Recently at a dinner party that was well-attended by some members of the cultural sector, a very obscure thing happened. The conversation of the night evolved around, surprisingly, not the pro-Beijing lawmaker Christopher Chung Shu-Kun’s recent controversial attack on the West Kowloon arts hub’s hire of Western talents at Legco, or that the Hong Kong Ballet is looking for yet another new executive director, but, errr, TVB drama series Triumph in the Skies 2 (衝上雲霄II).
“I adore Captain Cool,” one arts administrator in her late 20s commented on the airline pilot/ womaniser Jayden Koo, the show’s lead played by Julian Cheung Chi-lam (張智霖), also known as Chilam. “Chilam is hot at his age.”
“But Francis Ng (吳鎮宇) is a much better actor,” another 30-something arts manager cut in, rating Ng, a Hong Kong Film Awards best actor-winner, for his performance as the other lead Sam Tong, a pilot living with regret after his ex-lover died in the previous season aired on TVB 10 years ago.” Either way I couldn’t understand why both of them fell for Fala Chen (陳法拉). “She can’t act,” said one grumpy middle-aged critic. Chen plays the female lead Holiday Ho in the series.
Video: Trailer for Triumph in the Skies 2
My jaw dropped not only because I naively thought people from the arts world were more into high brow conversation of arts and culture, but because I was a complete mute almost the entire evening. Yes I have read everything about the show in local entertainment pages and frequent social media posts about the racy love scenes, but I haven’t watched a single episode of Triumph in the Skies 2. The same old narrative and well-worn love triangle just doesn’t interest me any more.
“What? You haven’t watched it? Are you even a Hongkonger?” an arts PR glared at me. In a city where there is very limited choice of free TV services, the type of TV you watch can almost define your cultural identity. Now Hong Kong has two free-to-air domestic TV stations in TVB and ATV - both will need licences to be renewed in 2015 in order to remain in the game. And while ATV loops its programmes several times a day (current affairs programme Blog the World three times a day, according to a recent Communications Authority report), TVB rules.
Take Triumph in the Skies 2. The 40-episode drama runs five nights a week for two months during peak hours, with an average of 2 million people glued to the small screen for each episode, according to TVB’s official figures.
This means, with one in every 3.5 Hongkongers following Triumph in the Skies 2 on a daily basis, you are bound to be sitting near one of them at any given time. Like it or not, this is what most people in Hong Kong are talking about. You can turn a blind eye but you cannot deny this fact, even if you do not watch local television. No matter where you go and what you do, you simply can’t escape the world of TVB (and that hasn’t included local online viewership and the over 100 million internet hits per episode on the mainland).
This wasn’t the case back in the 70s to early 80s when TVB was still at times challenged by Rediffusion TV (RTV, today’s ATV) and Commercial TV. It was the golden era of Hong Kong’s television, and a time where anything was possible: Hong Kong New Wave director Patrick Tam Ka-ming shooting TVB dramas in 16mm film back in the mid-1970s, paying homage to Jean-Luc Godard, rocked Hong Kong television production. In 1980, TVB had to axe the series Five Easy Pieces (輪流傳) (produced by Kam Kwok-leung, co-directed by Johnnie To Kei-fung and Wong Kar-wai was an assistant director) in light of the success (40 per cent viewership) of RTV’s heart-wrenching village tale Fatherland (大地恩情) set in the Republic era. Audiences were spoiled for choice, and more importantly, Hong Kong’s TV culture (together with Canto-pop) was exported to the rest of the world.
But now, partly due to the lack of local competition, TVB’s trendsetter status has gradually been overtaken by new content exporters including mainland China and South Korea. And worst of all, a Hong Kong perspective could well one day be replaced by a homogenic ”TVB perspective”, as the broadcaster rises into a force for cultural hegemony that will dominate our society’s values system. (Although TVB shows can be great headache cure, as you don’t need to think while you are watching them. Trust me, it works.)
If pluralism is what is to be considered among the traces of Hong Kong’s cultural identity in the 21st Century, as stated in the then Culture and Heritage Commission’s cultural policy recommendation report published 10 years ago, it is not right if we only have one TV station dominating our lives. We deserve more options.
Sadly, more than three-and-a-half years after Ricky Wong Wai-kay’s HKTV, PCCW and i-Cable Communications applied for free-to-air TV licences, there’s still no sign of approval. HKTV has been filming TV dramas including crime thriller Borderline (警界线) at the cost of HK$1 million per episode, and has spent HK$300 million so far, but we still don’t get to see anything on TV except a few clips on the internet.
Video: Trailer for HKTV's Police Boundaries
This prolonged delay of new TV licences drags on at the cost of not only the millions of dollars that Wong has spent on the movie-quality productions but also Hong Kong’s pluralistic cultural identity.
But obviously this isn’t what the current administration cares for the most right now.