We need better local TV, to give our children a sense of belonging

Kelly Yang calls for better local TV, to give our children something to bond over that helps them develop a sense of cultural identity

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 12 November, 2013, 6:49pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 November, 2013, 3:45am

Last Wednesday, I went to the HKTV protest. I did not go out of concerns over the erosion of Hong Kong's free market or the government's lack of transparency - both very valid reasons. Instead, I went for my children.

I teach Hong Kong teenagers every day and I see at first hand the effects of this city's limited local television. Hong Kong teenagers will tell you exactly what's happening on Glee and Pretty Little Liars. But ask them about Triumph in the Skies II, the top TVB show, and they'll look at you as if you have two heads.

As soon as Hong Kong Television Network's licence was rejected, I started asking Hong Kong children what television shows they watched. The vast majority of the shows they listed were popular American shows. Only a few said they watched local shows. This doesn't apply just to international school students; it's true for local students, too.

And the few children who admitted to watching local shows quickly denied it or apologised for watching them; they were actually embarrassed. That's astounding.

I remember as a child being hooked on Ke Wang (or Aspirations), said to be China's first domestically produced television soap opera, made in the early 1990s. Every week, at least 550 million people in China tuned in to this show. I was too young then to understand the many social issues tackled in the show. But I loved it, loved seeing people on screen who looked and acted like me, and loved how the show brought the entire neighbourhood together.

When my family and I moved to the United States, there were many shows available to watch, of course. Some of them, such as Full House, a sitcom about a single dad raising three girls, had a great impact on me, including my notion of what constitutes a "normal family". But as funny and glamorous as the American shows were, I never forgot about Ke Wang. Whenever I was sad or lonely, I'd hum its theme song - even decades after I left China.

These days, Hong Kong children don't have their own Ke Wang. Without quality local shows to watch together, talk about and bond over, I worry they will grow up without any real sense of cultural identity.

Numerous studies show that children identify with what they see on screen. Consider the "doll test" conducted by psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark in 1930s America, which showed that, given a choice of white dolls and black dolls, black children living in those days of racial segregation consistently picked the white doll to play with.

If Hong Kong children watch only imported shows, they will become more familiar with other people and their values. Over time, they will identify more with their Western counterparts than with each other. The effects of this disconnection on the future of Hong Kong will be tremendous.

That's why I went to the HKTV protest last week. I went for my children, so that they may have a chance to have better television. I hope when they grow up, they will have their own comforting television theme song to hum, preferably one from a Hong Kong show.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School. kelly@kellyyang.edu.hk