China switches on to entertainment tonight

A MAINLAND version of Enjoy Yourself Tonight and other Hong Kong-style entertainment shows will dominate the schedules of China's first inter-regional television network which goes on air for a trial period from January.

But local academics have warned that the material on its way to the six stations comprising City Network Corporation could leave the mainland facing a cultural identity crisis.

Despite economic reforms, mainland authorities seem reluctant to allow China to satisfy the growing demand for entertainment by developing commercial shows of its own.

So the job of producing shows for the new network, which includes stations from Guangzhou to Harbin and estimates an audience of 55 million, has gone to local show business veteran Antony Chan.

The film-maker, singer and actor has set up a training and production house in Guangzhou to groom artists, dancers and crewmen and produce programmes based on old Hong Kong shows.

One of the programmes Mr Chan's company, Metro Communications Ltd, expects to be a big hit, is the Chinese version of Enjoy Yourself Tonight. But Hong Kong academics have criticised the production of such a variety show which they feel lacks a message.

Lecturer in journalism at Hong Kong Baptist College To Yiu-ming said: ''Lifestyle, fashion, film culture and so on have value apart from entertainment. They can carry messages about real life such as freedom, human rights and democracy.'' Mr To, who maintains that Western culture has preserved values like freedom of expression, added mainland viewers could not learn any valuable lessons from EYT. ''These programmes are just cultural rubbish,'' he said.

However, mainland authorities have defended Metro Communications programmes, according to the company's deputy managing director Chris Wong Kwan-lap.

He said it was Chinese officials who had suggested the Hong Kong team produce EYT for mainland television audiences. He added that Metro Communications had the support of China's Radio, Film and Television Ministry and that officials had told him the newproject would bring a breath of fresh air to the mainland media industry.

''We avoid having any political messages in these programmes,'' said Mr Wong. According to Chinese officials people now preferred entertainment on television.

Along with EYT, Metro Communications plans to produce soap operas, game shows and MTV. All the programmes will be produced in China with mainland-trained crewmen and artists. Production and artists' training follow largely the same methods as those in Hong Kong.

''New production techniques will be brought into China to help upgrade the efficiency of production and quality of programmes,'' Mr Wong said.

Antony Chan's project is just one example of the growing demand from China for Hong-Kong style entertainment. Local singers, film-makers and advertisers are all cashing in on the mushrooming business of showbiz in China.

Billboard advertiser Winnie Lui Gum-fun, who has a business in Sichuan, believes the influx of Hong Kong culture into the mainland would have a disastrous effect on Chinese culture if it simply became an ''imitation'' of Hong Kong's.

But she thought this would only happen if the government failed to make a concerted effort to train mainland people who could develop their own popular culture.

Mr Chan's company has already trained over 300 artists, dancers, crewmen and executives.

Metro Communications trainees said they enjoyed the Hong Kong working style even though it challenges the time-honoured tradition of an afternoon nap. ''Now we have learnt to be more punctual and not to sleep after lunch in order to increase efficiency.'' Playwright Wang Shengzhi, 27, said he had learned to be more positive and serious about his work. He said he had ''wasted'' his time and youth under the present mainland system.

A lecturer in anthropology at the Chinese University of Hong Kong Dr Maria Tam Siu-mi felt that mainlanders might face an identity crisis over whether to accept such a ''foreign'' culture or to follow their traditional one.

But trainees said they had few problems, claiming they learned many good things from Hong Kong. They also said they preferred working for Metro Communications to state-owned television stations.

''I have a chance to try many different things in this company,'' said singer Mu Zhangxiao, 22.

Another trainee Wang Yan said investing money or time in state-owned television was like putting money in ''stagnant water''.