Inages from Greed of Man:
Ding Xia is a classic brute from a working class background. With no money and no skills, he tries to live honestly by his principles of filial piety, fraternal loyalty, and familial obligation. Yet, faced with unending obstacles, rampant corruption, and a world unsympathetic with his plight, his righteousness turns deadly. Ding Xia can be read as an allegory of Communist China, which is seen to be mired in self-righteous, nationalistic, and paternalistic ideology.
Unaware of the extent of his own strength, he kills his best friend in a fit of rage.
He is horrified by the amount of force he could exert.
Ding Xia believes in “an eye for an eye.” He is looking forward to revenge by teaching the man in the foreground a lesson. Revenge is a tool for the disenfranchised and oppressed to seek justice.
He also keeps photographs of those he needs to repay for their generosity.
His love interest thinks he’s so nonsensical, she cannot help laughing out loud. Ding Xia’s desire for compensatory justice and stubborn defense of the traditional family and Confucian values take a perverse turn when he uses these principles to justify his family’s capitalist excesses.
Ding Xia tells the sad story of his family’s experience with poverty in his closing statement. Can the courts deliver justice for those who were oppressed under colonialism?
The only ones moved by his story are his sons. There's no redress for poverty in a court of law.
The actions and attitudes of Ding Xia and his sons mirror the excesses of an older traditional society and the capitalist fervor of modern society. Ding Xia’s family order finally collapses upon itself after suffering massive losses from rampant speculation in the stock market. The family is so important to Ding Xia and his sons that they decide to commit suicide together.
As the patriarchal head of the family, Ding Xia takes the responsibility of throwing his sons off the roof.
Bok is the only survivor in his family. He succeeds at last through a commitment to the bourgeois ideals of hard work, individualism, and personal responsibility.
Bok could only talk to his family through their photographs. After he has avenged their deaths, he starts anew, renews his commitment to his girlfriend, and paves the path for the formation of his own bourgeois nuclear family.
Bok takes revenge on Ding Xia and his sons by becoming a success on the stock market. Ironically, the stock market can be a site for redressing pass wrongs once its excesses are properly contained. As Bok is folding his trading jacket, one of Ding Xia’s sons jumps to his death.
Bok keeps count as they jump, “Two down.” He’s been waiting for this day for a very long time. If nothing else, Bok and Ding Xia share a similar loss of faith in the rule of law, which compromises Bok’s adherence to the bourgeois family ideal to a certain extent.
The violence in Greed of Man was considered extreme by television standards, invoking memories of the violence at Tiananmen Square in 1989. Here, triad members throw Bok off the roof along with the rest of his family. He was the lone survivor of the attack.
Bok and his family protest the triad’s attempts to silence them, reminiscent of the Tiananmen Square protests just a few years ago.
One of the triad members comes to the rescue of his injured girlfriend and carries her to his car, a grand and dramatic gesture characteristic of melodrama.
Also characteristic of melodrama…the long and passionate kiss.
Although Hong Kong TV serials are different from Western soaps in many ways, studies done on soap operas still prove to be useful in understanding the popularity and viewing experiences of Hong Kong TV. Eric Ma, in his book on Hong Kong TV, the only comprehensive study done on Hong Kong television so far, also draws heavily from studies done on TV soaps to characterize the nature of Hong Kong TV dramas. Like soap operas, Hong Kong TV dramas usually involve large families and interpersonal conflicts, rehearse the nuances of everyday life, are staged primarily in domestic locations, emphasize dialogue, generate feelings of intimacy and display strong, oftentimes polarized, emotions.
Unlike soap operas, these TV shows do not have open serial narrative structures (i.e. the never-ending soap opera that continues over decades) and they appeal to a general audience as opposed to the female-dominated viewers of Western soaps. As such, they are more akin to something like Latin American telenovelas than Western soaps. Both Hong Kong TV dramas and telenovelas are structured by what Allen calls “closed serial narratives.”[open endnotes in new window] Though paradigmatically complex in terms of relationships between characters and the existence of multiple, parallel plot lines, there does exist a central conflict and protagonist(s) (i.e. hero). The story generally climaxes, experiences a pivotal moment, and reaches a resolution, although after the passing of many episodes. At the close of such a serial, “the operative moral or ideological universe comes into view.” Even so, “because of the gaps created by its serial structure, even the closed serial… opens up issues, values and meanings that the text itself cannot immediately close off.” Indeed, in Hong Kong TV, a successful serial often ensures a sequel thus offering another platform for its textual excesses to live on.
Family melodramas are usually considered grand productions in Hong Kong television because of their large cast, complex plots that unfold over numerous episodes (oftentimes 50 or more) and intense media hype. Sometimes, as in the case of At the Threshold of an Era (chuang shi ji 1999), producers would segment a long serial into multiple parts. The sequel to At the Threshold of an Era 1 was aired after a one-month hiatus following the close of the first part of the serial. This break generated a heightened sense of curiosity and suspense and ensured that a loyal following of viewers would come back for more.
Oftentimes, sequels are not mere continuations of existing stories, and this goes for all Hong Kong TV genres including family melodramas. Sometimes sequels will bear the same title but have an altogether different cast and story, though they may share similar thematic concerns and genre conventions, i.e. family melodramas, detective serials, stories about professional life (i.e. doctors, firefighters, lawyers, etc). A sequel may use the same cast and set of relationships but is set in a different context, for example in ancient times as opposed to modern times. Or, there may not be a sequel but an entirely new serial created using a popular protagonist from another serial (as in the case of At the End of a Threshold and Golden Faith (liu jin sui yue 2002). Golden Faith was heavily marketed through its star actor Gallen Lo (Luo Jia Liang) and the dramatic changes in his characterization from his lead role in At the End of a Threshold.
In contrast to Western soaps, which are fairly locked into the genre conventions and practices of their conception, the closed serial format of Hong Kong TV serials leaves room for flexibility and experimentation. If a serial does well, producers are likely to reproduce its televisual format while allowing for some degree of variation in order to generate curiosity. While television genres found in Hong Kong are fairly standard —detective show, action TV, comedy sitcom, drama, talk-show, game-show, etc. — Hong Kong dramas are generally a hybrid mix of different genre conventions, making them harder to classify. It is not uncommon, therefore, to watch crime serials caught within the conventions of family melodrama or contemporary narratives that go back in time, thus blending together modern and period pieces. For instance, Shades of Truth (shui hu wu jian dao 2004-2005) combines the action thriller and domestic drama, borrows its narrative from the Chinese literary classic Water Margin and the widely acclaimed Hong Kong blockbuster film trilogy Infernal Affairs (2002-2003), and is set in both modern and ancient worlds. In this way, Hong Kong dramas are able to re-negotiate existing formats by capitalizing on the popular aspects of a range of television genres. Producers thus successfully reach out to a diverse audience base without the pressure to produce shows with entirely new television formats or that strictly adhere to distinctive generic practices.
Many of these television shows are influenced as much by Hong Kong commercial film as by global television culture. As Anthony Fung points out, Hong Kong’s media industry is very adept at adapting narrative strategies and trends from popular programs that have met with success overseas. The readiness of Hong Kong TV serials to absorb elements from global media culture has turned Hong Kong television screens into a display for a medley of global TV genres and sub-genres. For example, Yummy Yummy (2005), a show I will return to later in this paper, tries to ride on the popularity of reality shows in the West by dramatizing a fictionalized account of a reality show instead of actually creating and producing a reality show. A show like Split Second (zheng fen duo miao 2004) borrows from US television shows such as 24 and Hong Kong films such as PTU and Infernal Affairs. The upcoming TVB show Palace Scheme (gong xin ji 2009) is essentially a remake of the widely popular Korean serial Jewel in the Palace. It is perhaps this kind of practice that has led Kwai-Cheung Lo to assert that whatever distinction can be drawn between the local and global is a false binary in the Hong Kong context:
In addition to detecting global trends, Hong Kong TV has itself become a global phenomenon. The astonishing success of telenovelas and Hong Kong serials in the export market, especially in minority and immigrant communities in the United States, raises important questions about the role that serials play in constituting transnational social practices, more specifically those of diasporic and immigrant social formations. Because of their reliance on the export market, Hong Kong serials and telenovelas rely on a community of viewers connected through local video stores and satellite technology. Hong Kong TV is widely distributed to Asian communities in Canada, United States, Australia, UK and parts of Southeast Asia. In New York City’s Chinatown, for instance, before the growth of satellite broadcasting, people would gather in full force at the local video store on Fridays when the latest shipment of Hong Kong TV serials would arrive. To cut down on renting costs, many would share them with friends, family members and co-workers (often copies made off the rentals) and in return borrow from this group of people shows they haven’t seen. In turn, this exchange system, which extends to people living outside Chinatown, is an important vehicle for building a Chinese immigrant community.
While satellite broadcasting has broadened the reach of Hong Kong serials beyond traditional Chinatowns, television is nevertheless a vital force in the formation of Chinese diasporic identities and spaces. Whether through videotape or satellite broadcasting, television viewing in immigrant communities has been a great source of identification, conversation and interest in other forms of Hong Kong popular culture such as magazines and music. Furthermore, the availability of shows on videotape and video CD has made it possible for audiences to watch entire serials in one or a few marathon sessions and to watch and re-watch favorite serials whenever and as often as they want. The pleasure of watching these serials, therefore, can easily turn into addictive and fetishistic practices, which is indicative of the intensity with which viewers engage these popular texts.
More recently, with the advent of YouTube and other similar websites, it has become a popular option, especially amongst young people with the Internet savvy and know-how, to watch (and comment on) these shows on the web for free, though these services have been fickle at times because of copyright complaints and lawsuits. However, this has not stopped the proliferation of sites hosting online streaming and links for downloading Hong Kong serials, such as youku, tudou, and megavideo as well as personal blogs providing updated links to the latest installments of popular serials on these sites, such as Crazy Chinese Woman. The Internet has effectively created a space for Chinese viewers in Greater China and the diaspora to watch and discuss these serials simultaneously. That is, there is no longer a significant lag time between the airing of a serial in Hong Kong and its distribution to overseas markets. By constructing a shared sense of space and time, Hong Kong television offers a way for Chinese diasporic viewers to relate to Chinese urban modernity regardless of their particular location in actual spaces.
Just as Hong Kong television has evolved to parallel the development of Chinese urban space, its circulation on the Internet has further complicated the contours of that space. The example of Hong Kong television’s circulation in overseas markets has not only raised questions about the reach of Chinese globalism (vis-à-vis narratives of Hong Kong urban modernity) within the diaspora but also the ways in which we define diasporic spaces themselves (including virtual spaces). Can the circulation of Hong Kong television shed light on and even map these spaces? Are these spaces “Chinatowns”?
As cultural products such as the Korean serial Jewel in the Palace circulate across Asia to forge what Chua Beng Huat calls an East Asian identity, what kind of inter-Asian or pan-ethnic space underwrites this circulation? Since the concern in this paper is specifically on Chinese spaces, I will set aside the question of inter-ethnic spaces, both within Asia and globally. Insofar as Chinatown remains a primary way of designating visibly Chinese spaces outside China, I would like to retain “Chinatown” as an analytic concept and point of departure for understanding these spaces. Ultimately, what defines a “Chinatown” today?
Domestic dramas and grand narratives
In the 80s and early 90s, many family melodramas attempt to develop a shared diasporic imaginary and identity between global viewers through their treatment of history. As Eric Ma points out, because the Hong Kong educational system could not provide a coherent Hong Kong historical narrative for the local population, Hong Kong TV and popular culture took its place in developing a sense of Hong Kong history and identity.
Many serials such as Greed of Man (da shi dai 1992), Looking Back in Anger (yi bu rong qing 1988), and At the Threshold of an Era begin their narratives with the central protagonists as successful businessmen recollecting their past. They bring us back to the 1960s, a time of corruption and injustice, and quickly fast forward to the present-day. Yet, what seems to be taking place in the present is actually still a part of the flashbacks themselves, thus creating a sense of history as a part of the living present. By capping the beginning and ending of the narratives with the present-day, and juxtaposing it to the re-enactment of the past, these serials create a sense of nostalgia. This experience of nostalgia peaks at the end, when returned to the present-day we realize that all we have left is a profound feeling of loss. Nostalgia and loss, in turn, ground the diasporic imagination formed through the circulation of television, apt emotions indeed to describe audiences’ experiences of displacement.
The history that these serials put forth is the grand narrative of Hong Kong’s march towards modernity. Greed of Man, for instance,begins in the 1960s. In order to fill in the historical gaps that would appear in any TV show attempting to cover 30 years of history, the series makes use of TV news-reporting as interludes between the narrative, and it shows newspaper headlines as intertitles that document certain key events in Hong Kong history and also to indicate the fates of the characters during their transition to the present day. This historical narrative not only places Hong Kong subjects into a televisual version of history, but through its global reach this version of history also locates Chinatown subjects, many of whom have migrated from Hong Kong and can make claims on Hong Kong history. For emigrants of the post-colony, who no longer have access to the everyday and popular discourses of Hong Kong, Hong Kong’s historical narrative seems defined by these key events. When I was growing up in the 80s and 90s, for instance, it was rare that any mention of Hong Kong would not be followed in the same breath by a discussion about 1997, the deadline for Hong Kong’s return to mainland China.
That the personal lives of these characters would continually make the headlines of Hong Kong news reports works to blur the distinctions between what is private and what is public; the stories of these individuals are the histories of Hong Kong. By forging a sense of intimacy between viewers and the grandiose families of TV melodramas, TV also forges a sense of intimacy between viewers and the histories that interpenetrate the familial. The family feuds in Greed of Man and Looking Back in Anger are ones that are intricately embedded in capitalist modernity in the case of the former and colonial politics in the latter, thus illuminating the ways in which colonial modernity has intervened throughout traditional forms of intimacy. In Greed of Man, the crisis of the stock market in the 1960s sparked a family conflict that would be revisited decades later; and in Looking Back in Anger a legal injustice that one lawyer helps to perpetuate would be remembered and invoked by the family of the victim years later. As the case of TV family melodramas reveals, sites of intimacy very often mediate what we understand as political, economic, and historical.
A more recent serial, Moonlight Resonance (jia hao yue yuan 2008), sequel to the highly successful Heart of Greed (tang xin feng bao 2007), begins its first few episodes with intermittent flashbacks to the 80s and 90s, a period that not too long ago saw the fulfillment of the rags-to-riches story of an earlier generation of Hong Kongers. Interestingly, the flashbacks in the serial reproduce the same narratives of migration, hard work, and eventual material success set against the backdrop of familial dispute, betrayal, and reconciliation, as its predecessors.
In serials from the 80s and 90s, flashbacks often depicted the experiences and histories of an earlier generation who came of age in the 60s and 70s and became business tycoons in the 80s. The story of Hong Kong modernity is a story retold time and again but with different beginnings and points of departure. Moonlight Resonance is set in the 80s-90s, which bore witness to the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, and the 1997 Handover of Hong Kong to China. Thus the focal point of the story is that of Hong Kong’s urban modernity, in a way that highlights how the city’s fate is necessarily intertwined with China’s modernity project. Earlier serials, on the other hand, were more focused on the intricacies of modernization under colonial rule, a concern that now plays less of a role in TV scripts.
In the diasporic context of transnational migration in places such as Chinatowns, we must also consider the ways in which domestic and intimate sites have been central to the economic, political and historical formations of those places. For instance, a family romance surrounds Chinese capitalism in Hong Kong, enabled through a “colonial-bureaucratic apparatus” that has avoided the articulation of “a normative political discourse” and promoted marketization, rationalization and individualism. This narrative parallels in many ways the same family romance that structures the ideology behind ethnic businesses in Chinatowns, often resulting from the exclusion of Chinese immigrants from the formal economy and political apparatus of many host nations.
Here, I am not referring to family romance as a Freudian concept. Rather, I am borrowing my understanding of “family romance” from Aihwa Ong, who
Both the colonial state in Hong Kong and the racially exclusionary states of host nations deny their Chinese subjects political participation and social welfare. Under these circumstances, the family becomes valorized as the primary vehicle for social mobility. The success of many such families is used in turn to extol the role of Confucian virtues in upholding political and economic order in Chinese societies.