Paying attention to textuality, aesthetics, and history is a matter of ethics in When Rules Turn Loose. A humanistic disposition helps to safeguard against the cold calculations of capital. A Chinese literary scholar, historian and writer proudly demonstrates his vast knowledge of the Chinese language.
While watching a game show with his family, he answers all the literary and historical questions correctly.
He tells his family the etymology of a Chinese character to help them win a legal case they’re working on.
Close-reading a contract in order to find loopholes.
In Moonlight Resonance, close reading is also an important exercise.
Talking about literary narratives on a radio program, hoping that his storytelling will help his daughter and son-in-law resolve some tensions in their marriage (When Rules Turn Loose).
Good lawyers (and good readers) mean a good future for Hong Kong.
Language also plays an important role as play and comic relief. Hor Ma tells a lan gag, a kind of joke or riddle, on Moonlight Resonance: “What is worse than shit?”…
“Eating shit twice.”
Family games turn into performances of group identity.
Singing a song using sign language to cheer their sister up.
Performing a birthday song for their mother that pokes fun at recent family conflicts.
Power struggles are often staged through struggles of language. Hor Ma delivers her jin ju (golden words), a form of moral judgment.
Characters often make the headlines of tabloids in Off Pedder. The paparazzi have come under a lot of fire in recent years for its sensationalized accounts of the rich and famous in Hong Kong. Off Pedder critiques this phenomenon but still sees promise in the future of entertainment news and magazine publishing.
The editor in chief discusses entertainment magazine content with her ex-husband and boss. She takes a firm stance against censorship and believes that popular culture can and should reinforce a democratic ethics that ensures the free circulation of information and ideas.
My interest in Hong Kong-Chinatowns connections was sparked by the frequent, but inconsequential, allusions to Chinatowns, families overseas (some in Chinatowns), Asian Americans, etc. on Hong Kong television. These moments are what Morris calls “aesthetic contingencies” — they make no difference to the narrative turn of events but are yet taken up by diverse audiences in “disjunctively” interesting ways. [open endnotes in new window] In other words, far from being simply “noise,” these moments point to a deeper connection that is not readily apparent but perhaps is lurking somewhere in our geopolitical unconscious.
While Chinatowns have always been influenced by Hong Kong popular culture, far less has been said about the influence of Chinatowns on Hong Kong culture. But the persistent presence of Chinatowns as an aesthetic contingency demonstrates their weight on Hong Kong’s consciousness. My hope is to understand better the ways in which these places are mutually imbricated. Television, through its narratives, technologies and aesthetics, holds up a mirror between them and reflects instead a global Chinatown — Hong Kong/Chinatowns as a global network and transnational Chinese public. That is, the global Chinatown imaginary is constituted through the aesthetics, historicity and textuality of televisual forms and the social, economic and cultural relations they elucidate and put in place through circulation.
When I began my study of Hong Kong television, I was driven by the political and cultural critique that I saw these television serials performing so it seems proper for me to conclude with some remarks on the politics of Hong Kong television. Hong Kong television serials do not aim in any way to be political and, in fact, are more likely to avoid than promote political discussion. It is true that television can be put to political use, but how this occurs will require more systematic ethnographic research. However, to simply dismiss television because of its banality, political disinterestedness, and consumerist desires also ignores the ways in which Hong Kong television has been trying to forge discussions about ethics, the moral future of the city and the regional and world system of which it is a part, and a careful rethinking of one’s proper relation to the nation and capital.
Let me give an example. In When Rules Turn Loose (shi fa dai yan ren 2005), a just and ethically-minded lawyer opens up her own law firm as a training ground for her two daughters and other young lawyers so that she can pass on her sense of justice and morality to the next generation of Hong Kongers. As part of her training, she teaches her disciples how to read and interpret the law. In one case, their client was sued for defaming the plaintiff by cursing him in public. As they are preparing for their defense, they consult with her husband, a Chinese historian and writer, who gives them the etymological roots and history of the phrases used by the defendant. After concluding that these phrases do not have defamatory roots, they use evidence from both linguistics and Chinese history to prepare the closing statement. The scene is a display of close reading in action.
Even outside the court of law, whenever approached for advice, the scholarly father often responds by retelling a historical or literary narrative. The one asking for advice will have to perform the task of interpretation to glean the moral of the example and from that the best course of action. The show, in effect, weaves together textuality, history and ethics — a humanistic disposition — to approach the problems of urban society. Paying attention to textuality and aesthetics is a matter of ethics, and by extension politics, and is a safeguard against the cold calculations of capital (as represented by the heartless corporate lawyer in the firm).
At the end of the serial, the corrupt corporate lawyer is led away by the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), and the lawyer-mother looks proudly at her children and proclaims, “Hong Kong will do well!” Close reading, and not capitalist speculation, will define the future of Hong Kong and help to bring the unruliness of capitalism and nation building under better control. I do not mean to idealize the work of the literary and cultural scholar or to suggest that close reading will save the world. But, the radical proposition of popularizing close reading is, I think, a move that adds an interesting dimension to politics.
Language plays an important role in Moonlight Resonance as well, not as the textuality of the law, but as play and comic relief. The female protagonist in the serial loves to tell lan gags, a recently invented Cantonese phrase or slang expression composed of the Chinese character for spoiled and the English word gag, which is a kind of joke or riddle. Lan gags provide one form of communication that brings the family together in laughter and establishes a culture of insiderism once the joke or riddle is understood. At times, the family extends their engagement with language to linguistic games, such as tongue twisters. Referring to the complexity of naming one’s familial relations in Chinese, one of the characters creates a rhyming chant that clarifies these relationships for everyone to memorize. In turn, they turn their ability to perform the chant into a competitive game. One of the daughters in the family is deaf and to cheer her up when she’s upset, the family performs for her by learning how to sing one of her favorite songs using sign language.
From jokes and colloquialisms to tongue twisters and sign language, language takes on different incarnations in Moonlight Resonance. Most significantly, these different linguistic forms are enacted in the serial through group performance, highlighting the multiple ways that language can be used as a tool to bring people, and more specifically members of the Chinese diaspora, together. In other words, the serial demonstrates how language instantiates the performance of group identity.
Language is not only the basis for affective ties but also for power in the serial. Family and business conflicts in the serial are often resolved through a battle of words. At the end of some of the most climactic and widely advertised episodes, Hor Ma, the children’s birth mother, would in dramatic flare deliver her jin ju or “golden words” (a form of witticism) and hence, the final judgment on the conflict in question. In a sense, language use in Moonlight Resonance, ranging from the playful to the dramatic, stages the power and possibilities of free speech.
Off Pedder, an episodic serial about the lives of the people working at an entertainment magazine and the corporation that owns it, exemplifies to a certain extent Hong Kong’s concerns about free speech. After the Handover and the introduction of Basic Law Article 23, an anti-subversion bill that threatens to undermine free speech and other civil liberties in the territory, protecting free speech has been a particularly sensitive issue in Hong Kong. Meanwhile, the paparazzi have come under fire from the entertainment industry and public for circulating scandalous photographs of famous actors and actresses, such as those taken of Carina Lau when she was reportedly kidnapped in the 80s and sex photos of Edison Chen and his ex-girlfriends.
Off Pedder engages with both of these matters by representing an entertainment magazine invested only in exposing the truth and abiding by the principles of good journalism. The editor-in-chief tries to instill in her staff the ethical standards and practices of reporting, which she upholds in her own work. She often argues with those who are willing to secure business opportunities and profits within the corporation at the expense of publishing important and worthy news. For instance, in one of the earlier episodes, she was asked by the advertising manager to pull a story detrimental to one of her clients but because the story exposes the harmful effects of a product on the public, she refuses.
In the type of self-reflexive move that I have outlined above, the staff meetings in Off Pedder often consist of commentaries on the quality of the news stories covered in the tabloids, news stories that mirror the kind we often read in Hong Kong. Off Pedder, in essence, offers a critique against censorship as an ethical stance, one aligned with the interests of the public good. Arguing for the freedom of speech doesn’t necessarily lead to unfettered violations of privacy and good taste, as popular sentiment might lead us to believe. Insofar as popular magazines, and by extension other forms of popular culture, truly engage with the people of a society in the popular sense, Off Pedder seems to make the case that Hong Kong popular culture can and should establish and reinforce a democratic ethics that ensures the free circulation of information and ideas.
The self-reflexivity in Off Pedder is not simply the postmodern self-reflexivity invoked by a serial like Virtues, where signifiers emptied of meaning circulate endlessly, but a matter of reflecting on ethics and politics. If popular representations of ss can be encapsulated by static and transparent images of Orientalist stereotypes, then perhaps analyzing the cultural products that circulate through Chinatowns can give us a different reading of the cultural, ethical, and political engagements that define Chinatowns as global landscapes. By ending on the note of language and close reading, I want to propose that we think of television viewing as a method of (re)reading Chinatowns in terms of their languages, images, spaces, and histories.
Appendix: on method
As I have mentioned earlier in this paper, I am interested in both the reception of Hong Kong television in the diaspora and television aesthetics. Neither an ethnographic or representational approach alone is sufficient to address all the concerns of this essay for I am interested in both the formal aspects of television and their implications for diverse viewers. I bring together these two impulses, vis-à-vis the formal, by focusing on the ways in which, as Lynn Joyrich points out, “television has managed conceptions of its audiences within its very texts.”
That is, I use a formalist approach to study how the televisual work constitutes its viewers, and in this case, diasporic/Chinatown viewers. A formalist practice is a logical choice for me as someone who has received most of my academic training in literary studies.
Yet, this formalist approach is informed by my own viewing position as a diasporic Chinese with intimate ties to both a Chinatown (in my case, NYC Chinatown) and Hong Kong. As a participant observer, therefore, I do perform a very limited version of ethnography, relying on my own viewing experiences and observations of those around me. To be more accurate, I would say that I work by way of a formalist approach inspired by the interdisciplinarity of cultural studies, an account that takes into consideration relations between historical context and cultural form, between television-as-text and television-as-practice and between culture and politics. I make use of a variety of methodological tools from literary and cultural studies to pursue all the questions about practice, ideology and context that motivate this project — close reading, film analysis, participant observation, anecdotal evidence.
Some of the analysis I offer is perhaps only legible to myself, as someone who grew up watching these serials. I do not hope to privilege my interpretations of these serials as definitive readings nor my position as an “authentic viewer.” Perhaps the best way to classify my work is as an experiment that attempts to forge one small part in the larger study of global mass media and its role in shaping the transnational geographies and cultural and diasporic formations that attend it. My blindspots, and there are many, I leave open to other interested colleagues to shed light on. For one, I am not a communications scholar who can situate these shows within a more global context of television history, practices and forms. Nor can I detail the intricate workings of the television industry or new advancements in television technology. A comprehensive audience study is the other significant component missing from this essay, one that would complicate and nuance the generalizations put forth here.
In my previous work on Hong Kong television, I have, like a literary or film critic, built my argument on a close analysis of one or two television shows, insisting on the value of parsing the complexity of each televisual narrative. I have resisted Chua’s argument that because television programs are often short-lived and unfamiliar to people outside the cultural contexts in question,
It is hard to deny that the distinctiveness of each program is quickly overshadowed by the repetition of themes, narratives, and aesthetic forms that characterize a range of television programs from across nearly 40 years of television history. My sense is that these televisual serials alert us to the changing dynamics of the new world order despite their often banal, repetitive and clichéd content. However, I am taking a slightly different approach from the one I have taken in the past. Instead of focusing on one or two television programs, I extract from the formal attributes of a variety of serials. My interest remains with the television products themselves, rather than the “structures and modalities” through which these products circulate, but I take on a more systematic and thematic study that attempts to situate these serials in relation to each other and the broader context of Hong Kong and the diaspora. This seems to me a more precise way of dealing with the reception of television meanings, which is in keeping with Williams’ notion of television “flow”:
Television programs are not bounded wholes like films and literary texts. They are, for example, interrupted by commercials, and as serial narratives, by other shows as we await the next installment of the serial.