Hong Kong TV producer legend Robert Chua sees multimedia as future of industry
Recalling rich entertainment career that began when he was 18, the Singapore native reflects on what audiences want
Ask Hongkongers to name just one programme they fondly remember watching on TVB over the last half-century, and chances are high many a local resident will single out a programme from the station’s early golden days, Enjoy Yourself Tonight.
Etched in Hong Kong’s collective memory, the variety show was hugely popular, airing on what continues to be the city’s longest running free-to-air broadcaster. It was also the first local show to broadcast live and in colour.
On five nights a week from November 20, 1967 to October 7, 1994, it still boasts the distinction of being the longest-running live variety show in Asia.
Behind every good show toils a mastermind, and in the case of Enjoy Yourself Tonight, that person was Robert Chua Wah-peng. At the tender age of 21, Chua was and remains TVB’s youngest production executive in the history of the broadcaster, which celebrated its 50th anniversary last Sunday.
By producing one of Asia’s most successful live variety shows, the Singapore native, now 71, helped build the fledgling TV station into an international broadcast pioneer.
But before coming to TVB, Chua gained extensive knowledge working at Australia’s ADS channel when he was only 18. Colin Bednell, TVB’s first general manager, recognised the young man’s talent and gave him an opportunity to create the variety show.
With a touch of innovation, Chua fused different programme concepts to create Enjoy Yourself Tonight, incorporating performances, comedy sketches, short dramas and games. He invited the renowned martial artist Bruce Lee to appear, and Lee obliged by showing his signature flying kick. He also brought many popular singers from abroad to Hong Kong, including the Taiwanese star Teresa Teng.
In the wake of the show’s creation, Chua went on to establish himself as one of Asia’s most successful TV producers. After seven years at TVB, Chua founded a series of his own ventures, including China Entertainment Television Broadcast, a Chinese-language entertainment satellite channel later sold to Time Warner in 2002.
In 2010, at the age of 64, Chua changed course and ventured into the food and beverage industry. He cofounded a nano-ceramic cookware line in 2010, and brought the Michelin-starred dim sum brand Tim Ho Wan and Cantonese restaurant Kam’s Roast Goose to Singapore. In 2014, he opened his own French bakery shop in Hong Kong, with all ingredients shipped directly from France.
Enjoy Yourself Tonight was one of the most successful live variety show in Hong Kong and Asia. What was it like to produce the show when you were only 21, and what were the main challenges you faced?
When TVB launched, there were not many experienced people at all in the television industry. Nobody had ever done a live show other than the simple news broadcasts. It was a huge challenge to do five nights of live shows a week, especially when the station was brand new.
But I started doing television in Adelaide, Australia, and took part in all aspects of live shows. From sweeping the floor to setting up the sets, I was the cameraman, the floor manager, learning all aspects of it from the bottom up. That’s why I felt and understood the atmosphere and pace of live television. So when I came to Hong Kong, I did it with ease, even without the experience of actually producing live shows.
In Australia, there were a lot of talk shows, with very little entertainment. But in Hong Kong, I found that people needed real entertainment. They were not willing to sit there and listen to talk shows. So I created a live entertainment show that’s like a family. The cast had someone you would consider as your grandpa, your parents, uncle, sister, and so on. All in all, you could feel they were part of your family and relate to them.
What do you think was the secret to the success of Enjoy Yourself Tonight?
The number one reason was that it was a live show. If you look at a live show with an audience sitting and watching, you enjoy the show more. An audience can see the emotions coming from the cast are real, not rehearsed. The staff also had a different feeling because they could see people’s reactions. The cast were forced to give their best because in a taped show they could give their second-best and just shout to do it again.
Another secret was the skillful programming of the show’s tempo and pace. To make a show as long as one hour and 45 minutes, you have to think about how to keep it engaging and fluid. The tempo has to alternate between fast and slow, and the sentiments should also change between heated and calm. Slow songs are good, but if you have slow songs all night, it’s no good. It has to be a good balance. The mixture of comedy, chit-chat talk, dance – all of these made the show interesting.
What is your most memorable behind-the-scenes moment?
My most memorable moment was Bruce Lee jumping out of a cake on the show. People were so surprised because jumping out of a birthday cake was always something only sexy ladies would do back in the day. But Lee was a good friend of mine, and I just asked him to do it, thinking it would be interesting.
Lee came to Hong Kong after acting in the television series, The Green Hornet, and I invited him to appear on the show. He had a lot of respect for me. We were friends and communicated well because my first language is English and he mostly spoke English. He was very nice person, and he liked making fun of me and scaring me. Sometimes he would give me a flying kick and miss me by just an inch, just for fun.
You spent five months in Hong Kong before starting to produce the show in 1967. What were your major observations of Hong Kong society back then?
I remember I came here during a time of riots because of the Cultural Revolution. But apart from that, Hongkongers worked very hard, which I appreciate a lot. So what they needed at night was to relax. To this day, I feel that I contributed to the happiness of a lot of people in those days in the late 1960s and early 70s. After their long day at work, they would watch the television and go to bed happily, and the next day they would go to work energetically and talk about how interesting the show was. Even to this day, I still quite often meet taxi drivers or older people who come up to me to thank me for the show. I feel satisfaction when they say: “Thank you, Mr Chua, for bringing us so much happiness in the early days. I miss your show very much.” It gives me pleasure knowing I made people happier and contributed to the happiness of the early days.
What’s your view on the current state of the TV industry amid the rise of online video? Many people believe its demise is inevitable in the future.
There are a lot more choices now, but I hope people will be given better choices. In reality television shows, people dramatise things, and it seems the ruder people behave, the better. But if people do silly things on television and are rude, slap, or scold people, the younger generation would think that’s all normal behaviour.
Comedy is meant to be funny and make people laugh, but it shouldn't make people laugh at the wrong things. In the past, you wouldn’t learn bad things from the humour we created. But now, people do bad things to create humour and you learn bad things.
The solution to the industry’s challenge is not new. Many years ago, I created a channel called Health and Life. It was an interactive multimedia channel, allowing people to send text messages that could be seen by the host. Audience members could suggest what questions to ask, or call in and ask questions, among many other things they could do. Unfortunately, people didn’t take to it.
The only way for television to survive is multimedia. What I created can be done much easier now, with Skype and so on.
Television can make use of online video and live streaming to revive itself. You can have five minutes of live streaming and then something else, putting together an interesting show. Online video or live streaming can complement it, but it’s not good enough to stand alone.
You’ve worked for more than 50 years, first in the TV industry and later in food and beverage. Are you ever going to retire?
I will die working. I will drop dead working. Because you see, I don’t consider what I do to be work. If someone likes football, when he becomes a professional footballer, he wouldn’t think it’s his work to play football. To me, what I do is a like a hobby.
What is your favourite show, either here in Hong Kong or overseas?
My favourite show is a Chinese one called The Brain. Both the content and the production are very good. I was the first foreign television producer and advertiser going into China to do business there in 1979, and they were so primitive. But now China produces better shows than Hong Kong, for sure.
When you were growing up, what did you want to become?
In the Singaporean mentality, people like to be a doctor or a lawyer. But thank God I went into television, because I’m a creative person. If I hadn’t gone into television, I would probably be a lawyer.
Whom did you admire when you were young?
I left for Australia when I was 16. I only remember I really liked the comedy film Blue Hawaii. Elvis Presley was someone I liked a lot, and I like his movies, those nice, healthy movies. I also liked The Ding Dong Song by Tsai Chin. It has a very catchy tune.
What is your favourite Hollywood movie?
Steven Spielberg’s first epic, Jaws. Now, there are a lot more impressive movies with special effects, but there weren’t that many back then.