Hong Kong television industry was strictly censored even during the old colonial period. Colonial officials regarded all anti-Royalty, anti-colonial-government contents as taboo. When Good Morning Hong Kong played a clip of The Burning of Yuan Ming Yuan and its voice-over, TVB was warned by British officials. I gave evidence about this in another article. To put it simply, it is a taboo to provoke national indignation about the Anglo-French forces burning and looting Yuan Ming Yuan during the Ching Dynasty.
Nonetheless, they did not care much about exposure of social problems. In other words, you might point out current inadequacies but you were not supposed to criticize colonialism.
Television is a family media influencing the mind of ordinary citizens. However, in Hong Kong, where traditional Chinese culture is conserved, people have conscience and the ability to tell the difference between right and wrong. When they observe current affairs, essays, drama and songs, they make judgments about who is right and who is wrong. Dividing things into the good and the bad, the folk want the two to be as distinct as black from white and the good to always prevail over the bad. Otherwise, they would feel uncomfortable and might even rip cinema seats in order to vent their anger.
As a result, although Hong Kong playwrights and directors often add many layers to characterization, they have to highlight the positive side of the hero at the end of the day. For instance, in John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, Chow Yun Fat is a scoundrel, but he is also a hero, who sacrifices his life for friends. The bad guys cannot have all their way, not finally at least.
A Time to Taste and The Intangible Truth are two of the political plays among TV serials.
A Time to Taste, produced by Lee Kwok-lap, play-reviewed by Lee Sai and Wong Ho-wah, was broadcast in 1990. Let us look at a civilian’s critique:
Politics is the taboo of this commercial television station. Half of this play is about “liberation” of China and the Cultural Revolution. Even ten odd years ago, local television did not seem to have much “revolutionary” introspection, not to mention that Hong Kong is now returned to China. So much the more, in the last decade or so, the TV audience wanted entertainment more than anything else. On top of that, there is interpretation in the mode of “office politics”. How can soap opera shoulder serious topics? The low rating of this play is understandable.
In those days, both the executive and the production departments had the zest to present good drama, to produce quality drama series with professional skills of production and playwriting, to differentiate the good from the bad, and to interpret noble themes by way of their conscience and cultivation. The tumultuous times of “liberation” and “cultural revolution” are the most traumatic moments of China in its 3000-year history, when human nature was witnessed in its worst and its best. How could this not be used to describe human nature and to promote noble ideas about what is right and what is wrong?
The other play, The Intangible Truth, produced and play-reviewed by Tsang Kan-cheong, was broadcast in 1994. It involves the police and judiciary systems of China, which are different from the British legal system of Hong Kong. It was only three years before Hong Kong’s return to China when the prophetic contents of The Intangible Truth were presented. However, the audience in general did not realize it!
Both A Time to Taste and The Intangible Truth are TVB drama series with low ratings. The audience still support sentimental or farcical genres. Today, someone has pointed out that these two plays are of a high quality. Although the political flavor is not very strong, their audience would be able to grasp their covert messages.
In fact, since Hong Kong’s return to China, every Hongkonger has been able to smell something burning in the changed political climate. And after the recent opening of the yellow umbrellas, all monsters and freaks have made their appearance. Doing away with political color means suppressing differing opinions! Electronic and printed media no longer possess the guts to speak out. Everything that does not conform to interests of the current regime will be “harmonized”. One day the present freedom of expression, including slogans on the streets and spontaneous actions, will become extinct.
（Translated by Chapmen Chen）