What is so important about Hong Kong TV that 80,000 people would demonstrate against the government’s decision to deny them a broadcasting license? It’s more about what this scenario represents in a rapidly changing Hong Kong.
On its surface the dispute between HKTV and the Hong Kong government over a free-to-broadcast TV license would appear to some to be a simple business dispute. Three companies applied for licenses, two were granted licenses, and now the losing company is mounting a campaign against the decision.
But viewing the controversy as merely a business dispute doesn’t explain why an estimated 80,000 protesters rallied in support of HKTV on October 20 and tens of thousands more stood outside the Legislative Council Complex on November 6 as debate took place on a measure to investigate.
The public sentiment that has emerged in support of HKTV illustrates growing distrust of the Hong Kong government and anxiety over what the future holds. As the Chinese Dream takes hold in the Mainland, many see a Hong Kong Nightmare on the horizon.
At the November 6 gathering, HKTV employees had the 2012 Olympic song, “This is My Dream” by Kashy Keegan, playing on speakers.
“This is my heart, This is my soul, This is the only love I’ve known, This is my dream…”
A protester at the event held a sign that said, “This city is dying you know.” At the June 1 protest march this year, a protester was handing out signs that said, “Where has my dream city gone?”
Television and film has played an outsized influence in defining Hong Kong society and culture in the later half of the 20th century. Citizens are not just disappointed about a lack of competition on their TV screens, missing the opportunity to see what many thought would be innovative TV shows, and a general lack of government transparency. They also see a period of vibrant culture, prosperity, and relative openness slipping away.
There was a time when Hong Kong TV shows and films were the cream of the crop in Asia. Of the 100 films selected by the Hong Kong Film Association in 2005 as the best Chinese films ever, 21 were made in Hong Kong in the 1980’s. That was the Golden Era of Hong Kong film, television, culture, and economic growth. But it was also the era in which the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which set the framework for the 1997 handover of Hong Kong, was signed.
In the 1980’s, Hong Kong dramas were popular in Shanghai, Seoul, and Tokyo. Not so much anymore.
“Today’s Hong Kong dramas are worse than [those of] Mainland China and Korea,” said Lam Jinghong, an actor with HKTV who was on hand for the November 6 protest. “In the past, they were better. That’s because Hong Kong just has one TV station.”
The one TV station is TVB, a station where many of HKTV’s actors have come from. ATV is also broadcasting, but from 2010 to 2012, they produced no new drama series. The vast majority of the television market share has been TVB’s, but viewers are bored of its formulaic soap operas.
It wasn’t always this way. TVB was founded by Hong Kong film executive Run Run Shaw in 1967. Shaw was one of the founders of the Shaw Brothers film studio that put out many popular kung fu movies in the 50’s and 60’s. Hong Kongese and foreigners alike would often run home to watch TVB’s popular shows. Hong Kong television pushed the development of both music and film. Musicians like Sammy Hui created show tunes, contributing to the popularity of Cantopop, and many big screen actors got their starts on TV. Among the actors who started acting in TV dramas are Chow Yun-fat, Carina Lau, Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung, and Tony Leung. Cheung and Leung (and Lau) both acted in TVB’s Police Cadet ’84. They would later act together in many classic films like In the Mood for Love, which was directed by Wong Kar-wai, who got his started as a screenwriter for TVB.
At their best, Hong Kong films paint a picture of the city’s psyche. Wong’s films take their viewers into Hong Kong’s fast-paced urban street life, the interior of the once-seedy Chungking Mansions, and the close quarters in which people live in cramped flats, showing at once the limitless dreams of Hong Kong in the 1960’s and the reality of those dreams too often slipping away.
More on The China Chronicle: Inside Chunking Mansions
The 17th Hong Kong Film Awards honored films produced in 1997, the first year of Hong Kong’s status as a special administrative region of China. That year, Fruit Chan won best director for Made in Hong Kong, a film that was described as “the first post-1997 independent film from the now historical colony.” Tony Leung won best actor for his role in Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together.
After the handover, Hong Kong was set to be an SAR for the next 50 years. About his film 2046, Wong said told The Guardian, “The Chinese government promised Hong Kong 50 years without change; 2046 would be the last year of the promise. Will there be change?”
Some actors and directors apparently thought so. Many emigrated to Western countries before and after 1997. Allen Fong told the New York Times in 1990 that he would “make as many movies as possible before 1997, to document the last years of Hong Kong.”
Once “the Hollywood of Asia,” the film industry of Hong Kong is slowing down, too. In 1993, Hong Kong produced 200 films. In 2012, it produced 53. That is due in part to rising costs and greater competition from the rest of Asia. For example, Mainland China is now producing blockbuster films.
It seems Hong Kong society and culture has become stuck in malaise. HKTV was trying to change that.
Actors at HKTV describe it as a network that was trying to create a more creative, model-breaking style of television with an owner who dedicates great attention to his projects.
“Sometimes when you are filming, [owner Ricky Wong] will come up behind you, pat you on the side, and say, ‘Good job.’ This would never happen at TVB,” said Gao Junwen, an actor since 1978 who used to work at TVB.
“Everyone is more daring and gives more heart,” said Wu Huishan. “We like to make it feel like the movies a little bit.”
With the vote to investigate the licensing matter having failed, everyone has their suspicions as to why HKTV was denied a license. The government said it was due to a lack of financing —- and indeed HKTV doesn’t have a parent company behind it like the other two networks — but Wong did sell the telecommunications aspects of his business, City Telecom, and raised a reported HK$5 billion to finance HKTV. In 2011, the Broadcasting Authority recommended that all three applicants be approved for licenses, but no decision was made until October 2013. During that time, Wong was aggressively pushing for the government to speed up the process, and TVB was aggressively lobbying for no new licenses to be awarded.
Many of the public think that Wong’s free-spiritedness may have cost him the license. The government knew what kind of television PCCW and I-Cable’s stations would produce. The two already had cable channels. HKTV, on the other hand, was just getting started. Wong had previously been CEO of ATV in 2008, but he was fired after 12 days. At the time, he said, “ATV shouldn’t be CCTV on channel 10.”
PCCW and I-Cable both have business interests in Mainland China. If the Mainland government doesn’t like the tone of news coverage, theoretically they could have some sway over the owners. HKTV is independent.
The fall out from the HKTV issue has contributed to the Hong Kong government’s approval ratings sinking to near record lows. Other issues over the past few years, including plans to implement “patriotic education,” which were subsequently stifled by protests, have also hurt the government’s standing.
Since January 2011, the public’s net satisfaction with the Hong Kong SAR government has always been negative, according to polls conducted by Hong Kong University’s Public Opinion Programme. The latest polls from October show the approval rating at 24% positive versus 52% negative. Chief Executive CY Leung’s approval rating stands at 44, as of the week of October 18, just over one year into his term. It took seven years for former CE Donald Tsang’s approval ratings to dip that low.
Whether or not it has a fifth broadcast TV channel may not be the biggest issue facing Hong Kong, but it does put the SAR’s problems front and center for everyone to see, including those who aren’t interested in politics.
HKTV actor Lam Jinghong said, “It just changed in 2011 or 2012 when CY came. He is acting like a Communist. He just tells you what to do.”
“Before, nothing would happen like this. Why do something like this to hurt the heart of the Hong Kong people?”