Reinaldo Maria Cordeiro, better known as Uncle Ray, is Hong Kong’s most famous radio personality. Recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as “the World’s Most Durable DJ” in 2000 and having been awarded an MBE, the 87-year-old is still on air every day, playing quality jazz music and oldies for listeners all around the world. The living legend talks to Penny Zhou about Stanley Prison, The Beatles and his passion for music.
I was born in 1924. My childhood is something I don’t normally talk about because it wasn’t pleasant. It was sad and embarrassing that my father left my mother for a mistress when I was four. The household was very poor because he only gave my mom a very small amount of money to raise six kids. She had to work many jobs to support the family, but amazingly managed to bring up all us and provide us with the best education we could get.
World War II hit Hong Kong in 1941, when I was still in school. The Japanese killed and raped the Chinese people around town—they were monsters. Most Portuguese in Hong Kong went to Macau because Portugal was a mutual country and the Japanese wouldn’t touch them. So I stayed in Macau till the end of the War in 1945 and came back with a group of twenty-something lads.
We went to Stanley Prison and all got jobs as warders and started to make a little money. In the 40s, tinned goods were so expensive they were like godsends. So we’d each buy a bag of them and sell them at the Stanley market from time to time for some extra cash.
My dad, at the time a senior manager at HSBC, thought there was no future for me in Stanley and persuaded me to work at the bank as a clerk. After a few years, I got really bored and tired of the job. I wanted to be a musician so I taught myself drumming and formed a three-piece band. For a couple of years, we played pop music at a Russian restaurant.
Then Rediffusion—which then became a TV station known as RTV and later ATV—opened up a radio station here. I started working there in 1949 as a scriptwriter first, then a DJ. I got quite well-known because I was hosting two popular shows about pop music. I was getting fan mail and all, and was happy as hell.
After 11 years there, in 1960, I joined Radio Hong Kong [now RTHK] as the head of light music, which was right up my alley, and stayed here until this day.
In the mid-60s, the station sent me to BBC in London for a DJ training course. At the end of the three month course, I had some free time so I did some interviews with British pop groups and singers such as The Hollies, Herman’s Hermits, Cilla Black and The Dave Clark Five.
But the most memorable one is definitely The Beatles. On my way to the interview, I picked up a cheap, small Beatles fan magazine. Paul McCartney saw it under my armpit and offered to sign it. I had no idea he’d sign every single page in that magazine. Even more unbelievably, when John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison saw what Paul did, they also autographed all the pages. I didn’t realize that the magazine was worth a fortune until people told me. So I went to the bank, put it in my safe deposit box and locked it up—that’s my savings!
When I returned to Hong Kong with those interviews, boy, I was like the king of radio. Then I started inviting local and international pop groups and singers to my show, and helped start Hong Kong’s pop music scene. Before long, I also had a live show at the City Hall Theatre, which could seat 400 people. Every week, my show was flooded with teenagers.
Roman Tam swam from China to Hong Kong with the dream of becoming a pop star here. He formed a group called The Four Steps, which appeared on my show. He wanted to do a solo, but his group’s harmony sounded much better than his sole voice, so I only asked for a group song.
Everybody knows he became a huge star as a solo artist later on. On my 70th birthday, he was invited to my special show and was asked by the emcee to tell some stories he had about me. So he said, “When we first met, Uncle Ray refused to let me sing!” He then dedicated a song to me, singing “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes”—it sounded beautiful.
I started collecting vinyls when I began my DJ career. Back then there weren’t 45s, only 12” and 10”. Up til today, I have never thrown away a single record, so I have over 20,000 of them taking up my entire house, stacked up from floor to ceiling.
You won’t believe this: I have listeners in the Czech Republic, and they’re real loyal fans. When they have a birthday celebration coming up, they email me and ask me to play a song. Radio makes the world so small.
Every day that I finish work and walk out of the studio, I’m breaking my own Guinness record. I don’t think I can ever retire from this. I don’t even know the world beyond radio. I’m turning 88 but as long as I have a voice and am healthy enough to sit through a two-hour show, I’m going to do it. If I stop I’ll probably die sooner.
There are two places I want to die at: one is my own bed at home, and the other is the studio.
Listen to Uncle Ray’s new program, “Just Jazz with Uncle Ray,” every Sunday 11pm-midnight on RTHK Radio 4.