distinctive logo that appeared on the record sleeves so that buyers would know which group was backing the singer, whom for the most part were selected based more on their good looks rather than their singing ability, though potential singers would have to pass a sound test. Often they were chosen because they had appeared in local singing contests or had won prizes in amateur talent competitions, such as the popular “Talentime,” a version of which is still annually performed.


After choosing a singer, she or he would rehearse with a “guitar band,” in this case usually The Silvertones, and if the groove fit, then Fusan Records would press a 45rpm EP. If that proved popular and sold well, then two more EPs would be pressed, and if they sold well, all of the songs were collected and issued as a 33 1/3rpm LP, usually with cover art that combined elements of the EPs.  Sukura/Fusan EPs retailed for about SGD$1.50, though some of the more popular artists might fetch higher prices (not considerably more than they sell for in flea markets today) and were sold from small storefront shops or stalls in street markets.

Advertisements would either be newspaper print ads, especially for 33 1/3rpm LPs, but also through radio play. Before FM radio became widespread in the 1970s, Singaporeans heard their radio through a contraption called Rediffusion, a wired-system that carried radio waves to desktop boxes (not unlike modern cable radio). A company like Fusan would hire half-hour blocks of air-time and play their own records of new releases; this is how new EPs were introduced to the audience. Live performances were less frequent, though televised variety shows were one (expensive) way to get new material across to the audience.


Live performances of Chinese pop would most likely have occurred at one of the three “World” Amusement parks in Singapore. Approximating something like London’s Vauxhall Gardens of the eighteenth century, the Worlds were places to hear music, dance, eat food, drink: general entertainment centers. Great World City is perhaps the most famous, if only because it is now the name of a shopping mall, though New World and Gay World (later Happy World) were just as well known within the region. The Odeon on North Bridge Road, a cinema owned by the Cathay Organization, offered live performances before films, though due to the cinema connection they were mostly active with the singers signed through EMI, which also cut deals to promote film soundtracks on locally sold records. The Odeon seldom promoted local acts, though the Capitol Theatre (which, now empty, still stands) used to have a two-hour Sunday morning show that featured the most popular Chinese singers and bands. However it seems that in those days most people would hear the music via the recordings themselves, either at small house parties, or more frequently for the less affluent, at community centers, which would play the records in halls so people could dance (it is only a step from this town hall boogie dance to the concept of a disco, a space dedicated to solely to dancing in groups to recorded music, with a live DJ controlling the sound).

The Singapore Chinese music scene overlapped with Malaysia and generated minor celebrities in its own right. Often popular singers in Malaysia would record on Singapore labels, and small labels in Kuala Lumpur would swap singers with “sister” labels in Singapore. One such singer whom recorded with Fusan Records from roughly 1971 to 1980 was called Ling Lim. Usually backed by The Silvertones in the studio, she rarely performed live, and thus existed for her fans only as a voice on vinyl, and by the photos on the record covers. Mr. Siow believes that she died several decades ago, perhaps of cancer.




If she looks young on the record sleeves that is because she is. Mr. Siow told me that most female singers were signed by his label were around 15-16 years old; the boys were signed slightly older, perhaps 18-20 years old. Singers signed three-year exclusive contracts, yet most didn’t consider singing on pop records to be a career. Most of the singers considered it more of a hobby, and most retained some kind of day work. Despite this nonchalance, the singers chose stage names. It is worth noting that none of the names of Singaporean artists printed on the sleeves reproduced here are original names. Some stage names were chosen because they carried connotations of good luck or prosperity. One such singer called herself Zi Ling: the surname can be translated as “purple”, which is considered a lucky color. Yet Zi Ling also used an English name, calling herself Linda Yong on several records. Some names were chosen simply because they were easier to remember, or sounded sexy to Chinese ears: Lim Ling’s real name was Rui Hua.



However, the adoption of stage names does not mean that these singers also adopted stage personas. There was no marketing apparatus that felt the need to craft a “personality” for the singer. The girls and boys simply appeared as they were, and if they had a reputation for being morally flexible, then that comes purely from the singers’ own personalities. The insinuation is that fans bought records and attended shows to hear the bands, not to watch a spectacle revolving around a single persona. In this regard the Chinese pop music of the era conforms more closely to the swing tradition of a tightly knit band that performs with different singers than it does with the tradition of a rock band that always performs with one singer: Count Basie’s orchestra can stand on its own without a vocalist. This is an inversion of the Western standard of rock and pop that stems from a blues tradition in which the singer takes centre stage and the band is relegated to “back-up.” Beyonce Knowles is a case in point: her persona is crafted in such a way that she can always have a different group of musicians playing behind her, yet fans will still buy a record or attend a concert of “Beyonce.” Even in cases when the band is as famous as the lead singer, it is difficult to imagine separating the two. For most fans of The Rolling Stones, a record without Mick Jagger wouldn’t be a Rolling Stones record. Or as Mick himself once sang, “It’s the singer, not the song.” With few exceptions, in the Chinese pop tradition the opposite is true. It’s the song and the band that fans pay the most attention to while the singer is of secondary interest (this phenomenon informs the karaoke tradition as well).


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About DrGSupreme

2 responses to “Interview with Siow Kee Lin of Fusan Records”

  1. patrick tay says :

    i really like lim ling and chen jie their singing since i was that age also,memories of their teenager song was good and hopefully hear their past records album songs fm youtube or fm teckhuat lim,kjoct91,boogetman65,redstar tan etc.,thanks.

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