Is Hong Kong a multicultural city? Not in its films and television

Vivienne Chow says the city’s rich heritage in film and television does not reflect Hong Kong’s diversity of people and influences. Now, it even lags behind mainland China and Taiwan in its openness to foreign talent

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 September, 2018, 12:02pm
UPDATED : Friday, 28 September, 2018, 5:49pm

Hong Kong is branded an international city, but the reality portrayed on our small and big screens points elsewhere: we live in a largely monolingual society where English is rarely spoken and people who have different skin colours generally fall into three categories — tourists, bosses and foreign domestic helpers. 

The city is indeed primarily a Chinese society. According to 2016 census statistics, 92 per cent of the 7.34 million population is ethnically Chinese. Other ethnicities account for 8 per cent, of which more than half are foreign domestic helpers.

Cantonese is the city’s mother tongue and English, despite its legal status as one of the city’s two official languages, isn’t used in most people’s daily lives unless necessary – in business emails, when dealing with bosses, work colleagues and clients who do not speak the local language, sitting school exams, or instructing a foreign domestic helper to accomplish the almost impossible task of cooking Chinese food.

However, 8 per cent of the population equates to some 587,200 people. The reality is that they are living among us, and yet their Hong Kong stories remain largely untold on local television or in films.

Gregory Charles Rivers, arguably the most famous white guy in Hong Kong, played similar, stereotypical roles over and over again throughout his 20 years of on-screen life with the city’s biggest broadcaster TVB, despite his nearly perfect spoken Cantonese. If he wasn’t a top police officer, a priest or some kind of a boss in a show, he would be a foreign ambassador to the Qing court in some period drama. Rivers left TVB a decade ago.

Why Gregory Charles Rivers, also known as Ho Kwok-wing, is the ‘Real Hongkonger’

The portraits of South and Southeast Asians are worse. A local actor or actress painting his or her face dark is preferred over having someone genuinely coming from those parts of the world — like something from the Fu Manchu film series of old Hollywood. That changed slightly when TVB signed its first actor of Indian descent, Gill Mohindepaul Singh, better known by his Chinese stage name Q Bobo, over a decade ago.

Just when the world has been hailing the success of Crazy Rich Asians for its all-Asian cast, breaking new ground in a business traditionally dominated by white people in Hollywood, it’s worth asking how much success this former Hollywood East has had in this respect.

Hong Kong has a rich heritage in film and television, despite its recent decline, and yet we have only a handful of actors who are not ethnic Chinese or do not look like one. The long history of Hong Kong cinema and television has failed to reflect the city’s cultural and racial diversity.

Watch: Hong Kong films from 1996 to 2016

Crazy Rich Asians is a Hollywood movie, not real life

Compared to Hong Kong, mainland China and Taiwan appear to be more open to embracing talent of different skin colours.

In recent years, mainland China’s show business industry has featured several foreign-born hosts and actors, such as Dashan (Mark Henry Rowswell), Ai Hua (Charlotte MacInnis) and Benjamin Schwartz, an actor who took a starring role in New My Fair Princess in 2011.

Variety shows that feature foreigners singing Chinese songs have been running for a long time, giving opportunities to people like Nigerian Uwechue Emmanuel, who is better known by his stage name Hao Ge. In recent years, more Hollywood A-listers, from Michael Douglas, John Cusack and Adrien Brody to Christian Bale and Bruce Willis, have taken part in Chinese films, playing roles that were tailor-made for them.

Watch: Trailer of The Flowers of War, with Christian Bale in a starring role

Hong Kong’s golden days of film gone as China moves into spotlight

Although these are not “local” Western actors, and they are featured in blockbusters mainly for box office and international appeal, their appearances make Chinese films seem more diverse.

However, this may soon change, as the National Radio and Television Administration recently proposed several new rules capping the number of foreign actors and crew members of a production to 20 per cent of total staff, and requiring that the male and female leads of a domestic production cannot both be foreign.

Taiwan, on the other hand, has a strong pool of foreign actors who speak perfect Mandarin. TV talk shows such as Half and Half, which features an ensemble of foreign entertainers and models from Europe and North and South America, as well as other parts of Asia, discussing cultural topics with their local counterparts, have successfully groomed a number of household names who have gone on to take up acting jobs, including Martin Ferm from Sweden, and French actor and model Fabio Grangeon.

 
 
 
 
 
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Just how much of a melting pot is Hong Kong, Asia’s World City?

What makes it so difficult for foreign actors in Hong Kong? Some say the challenge of learning Cantonese is the biggest obstacle, but actors like Rivers have proved that learning the language isn’t impossible. Singer Janice Vidal, who is of Filipino and Korean descent, manages to perform in Cantonese and Mandarin.

Furthermore, a number of overseas Hongkongers who did not speak or read the local language worked on their shortcomings and managed to make it big, such as singer and actress Sally Yeh, who learnt her Chinese lines and lyrics using phonetics but went on to become one of the most successful singers and actresses in the 1990s.

If language isn’t the biggest problem, then it is the lack of interesting roles that discourages foreigners who want to pursue a show business career in Hong Kong. Both Rivers and Brian Burrell, who also began his acting career with TVB, have said on various occasions that they were stuck with stereotypical roles at the TV station.

Although Rivers recently appeared in local horror comedy Get Outta Here (2015), the problem of too few interesting roles remains. The lack of directors and screenwriters who are capable of coming up with culturally diverse stories and characters is the cause.

Some say a foreign cast might hurt the box-office receipts or TV ratings because most viewers cannot identity with these characters. But if the first step is not made to introduce different faces into the mainstream media, there is no way to make a difference. And then, Asia’s world city is merely an empty slogan.

Vivienne Chow is a journalist and critic based in Hong Kong. She is the founder of Cultural Journalism Campus