Benjamin Garvey:TV dramas were key to the formation of Hong Kong identity

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TVB is showing reruns of “The Greed of Man” (大時代). It’s a 40-episode drama with a stock market theme broadcast by TVB in 1992. The re-airing of the drama coincides with the recent sharp rise in local stocks.

When I read the news, I immediately recalled that the show had been mentioned in the book about Hong Kong identity that I was reading.

Written by CUHK academics, it cited “The Greed of Man” as an example of how TVB-produced television dramas had stigmatized mainlanders less after the Sino-British Joint Agreement in 1984: for political and commercial reasons, after the signing of the treaty that signified the inevitable return to Chinese sovereignty of the entire colony, TVB began to emphasize the similarities between Hongkongers and mainlanders and downplay the differences its earlier dramas, made in the 1970s and early 1980s, had highlighted.

Dramas in the 1970s had portrayed Hongkongers as capitalist and affluent and Chinese as poor and uneducated, suffering under the authoritarianism of the communist party. These depictions engendered a local Hong Kong identity.

“The Greed of Man,” the story of which spans the 1970s through to the 1990s, ostensibly avoided any identity politics.

Fong, the story’s hero, becomes rich with investments and eventually takes revenge on the family of the man that caused the death of his step-mother and three sisters, his childhood friend Ting.

According to scholar Eric Kit-wai Ma, most Hongkongers watched the series without seeing any political messages, with the ups and downs of the stock exchange allegory for the struggle between the protagonists.

However, some viewers saw allusions to the anxieties Hongkongers were feeling in the run-up to the 1997 handover, especially after June 4, 1989.
The honest Fong was seen as a Hongkonger; the violent and corrupt Ting a personification of the Chinese Communist Party.

The names of Fong’s family members were common in Hong Kong; those of Ting’s were not and even had negative connotations.

Fong was cultured; he liked Western music and his father studied in the West; Ting was stubborn and uneducated but with a penchant for quoting traditional Chinese proverbs.

Ting persecuted and killed with a false righteousness but said he was honorable. He exercised patriarchal control over his sons, eventually ordering them to commit suicide by jumping off the top of the stock exchange building after they’d lost all their money. (Ting also jumped but survived and spent the rest of his life in jail.)

The “Hong Kong versus the nasty CCP” narrative might have been what just a few viewers, eager to find political meaning, saw.

Scholars say mass media is key to nation-building and the formation of a national identity. Printing presses in Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries, using different vernacular languages, created different “imagined communities.”

These communities saw themselves as belonging to the same virtual world, sharing the same thoughts. Their members felt some kind of fellowship with each other, even though they would never meet once in their lives. Eventually, these communities led to the creation of national boundaries, nation states and nationalism.

A comparable identity-building process occurred in Hong Kong in the 1970s through television dramas as the city grew increasingly affluent.

As both the colonial and Beijing government’s refrained from stoking any kind of nationalist sentiment (CCP supporters had invoked Chinese nationalism during the 1967 riots), Hong Kong media companies took on the role of creating a collective identity, but one based on culture, not politics.

This local “imagined community” was reinforced by differences in lifestyles, daily routines, career patterns, aspirations and values in the colony and on the mainland. The authoritarian nature of the Chinese government added to the sense of separateness.

These divisions created a social and psychological boundary, with Hongkongers’ encounters with mainlanders tending to strengthen rather than dilute the division.

The 80-episode drama “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” (網中人) first broadcast in 1979, included a character nicknamed “Ah Chan” (阿燦). He was a mainlander who had been separated from his family for 20 years after they’d left for the colony and he stayed.

He joined his family in Hong Kong but didn’t fit in as he didn’t understand Hong Kong’s social norms. Moreover, he wasn’t well educated and he was lazy, sleeping at work and staying in bed until afternoon; he threw bottles out of the windows of high-rise buildings; he wanted to become rich but didn’t make any effort; he stole from the jewelry shop he worked in.

Following the airing of the series, “Ah Chan” became a label Hongkongers used to refer to “country bumpkin” immigrants from the mainland. According to the scholar Ma, the television show effectively initiated a stigmatization of mainlanders that persisted for decades.

Hong Kong identity emerged as mainlanders were portrayed as outsiders and loyalty to the Chinese nation was suppressed.

The media started downplaying local identity after 1984. And since 1997, they have been promoting Chinese national identity and suppressing local identity.

Nowadays, with mainstream Hong Kong media increasingly controlled by Beijing, Hongkongers, particularly the young, are going online to consume media. An “imagined community” is forming on Facebook and Whatsapp. The local Hong Kong identity that’s been suppressed since the handover is reemerging there.


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