Hong Kong’s old school entertainers clash with younger generation over political views

Politics polarise local pop culture in the aftermath of the umbrella movement, with older establishment names squaring off against younger artists who express liberal ideas

PUBLISHED : Friday, 19 February, 2016, 6:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 19 February, 2016, 6:00am

Hong Kong movies made for the Lunar New Year period – typically broad comedies, feel-good tales or action spectacles – aren’t controversial and new release From Vegas to Macau III fits the format. Yet local internet users have called for a boycott of the film. The cause of their ire: provocative comments from its director, Wong Jing.

Wong has long been a vocal supporter of police taking a tough line against protesters and often writes derisively on Weibo about Hong Kong’s younger generation.

To the 61-year-old director, the umbrella protesters of 2014 were lawbreakers and people who object to the controversial copyright bill are essentially supporting mass theft.

A prolific filmmaker in the 1980s and ’90s, Wong now primarily targets mainland audiences and brushes off the threat of a boycott, pointing out that the Chinese market is about 25 times the size of Hong Kong.

More than a year after the umbrella movement ended, politics continue to polarise local pop culture, reflecting in part more liberal views among the younger generation of entertainers.

Singer Kay Tse On-kei’s 10 mainland concerts were cancelled recently after pro-Beijing group Caring Hong Kong Power posted photos of her visiting the Occupy site at Admiralty. A music festival in Dongguan also dropped singer-songwriter Ellen Joyce Loo, of pop duo at17, after the same group “outed” her as an Occupy supporter. Other figures targeted by Caring Hong Kong Power include singer Hins Cheung King-hin and lyricist Albert Leung.

High-profile backing of the Occupy protests also cost singer Denise Ho Wan-see and Anthony Wong Yiu-ming (formerly of influential electro-pop duo Tat Ming Pair, their recording contracts. They are among a string of celebrities now reportedly banned from entering the mainland.

Actor Gregory Wong Chung-yiu, an up-and-coming star of Hong Kong Television Network (HKTV), remains defiant. The 37-year-old relishes the opportunity to take on what he views as unjust policies of the establishment.

Among his targets is TVB, which had set unreasonable terms for contracted entertainers taking other work (including those hired for one show or a series). In September 2013, this led the Communications Authority to conclude that the station had abused its dominant market position to prevent competition, but TVB later managed to appeal against the verdict.

To Gregory Wong, this “illustrates that there are unreasonable policies and suppression [by big corporations] in society”.

Although the city’s only other free-to-air broadcaster, Asia Television (ATV), had been in decline for years, even failing to pay staff their wages, the government rejected HKTV’s application for a broadcasting license in 2013.

HKTV launched online a few months later with The Election, its hit drama series woven around elections for the Chief Executive in 2022. ATV eventually failed to renew its licence and will cease broadcasting in April this year.

Educated in Britain, Wong says that rather than encourage a vibrant media culture with diverse views, the Hong Kong government is content to see media churn out only inane, escapist entertainment.

“We are envious of overseas productions, like House of Cards, but our government doesn’t support programmes that touch on sensitive themes,” says Wong, who played a lead role in The Election. “They don’t want TV audiences to see things that reflect reality. So the local entertainment industry is seen as shallow, and filled with soap operas.”

Hong Kong-raised model Asha Cuthbert, who has a popular channel on YouTube, is among the latest entertainment figures to take a swipe at TVB. She uploaded a 10-minute video a couple of months ago, lambasting the station for brainwashing Hongkongers.

It triggered to an online spat with Wong Jing over what success means to young people, mirroring a wider divide in the population.

In a riposte to Cuthbert’s tirade about TVB, Wong dismissed young people who express their political aspirations on the street, boasting about his success on Weibo: “I became famous at the age of 20, bought a property at 22, and became a director at 25. I have been popular for 40 years. My [film] Vegas to Macau II grossed a billion yuan. I am the most bankable Hong Kong director for 30 years. I succeed in doing all the things I like to do … If you don’t like buying property, you can continue sleeping in tents.”

Cuthbert, who dropped out of a media studies programme to pursue modelling, says: “People like Wong [Jing] equate success with making money and buying property. In their eyes, having none of those means you are a deadbeat. People from the older generation should be tolerant of young people, and give them guidance and advice. Wong has zero expectations of young people; he even takes gleeful pleasure seeing them fail to achieve what they want.”

Her father, Roy, may not have a degree and rents a flat in Yuen Long for HK$7,000 a month, but Cuthbert says he’s a successful photographer.

“He told me success means being able to achieve one’s goal. For him, success means being able to drink wine and look at the sunset.”

As a supporter of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying, veteran entertainer and businessman Natalis Chan Pak-cheung holds many views opposite to those held by some of the younger generation and has not been shy about airing them.

Young people are entitled to their views, even those espousing Hong Kong independence, Chan says, but they cannot impose their views on others.

“They find fault with whatever the government does … They are not stirring up revolution like Sun Yat-sen. They are just fouling things up. The Legco filibustering prevents the government from executing policies, affecting people’s lives and welfare. I care about such things.

“The delay in construction of the high-speed Guangzhou–Shenzhen–Hong Kong Express Rail Link is costing Hong Kong tens of billions of dollars. The whole of China is connected to the link and we will lose out if Hong Kong is not. All infrastructure projects are dismissed as white elephants.

“If we had not moved the airport from Kai Tak to Chek Lap Kok, how would Hong Kong be faring now? It would be worse than Cambodia and Vietnam,” Chan says.

Just as Wong Jing engaged in a war of words with Cuthbert, Chan has attacked young Scholarism founder Joshua Wong Chi-fung, criticising the activist for organising other youngsters to disrupt law and order.

“He thinks he is a political figure because he has been featured on the cover of Time magazine. Are you kidding me? Hitler and Saddam Hussein have been featured on the cover too. Wong failed his exams and couldn’t even gain admission into any of the eight public-funded universities ... Many young protesters have not even finished their studies; they just complain about everything. In our day, if things didn’t turn out the way we wanted, we would just blame ourselves for not being as good as others.”

While many students are angry at what they see as a lack of opportunities, Chan, 60, says it is always difficult for young people to carve a future for themselves.

“No matter what age we are in, people always have a hard life if they don’t come from a rich family. There was no free education and medicine in my day. I couldn’t afford the tuition fees for secondary school and had to sing in a bar at night to earn money.

“I went through many trials and tribulations. My garment business failed and I became bankrupt when I was 25. I learned the lesson not to expand production too fast, tried other businesses and succeeded. Can Joshua Wong run a factory?”

Chan is also dismissive of the more politically active figures in entertainment such as Denise Ho and Antony Wong, who now heads music production company People Mountain People Sea. “They are not [superstars] like Alan Tam and Anita Mui. Without enough star power to fill a stadium, instead they complain about being banned [for their political views].”

Amid the increasingly politicised entertainment scene in Hong Kong, actor Gregory Wong says public figures such as himself should continue to do what they believe is right.

“There are more and more groups fomenting unrest, disseminating falsehoods. Mainland citizens pick them up and spread them further, and [wrongly] attack us for being proponents of Hong Kong independence.

“Many policies adopted by the government, like the One Belt One Road initiative, are no longer aimed at the Hong Kong people. Hong Kong will lose its unique traits and become just another coastal Chinese city. As a Hongkonger, I want to remind locals what we have lost and urge them to get back the things that used to make us proud.”