In Gem of Life, the aesthetics of melodrama are more subtle. Jessica holds a box of pearls in a contemplative state. Or is she scheming?
The camera pans out of her room. Jessica is diving into the pool to look for the missing pearls. She nearly drowns and Martin, a wealthy businessman, comes to her rescue.
The camera pans back into her room ...
Is Jessica happy or conniving or both? Gem of Life emphasizes strategy over action, perhaps an indication of the ambivalence many overseas Chinese people, especially Hong Kongers, feel towards China as a political power.
A poster of Triumph in the Skies, a serial that depicts young cosmopolitan professionals who work in the airline industry in Hong Kong.
A poster of Ups and Downs in a Sea of Love, another serial that depicts workers in the tourism industry.
Volunteer doctors in Africa in The Last Breakthrough. Recent serials depict Hong Kongers as transnational subjects who work in the service sector, an indication of the rise of Hong Kong as a financial center.
Many of these subjects lead a bourgeois lifestyle. Hong Kong doctors are enjoying happy hour in Healing Hands III.
Melissa and Martin reminisce about their past experiences in Indonesia’s Chinatown as they enjoy dinner in a restaurant in Shanghai. Melissa and Martin’s experiences invoke the stories of many diasporic Chinese subjects who established businesses overseas, some of whom returned to reinvest in the economies of Greater China.
They own a private island in Indonesia accessible only by private boat ...
... where they go to sort out their personal problems. Indonesia has one of the largest overseas Chinese populations in the world. The silent presence of Indonesian workers underscores some of the racial and class tensions that exist between the Chinese and Indonesians.
Chinatowns are often depicted as depressing and harsh environments on Hong Kong television. Here’s an image of a dark and dreary apartment in Chinatown in Moonlight Resonance.
Hor Ma, one of the protagonists, struggles to bring her son his favorite Chinese dish during a severe snowstorm. The isolating nature of immigrant life is often conveyed through images of bad weather and the absence of desirable amenities, such as good Chinese food.
An upwardly mobile doctor leaves her non-committal boyfriend for a new life in the West. She eventually returns and he realizes his love for her. In general, Hong Kong cosmopolitanism seems to be gendered female, as women exemplify transnational, flexible, and cosmopolitan subjects on Hong Kong television far more often than men.
Hong Kong continues to produce its grand family melodramas, which, as I have argued previously, allegorize the conditions of colonial modernity in Hong Kong.[open endnotes in new window] However, the way family and business get tied together generally leads to disastrous results. Take for example, Greed of Man. In The Greed of Man, familialism in the form of familial and ethnic solidarity tied to fervent capitalism gives rise to a crisis of morality. Greed of Man is a typical family melodrama about a conflict between two families, a conflict that plays itself out through the home, triad society, and the legal system but, when all else fails, is finally resolved through the Hong Kong stock market.
In the beginning, two families are very close and the two patriarchs of the families, Ding Xia and Chun Xin, are in fact best friends. Ding Xia is a classic brute who damages his friend’s brain because he slugs Chun Xin too hard in a stubborn argument over a woman. In a foiled attempt to apologize, Ding Xia tells Chun Xin to hit him back and in exchange wants Chun Xin to drop the charges against him. But, in the end, Ding Xia cannot resist fighting back and threw another fatal punch, this time killing Chun Xin. Ding Xia flees to Taiwan to escape the law, and the story fast forwards to the modern-day Hong Kong of the 80s-90s, where a feud takes place between the two families over the death of Chun Xin. After being in exile in Taiwan and Mexico, Ding Xia insists on coming back to Hong Kong despite his family’s opposition because he wants to fulfill his filial piety to his aging mother and grown sons. When he returns from Taiwan, he also insists on taking care of Chun Xin’s wife, not out of guilt, but because he believes that she married his friend not out of love but out of a sense of loyalty to Ding Xia, as a way of repenting for Ding Xia’s actions. Needless to say, she thinks he has completely lost his mind and wants nothing to do with him.
The beginning of the TV serial depicts the 1960s of Hong Kong to be a time of fervent corruption in all levels of life. Faced by racial discrimination on the stock market by the British, Hong Kong Chinese stockbrokers decide to establish their own association to protect the interests of Chinese investors. Their rationale is, “We have more money than the British, why should we have to listen to them?” Such an attitude signals the rise of Hong Kong modernity in contrast to British colonialism. We quickly find out that the leader of the Chinese association is in fact very corrupt and more concerned with protecting his own interests than those of his fellow investors. Triad members join in the game of market speculation by any means necessary to earn profits. Families establish their own corporations, thus ensuring the growth of their wealth. These associations — the Chinese association, the triad society and family-run corporations — are all based on the logic of ethnic solidarity. Though colonialism may have sown the roots for Hong Kong modernity, solidarity based on familial and ethnic relations ensure its success (and the same holds true for Chinatowns).
Yet, corruption proves the limitations of ethnic solidarity and race-based politics. Those who claim to be one of your own may in fact be the ones who are out to get you. While racism and imperialism have set in motion a practice of resistance based on ethnic, racial and familial solidarity, which holds true for the Chinese diaspora in general, especially in Chinatowns, these solidarities tend to collude with colonial and racist state practices. In other words, diasporic solidarities often aggravate gendered, racial and class exploitation. Chun Xin, a wealthy and successful businessman, tries to re-establish the integrity of the stock market by exposing the reckless speculation of some of the wealthiest investors, a task that the colonial government has clearly dragged its feet on, leaving the corruption to run completely amuck.
Ding Xia, on the other hand, is the spokesperson for family values, espousing duty and loyalty to family and friends, filial piety, and often justifying his actions in the name of family while attributing what he sees as the narrow-mindedness of others to their loss of traditional values. He believes strongly in living by the moral virtues of compensatory justice, i.e. an eye for an eye. Upon his initial release from jail, his first tasks are to take revenge on those who have wronged him and pay his debts to those who have helped him. In fact, his fixation on family is completely maniacal and illogical. He leads his best friend to an ethically questionable business deal with the triads simply out of the blind belief that their ethnic allegiance and brotherly relations with the triad should not only trump all other considerations of legality and ethics but also shield them from any negative repercussions. Ding Xia is shocked by his friend’s angry response and calls him an ingrate.
Eventually, Ding Xia’s children, who are leaders of a powerful triad, murder Chun Xin’s daughters as payback for testifying against Ding Xia, leaving Chun Xin’s surviving son Bok to avenge their death through the stock market. Ding Xia condones his children’s violence, justifying their actions as necessary for the sanctity of the family. The triumph of the individual in the modern sense rests on the belief that with will anybody can accomplish anything one wants. Ding Xia generalizes this philosophy of the individual to mean the family unit. That is, as long as the family and by extension patriarchy are consolidated, then success, wealth and fortune can follow. It is perhaps for these reasons that Ding Xia and his sons have no problem collaborating with the Triads. In the face of a rapidly changing society, the last remaining value that Ding Xia and his sons hold on to is that of fraternal loyalty. If, as I have argued in my earlier essay on the family melodrama, the familial in the form of the family-run corporation is a response to the prejudices of the colonial order, then this fundamentalist view of family is an even more perverse response to the uncertainties of modernity.
Ding Xia’s constant invocation of class politics provides an implicit critique of the new capitalist order, which is largely dependent on the stock market. While he was on trial for his best friend Chun Xin’s murder, Ding Xia plays the class card in his defense. As his own self-appointed lawyer, he delivers a closing statement that recounts his years of economic oppression despite his heroic efforts at overcoming his family’s poverty through hard work. Whatever wrong he committed is justified insofar as it can never exceed or make up for his lack of privilege. Yet, the only ones who sympathize with him turn out to be his own children.
Shortsighted by his own belief in the validity of his argument, he self-righteously refuses to take any responsibility for his actions and deludes himself into thinking that he can even seek justice (or compensation by way of a “not guilty” verdict) for the ways he has been wronged. However, in a court of law, it is impossible to seek compensation for poverty (nor is it a valid excuse); as a result, his class critique has no bearing on the final verdict. Furthermore, Ding Xia tries to argue that his conflict with his best friend is a familial dispute and hence, outside the capacity of the legal system to comprehend and judge. The profundity of class inequalities and the complexity of familial relations that Ding Xia sees operative in Hong Kong society are ultimately found to be the irrational ramblings of a madman.
Living as the underbelly of society, Ding Xia’s family does everything it possibly can, no matter how unethical, to participate in a capitalist society that strives to exclude them. In short, they mirror not only the excesses of an older traditional society but also of the capitalist fervor of modern society. With no real knowledge of the machinations of the stock market, Ding Xia and his sons are able to score it big only through sheer luck and pure speculation. Their excesses, which threaten to unravel society as we know it, must therefore be contained. With an attitude that is no longer viable in today’s global economy, Ding Xia’s family order collapses on itself. In massive debt and responsible for the losses of many prominent triad leaders, Ding Xia decides killing themselves would be a better alternative to the fate that awaits them. As the patriarch of the family, he makes this decision for his unwilling sons and forces each of them to throw themselves off the roof of Exchange Square, home to Hong Kong’s Stock Market.
On the other hand, Bok (Chun Xin’s surviving son) is the lone avenger for the death of his family members. His loss drives him to success on the capitalist market, where he takes revenge on Ding Xia and company. The stock market, site of globalized capital and Asian modernity, ironically offers a possibility of justice. Between tradition and modernity, modernity wins as the path of progress towards a better and more just future. It would seem, therefore, that the collapse of the domestic sphere is a necessary condition for the success of Asian global and capitalist modernity, whereby family and the domestic sphere become abstract values to live by and which no longer take on concrete form. But perhaps more accurately, the collapse of the traditional family paves the way for the birth of the new bourgeois family, savvier with the workings of modernity, and the birth of the global and cosmopolitan Chinese subject, which I will address in the next section. Unlike Ding Xia’s family model, which emphasizes the Confucian values of hierarchy, filial piety, patriarchy, and feelings of kinship within the extended family, the modern bourgeois family that Bok embraces is a Western-derived ideal that centers on the nuclear family and values capitalist modernization, Protestant work ethic, personal responsibility, individualism, and the rule of law.
When Greed of Man was broadcast in Hong Kong, many viewers were surprised and appalled by its display of violence. The scenes where Ding Xia’s brute force injures and later kills his friend, Ding Xia’s daughters get thrown off the roof of their building, and Ding Xia pushes his own sons to their deaths really tested the sensibilities of the Hong Kong audience. As I have been arguing, this representation of violence underscores the perverse nature of capitalism. Produced in 1992, the violence of the serials could also be responding to the then still fairly raw experience of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. It would not be a stretch to understand the show’s critique of Ding Xia as an allegory of popular diasporic criticism of Communist China as mired in self-righteous, nationalistic, and paternalistic ideology. In yoking the violence of patriarchy and familial ties to the excesses of the stock market, the serial also captures the ways in which all political considerations in Hong Kong introduce momentous economic stakes. That is, what in China has been first and foremost a political issue is thought of in Hong Kong as equally an economic threat, a threat to economic freedoms.
The use of violence in Greed of Man exaggerates some of the familiar aesthetics of melodrama — heightened emotional expressions, grand and dramatic gestures, the slow but climactic staging of conflict, the centralizing presence of the hero/heroine, etc. In more recent melodramas, such as War and Beauty (jin zhi yu nie 2004), Dance of Passion (huo wu huang sha 2006), and Gem of Life (zhu guang bao qi 2008-2009), all produced by Chik Kei Yee, the aesthetics of melodrama are more subtle and understated. These serials, all produced after the Handover and at the height of political debates about democracy in Hong Kong, emphasize the melodrama of politics. Like a game of chess, these serials are focused on the calculation and scheming that characters engage in order to define and redefine power dynamics within familial, community, business, and political relationships.
In one scene in Gem of Life, Jessica, one of the characters that work in a public relations firm, has a nasty encounter with one of the wives of a wealthy client. The wife, angered that Jessica helped one of the client’s other wives at her expense, breaks and throws a string of pearls into the pool and asks that Jessica finds all the pearls for her by the next day. In the next scene, we see Jessica hold a small box seemingly contemplating her task. Then she dives into the pool and fishes the pearls out one by one. At one point, she seems to be drowning. Her love interest, one of the wealthiest men in Hong Kong, sees her and fishes her out of the water. The camera pans from the pool into Jessica’s bedroom where she is again seen holding the box, this time smiling. The sequence of events and editing work leave a lot of questions open for the audience. Most importantly, did Jessica stage her dive for Martin, her love interest, to witness? Is her smile in the final scene an expression of joy or her conniving ways? Was she earnestly contemplating her task in the initial scene or was she scheming?
By suturing together scenes so that the motivation behind the action is unclear, Chik builds drama in his serials by shifting the audience’s attention from the action to the task of uncovering the motivation and reasoning behind the action. In other words, the action depicted on these serials does not explain anything; the action is merely an effect or consequence of calculation. If action in earlier family melodramas motivates the plot of the story, then action in these serials hides, rather than explains, the real underlying forces. Rather than demonstrating causality through action, these serials seem to develop plots that encourage thinking about politics in terms of strategy, an important consideration in a time when there is substantial ambiguity and ambivalence over the limits of political freedoms in Hong Kong. In this way, television dramas also provide the grounds for overseas Chinese viewers to contemplate the implications of China’s rising political power on the world stage.
Unlike in earlier family melodramas, the incestuous and overly self-referential nature of capital in family-run businesses mirrors the self-involvement and self-referentiality of Hong Kong’s newest television aesthetics, which I will turn to in a later section. While it is true that the excesses of capital often lead these fictional corporations to implosive ends, the complexity of the family and familial relations play no small role in driving them to destruction. In the recent family melodrama Heart of Greed, the Tang family owns real estate and a chain of dried seafood shops. All assets are legally in the patriarch’s and his first wife’s names. But, as in a kind of very traditional family that no longer exists in Hong Kong, Mr. Tang has a second wife, who is constantly trying to split the assets evenly among the proper heirs. If she were to succeed, the Tang family business would come to an end. Likewise, if the business fails, the family would fall apart too. Because the family and the corporation are one, maintaining the wholeness of the family unit and the continuation of the family line is synonymous with ensuring the survival of the corporation.
In The Brink of Law (tu wei xing dong, 2007), the plot revolves around revealing the seedy secrets of a normal, happy and wealthy family. A wife and loving mother decked in diamonds turns out to be involved in the gun and drug trades, runs a gambling business, is a loan shark, and with the help of her husband’s “legitimate fashion business” and the purchase of luxury items on the auction block, launders all her illegal earnings. Her niece, wanting a piece of the wealth, pretends to fall in love with the matriarch’s son. The older woman’s husband, seemingly a moral and law-abiding businessman, turns out to be the true culprit behind his wife’s operations. We also find out that his brother’s son is actually his illegitimate son, conceived when the patriarch raped his sister-in-law. He later purposefully fails to help save his dying brother so that he can reclaim this illegitimate son. From rape to incest to murder, this family fulfills all the Freudian taboos. The family’s relationships, vacillating between the legitimate/traditional and the perverse, in turn, mirrors the nature of capital, at once both legitimate and clean and also illegitimate and dirty. Operations such as money laundering help capital to circulate between these two extremes. The combined effects of the self-involved, incestuous family and the equally perverse nature of capital spiral out of control into a dystopic end. By presenting the incestuous family and its relation to capital as a cautionary tale, Brink of Law alludes to and warns against the ways in which diasporic capital can also turn incestuous and destructive insofar as the success of diasporic capital depends on intimate familial and ethnic relations.
The incest taboo is introduced again but subverted in Moonlight Resonance. In Moonlight Resonance, a family of eight, which includes two parents, five biological children, and one adopted daughter, splits apart when the father decides to leave his wife for his mistress. The mistress has a daughter who becomes his stepdaughter and his children’s stepsister, which is complicated by his son’s longstanding crush on her. The children grow up and these two’s romantic interest in each other is rekindled after many years of separation when the stepsister returns from her schooling in England. Meanwhile, the adopted daughter develops strong feelings for one of her brothers. By the end of the serial, the adopted daughter and her brother finally tie the knot. These sibling romances, discomforting as they may be, avoid the incest taboo by bypassing the problem of biology. That is, none of these couples are biologically related.
Halfway through the serial, the children’s cousin returns from Portugal and falls in love with one of the brothers. The relationship between the brother and cousin doesn’t work out, but the cousin soon falls for another brother in the family and eventually marries him. Because the cousin’s mother turns out not to be biologically related to her sister, the children’s mother, the producers were able to get around the incest taboo once again. Unlike Brink of Law, where incest exposes the perverse nature of capital and family-run corporations, incest in Moonlight Resonance seems to draw attention to the intimate ties that bind Chinese people together in the triumphal narrative of the great big Chinese family. Yet, bordering on the forbidden zone of incest, this narrative is likewise constantly flirting with danger. The serial, in this sense, attempts to test the limits of Chinese diasporic kinship.