Netflix: great for Hong Kong viewers, not so good for home-grown talent

Kelly Yang says the influx of streaming content from overseas is in full flow, and our local film and television industry needs to think more globally if there is to be any future for Hong Kong culture

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 13 January, 2016, 3:42pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 13 January, 2016, 5:41pm

Like many Hongkongers, I was very happy to hear of Netflix’s entrance to the Hong Kong market. No other developed city in the world is more starved of quality original content (read: television shows whose plot lines are not predictable to an eight-year-old child).

Whenever I tell friends abroad that I only have four television channels, they look at me like I’ve suffered some horrible accident. And, if you think about it, not having good TV in this day and age is a type of suffering.

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That’s because good television doesn’t just help shape culture, it’s a basic prerequisite for culture. When a show touches a nerve, it has the power to bring people together and effect change in a way that few other mediums can.

That’s what’s missing in Hong Kong. It was a void I had come to accept, one I assumed would always go unfilled.

Then, along comes Netflix with its influx of shows from abroad; finally, we Hongkongers will get to experience what it feels like to be swept up in a global hit TV show – the excitement, the anticipation of what’s going to happen, the fun premiere parties at home.

But not so fast. Let’s go back to the word “global” for a second. Netflix does indeed offer a wide array of shows and arguably any one of the shows is better than what’s currently on TV; however, few, if any, of the shows are made in Hong Kong.

And while I think Netflix’s goal is impressive, to allow everyone, everywhere to access the same content, I cannot emphasise enough the importance of having quality locally produced content.

I’m saying this not just as a viewer but also as a filmmaker. Recently, I took the plunge into multimedia and started writing, producing and starring in my own YouTube series, a free educational show in English and Putonghua for teenagers.

If the next generation grows up watching American television exclusively, Hong Kong culture will take a massive hit

Admittedly, I am at best a small potato, and more like a crumb, in the filmmaking world, but here’s what I’ve learned so far from the experience: you need to know your audience; and the best stories come from experience.

That’s why locally produced television content is so important. Only by having writers and directors who truly know Hong Kong, who live and work here and breathe all our idiosyncrasies and nuances, can we ever truly hope to have a global hit Hong Kong show, one that channels our problems in a way that is creative and transformative. And if we don’t have that, then all we’re really doing is importing culture from abroad. If the next generation of Hong Kong children grows up watching American television exclusively, Hong Kong culture will take a massive hit.

That’s fine if you don’t think there’s much to Hong Kong culture to begin with and that the potential upside to entire generations of Hong Kong children growing up with American television is huge. And arguably, there are many advantages, not least presumably knowing better English.

But I, for one, am not ready to give up on Hong Kong culture. There’s a lot that’s unique to Hong Kong, many heart-warming and quirky stories that are well worth telling.

READ MORE: Netflix negotiating with Beijing to enter China after launching in 130 more markets but will face strict controls on foreign content

However, the way we tell them needs to change. We need to think globally and less locally.

That’s the only way local content producers can survive. In this day and age, with Netflix and half a dozen other streaming providers at our heels, local filmmakers need to think beyond Hong Kong and relearn how to entertain the rest of the world.

And that’s a good thing. It’s about time the world heard from Hong Kong.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at the Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong.