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Meet Lam Pou Chuen, the voice of cartoon cat Doraemon

By Kris Lee

When Varsity mentions that his real voice sounds very different to the character that has made him a household name, Lam Pou-chuen breaks into a laugh and launches into the memorable lines, “Nobita! Wake up la! Wake up la! Hurry and wake up la! It’s time to go to school la! Otherwise you’ll be late again la!” These words are heard in almost every episode of the Hong Kong-dubbed version of the Japanese cartoon Doraemon over the past 30 years.

While Lam’s voice is deeply etched into the minds of Doraemon viewers of all ages, the cat with the magical gadgets is just one of Lam’s great achievements in his 42-year long career as a voice actor. “Voice actors are similar to chefs. If you cook a delicious dish that becomes popular, you will become well-known too,” says Lam.

Lam never set out to be a voice actor. After graduating from secondary school, he applied for bank jobs but failed. At that time, the dubbing industry was still in its infancy. Lam wrote to Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB) to apply for a job as a voice actor and passed the interview. He has been voice acting ever since.

During his early days, Lam did not have the chance to dub even a single word of dialogue. There were no training courses for him and other rookies. They were only assigned to produce sound effects like the sound of footsteps, opening doors and phone dialing with props in the studio.

“We did not have so much professional training like now. We just sat behind the seniors and learned from them while they were voice acting,” explains Lam. “These days there are professional voice actors giving lessons.”

Among his seniors, Lam most appreciates the actor Tam Bing-man, who belonged to the first generation of voice actors in Hong Kong. “I followed and learned from him since the first day,” says Lam. “I call him master.”

Lam did not just observe and learn while he was making sound effects at the back of the studio, he made use of all his time to perfect his art. After he got home every night, he read newspapers out loud to improve his articulation and pacing.

After months of learning, practising and waiting, Lam finally got his chance to stand in front of the microphone. The editing technology of that time meant that if an actor made a mistake, they would have to start again from the beginning. Lam remembers he was extremely nervous when he walked into the studio, even though he had just one line of dialogue.

“My character was a cop, with only one line: ‘Freeze! Drop your gun! FBI!” Lam recalls. His debut in the movie Federal Bureau of Investigation went smoothly and he made it into the cut.

It was in 1982 that Lam encountered his favorite role, Ding Dong (Doraemon). “It is because Ding Dong is vivacious. Besides, it is easier to catch the shape of the mouth as his mouth is very big,” Lam explains and laughs.

Ding Dong became very popular soon after the cartoon was broadcast. It has been 30 years since he first came across the character, which was later given back its original Japanese name, Doraemon. Whatever the name, the cat has come to symbolize Lam but he still feels a deeper connection with the Cantonese name Ding Dong.

Lam has become a big Ding Dong fan and has attracted a fanbase of his own. The fans write him letters and share with Lam their everyday lives. Most of the Doraemon dolls and figures at Lam’s house are gifts from his fans and some are souvenirs from his colleagues. Among all the gifts, Lam likes a remote-control Doraemon toy the most. He gingerly takes the toy out from the cupboard. “A fan delivered it to TVB. It’s over 30-years-old,” Lam says while he looks at the toy.

Apart from the fans and the gifts, what warms Lam’s heart even more is that he can always find his biggest fan at home. His daughter also loved watching Ding Dong and listening to her father’s voice on TV. Influenced by him, she is now also working at TVB as a voice actor. The father and daughter have already acted in the same scene. “I remember it was in Desperate Housewives, but it is not that special to me,” Lam says.

The success of Ding Dong opened up more job opportunities for Lam. His voice appeared more frequently in advertisements. The boom times for the Hong Kong movie industry in the 1980s kept voice actors, including Lam, always on the hop. He was the designated voice actor for action star Sammo Hung Kam-po and heart-throb Alexander Cheung Fu-sheng.

“There were a few times when I worked continuously for three to four days,” recalls Lam. “After I finished my work in TVB, I earned extra income by voice acting for movies outside. After that, I went to work in TVB again. ”As there was no live recording on location in those days, voice actors needed to grasp the personalities and tone of voice of the characters by studying soundless demos. Directors and sometimes even the actors of the movies would come and explain the characters to them. Though it was more difficult than the television work, Lam especially values the experience of working on movies because it enabled him to learn more from studying the characters of his roles.

Among the hundreds of movies he has voice acted, Lam’s most memorable is the mentally disabled character he voiced in The First Mission, played by Sammo Hung Kam-po. As Hung’s regular voice actor in martial arts films, Lam found it an interesting challenge to voice act for one of his non-action roles.

Still, the character in The First Mission was not the most challenging role Lam ever came across. That distinction goes to the character of Yue Buqun in a Taiwanese TV drama The Smiling, Proud Wanderer (Xiao’ao Jianghu) in the early 1990s. “It gave me a hard time as the actor spoke in an unstable tempo, sometimes fast, sometimes slow. This is the most difficult situation in voice acting,” says Lam. “When actors do not perform well in their own parts, it creates problems for the voice actors.”

With more than 40 years in the industry, the smiling avuncular Lam is a consummate professional with exacting standards. He has seen remarkable changes over time.

On the negative side, he has noticed more young voice actors have a problem of so-called lazy sounds or pronunciation. He also finds it an unhealthy trend that movie companies invite stars to do the voice acting for animation features. “They cannot catch the mouth shapes and the emotions of the characters. But movie companies need gimmicks,” Lam says.

Still, Lam is still highly enthusiastic about his job and is never bored. “Since we act for many different characters each day, I see every day as a new challenge for myself,” he says brightly.

There is another thing he values, “We [voice actor] see each other day and night, the relationships between us are very close,” says Lam. “We are like siblings, seeing each other more than we see our families.”

In order to keep doing the thing he loves, Lam needs to keep his voice in good shape, but perhaps surprisingly he says he does not have any special methods to protect his voice. “I eat deep fried food like ordinary people!” he jokes.

As he gets older, Lam has noticed that his voice is not what it used to be. “Nothing can be done about it,” sighs Lam. “My voice was sharper in the old days but now it is much deeper. All I can do is try to imitate my voice from the past.”

Lam has also had health problems in the past few years. In August, he was invited to the opening ceremony of the “100 Years Before the Birth of Doraemon Exhibition” in Harbour City. Unfortunately, he had to pull out after injuring his leg. “It was a pity,” says Lam, “but I managed to visit [the exhibition] by myself after my leg recovered.”

Moreover, Lam suffers from diabetes and his vision is getting worse. Although it improved after laser surgery, his work has been affected.“My eyes get tired after looking at the monitor in the studio for a long time,” says Lam. “I have to reduce my working hours in these few years.” He says he has reduced his working hours from 60 hours per week in the past to 10 hours per
week.

In spite of his poorer health, 60-year-old Lam has never thought of retiring. “Take Tam Bing-man; he is still working in the industry at the age of 78. There is no retirement age in this industry,” says Lam eagerly, showing his continued passion for voice acting. “I will keep on as long as I am capable of doing it!”