A poster for Threshold of an Era I, a TVB grand production that typifies the family corporate melodrama.

A poster for Threshold of an Era II, a much anticipated sequel to Part I after it ended on a cliffhanger.

Poster for Golden Faith, also a very successful grand production featuring the popular actor, Gallen Lo. With the closed serial format, Hong Kong television producers can recycle popular features from other successful serials, such as star actors/actresses, narrative themes, dialogue, and plotlines.

Hong Kong television serials borrow many features from Hong Kong commercial films and global television culture. Split Second, like 24, uses time stamps.

Like PTU, Split Second emphasizes dead time over action, night scenes over day scenes, quiet and isolated streets over busy ones.

Palace Scheme is a remake of the popular Korean serial, Jewel in the Palace. The features of “local” Hong Kong culture are often much like other forms of “globalized” popular culture.

Looking Back in Anger has as a protagonist a very successful businessman. Here he reminisces about his past after a red envelope triggered his memory. The narrative unfolds as a continuing flashback, framed with feelings of nostalgia and loss.

Borrowing from the genre of newscasting, Greed of Man provides viewers with a historical overview of Hong Kong in the 60s, highlighting many key events and narratives that diasporic viewers would identify with.

Glittering Days uses the same technique to describe the well-rehearsed tale of Hong Kong’s economic boom as a manufacturing center.

Hong Kongers hard at work as manufacturers.

The media industry also took off, giving rise to Hong Kong’s rich popular culture. For instance, radio broadcasting ...

... and entertainment halls.

Intertitles on Greed of Man, intertwining the private lives of characters with the public history of colonial modernity.

Television newscasts are a significant part of the television flow that comprises family melodramas.

In Greed of Man a newscaster announces the demise of the Ding family, who are about to commit suicide in this scene. He speaks in a voiceover as the words are typed out like a news article on the screen. Here, personal and intimate family histories become the public history of Hong Kong.

Moonlight Resonance begins with a flashback to 1996, a different point of departure for narrating the history of Hong Kong. This date ties the city’s fate to China’s modernity project instead of its colonial history.

Even in the 1990s, the rags-to-riches and model-modernity narratives of an earlier generation of Hong Kong serials continue to be recycled. Times were hard for hardworking Hong Kongers, who in this scene were on a boat trying to deliver mooncakes to Cheung Chau, an island in Hong Kong, during a typhoon.

The Hong Kong family try to help each other keep their balance on the rocking boat. Given the absence of institutional forms of support and the denial of any form of political participation under colonialism, the family becomes valorized as the primary vehicle for social mobility.

The circulation of
Hong Kong television:
imaginary landscapes, transnational Chinese publics and global Chinatown

by Amy Lee

Next to Smurfs and Sesame Street, Hong Kong television serials were probably the most anticipated television programs of my childhood. Every Friday, I would anxiously wait for my mother to come home with the latest installments of the serial we were watching from the video store. Often, to cut down on renting costs, we would wait for the serial to finish airing and borrow the entire set of videotapes from her friends who had made home copies. The entire family would gather and bond over our weekend television marathons. During recess at school, away from the disapproving stare of teachers who strongly discouraged any conversation in a language other than English, my friends and I would replicate the dialogue we learned from these serials and relive the fantasy world of a televised Hong Kong. Hong Kong television was a site of discursive possibility, a gateway to intimate worlds in another language, and an opening to an elsewhere that both overlap and contend with Chinese immigrant societies in the United States.

Representations of immigrant communities, whether of Hong Kong or New York City’s Chinatown, often invoke the family as the entity where fundamental concerns over capital, national belonging, and identity are negotiated. Watching these serials in the 80s and 90s — many of which were family melodramas that dealt with uneasy relationships between family and the demands of capital — I was reminded of the same type of relationships that exist in ethnic businesses in Chinatown and the pressures of immigrant labor on family life. As “model minorities,” Chinese immigrants were essentially neglected by the state and expected to succeed despite all obstacles. In Hong Kong, the absence of state services has created similar conditions in which one’s sole source of support is the family unit. While the family, as a vessel of social values and morality, erodes under the pressures of capitalist growth, the final message of many of these serials is to transform the family into a site that can also resist the excesses of capital.

I remember how many of the anxieties around Hong Kong’s impending postcoloniality and return to China in 1997 portrayed on these television programs resonated deeply with many of the adults in my community. Just as many of the television dramas would underscore Hong Kong’s return to China as a crisis moment where panicked Hong Kongers fled overseas to escape the long arm of communism and stock markets crashed in anticipation, diasporic Hong Kongers in New York would speak in equally exaggerated terms about what they feared as the impending doom of Hong Kong. Tales of living with racism in colonial Hong Kong also hit close to home for diasporic Chinese viewers living as minorities in Western societies and in other postcolonial societies, such as Indonesia, where colonial powers have protected their own authority and economic interests by breeding anti-Chinese sentiments and pitting the Chinese against local populations. Meanwhile, these serials, by circulating popular memories of Hong Kong, produced a sense of nostalgia for a disappearing Hong Kong, thus supplying the affective ties that form the basis of a larger Hong Kong diaspora. My friends and I, however, were interested in the well-traveled and cosmopolitan figures on television, which conjured up fantasies of what the future might hold for a different generation of the diaspora.

This essay looks at television as a form of diasporic culture, examining how Hong Kong television’s treatment of the changing conditions of capital, postcoloniality, and globalization circulates, resonates, and transforms within diasporic contexts. There are two methodological impulses in this paper — one has to do with an ethnographic desire to comprehend viewer reception of Hong Kong television in the diaspora, especially in Chinatowns, and the other with a formalist desire to work with television aesthetics and content to explore television’s treatment of diasporic issues and allusions to Chinatowns. The television programs I would like to address are those produced by Television Limited Broadcasts, Inc. (TVB), the largest television network in Hong Kong and perhaps the foremost producer and distributor of Chinese-language television programs to diasporic viewers worldwide.[1][open notes in new window] Hong Kong television, through TVB’s networks, plays a key role in developing what James Hay describes as “new media geographies,” social spaces that produce

“territoriality, alliances, and allegiances that aren’t quite confined to cities, nations, or geographic regions but that must still be imaged and imagined through these places.”[2]

Hong Kong can be considered an example of what Hay calls

“televisual cities whose ‘stories’ [are] organized around invisible international markets.”[3]

Hong Kong media practices, in essence, carve out a space of imagination in which Hong Kong and diasporic viewers negotiate the political and identity struggles brought on by the vicissitudes of migration, globalism, (post)colonialism and modernity.

While representations of diasporic Chinatowns are notably absent from the narrative spaces of Hong Kong television, the circulation of these narratives outside the SAR generates a media geography that implicates these Chinatowns in the visualization of Hong Kong, which is not unlike that of a distorted mirror image. The televisual city of Hong Kong provides an interpretive lens through which immigrant experiences in Chinatowns can be understood. Race, gender and class relations in Chinatowns are given expression through the interpenetrating discourses of Asian modernity, British colonialism and global capitalism imaged through Hong Kong. Likewise, a Chinatown reception context can illuminate concerns that surface on Hong Kong television, that may be muted in their original context.

While its narratives and images are generated out of particular historical and social conditions, Hong Kong television produces a mediascape that moves beyond the specificity of local spaces to illuminate a more general predicament of Chinese globalization.[4] Arjun Appadurai came up with the term “mediascape” to

“refer both to the distribution of the electronic capabilities to produce and disseminate information (newspapers, magazines, television stations, and film-production studios)…and to the images of the world created by these media.”[5]

In essence, mediascapes produce “imagined worlds,” both through the narrative worlds of different forms of media and their distribution to different communities throughout the world.[6] In turn, these imagined worlds become “sets of metaphors by which people live.”[7]

Through the diasporic circulation of Hong Kong TV shows, the experience of Chinese modernization is, echoing Miriam Hansen, “articulated, multiplied, and globalized.”[8] Miriam Hansen developed the concept of vernacular modernism to describe a form of modernism that

“combines the dimension of the quotidian, of everyday usage, with connotations of discourse, idiom, and dialect, with circulation, promiscuity, and translatability.”[9]

Modernism, or modernist aesthetics, describes the range of “cultural practices that both articulated and mediated the experience of modernity.”[10] Hong Kong television, by putting in place an imagined geography that allows Chinese audiences around the world to encounter and wrestle with the effects and contradictions of Chinese modernity, is part and parcel of this aesthetic paradigm. Filled with metaphors, idioms, and narratives that resonate with diasporic audiences on a popular and quotidian level, these shows amount to a modern prototype of global Chinese space, perhaps best encapsulated by the notion of “global Chinatown.”

The transnational popularity of Hong Kong television needs to be distinguished, however, from Simon During’s conception of the “global popular,” the phenomenon wherein a “particular product or star is a hit in many markets.”[11] For instance, a star like Arnold Schwarzenegger is recognized and enjoyed everywhere there are channels of transmitting images and information. The circulation of Hong Kong television occurs in a much more circumscribed sense, working its way through the Chinese-speaking world including China (and in particular the Pearl River Delta), Taiwan, and Chinese diasporic communities in places such as the Chinatowns of major metropolitan cities in the United States, Australia, and Canada, suburban enclaves such as Monterey, California, and Chinese communities in Southeast Asian cities such as Penang, Singapore, Manila, and Jakarta.[12] It constitutes a multiplicity of practices and significations that exemplify the experiences of Chinese globalism, of which Hong Kong is a central site of production.

According to Ong and Nonini, Chinese transnationalism comprises a form of alternative modernity. For them, it would be erroneous to subsume these media practices under the umbrella of Western modernity. More accurately, they resemble

“an emergent global form that … provides alternative visions in late capitalism to Western modernity and generates new and distinctive social arrangements, cultural discourses, practices, and subjectivities.”[13]

Television, as the one medium that “interpenetrates public and domestic spheres,” and that “serves as a facilitator for the public sphere,” becomes a vital cultural basis for the transnational Chinese publics that frame the experiences and knowledges of this alternative modernity.[14]

Global Chinatown

I want to suggest that the mirroring effect between Hong Kong and Chinatown is what makes the transnational circulation of Hong Kong television as a diasporic form so successful. While my own points of reference are US Chinatowns, and in particular NYC’s Chinatown, I do not speak specifically to these sites. However, I am also not referring to Chinatown entirely as a metaphor or abstract concept. Rather, I abstract from emblematic features defining major Chinatowns across the world — a history of migration, ethnic-based cultural and business practices, experiences of racism, an enclave/ghetto within mainstream society, Orientalist kitsch, the use of multiple Chinese dialects, tourist attractions — to create what may be considered an archetypical Chinatown.

Even though it is not an ethnic ghetto within a larger and culturally different society, Hong Kong shares many similar characteristics with Chinatowns. Let’s consider some of these characteristics:

  • A history of migration: Droves of refugees fleeing Communist China post-1949 helped build Hong Kong into the modern, cosmopolitan, and transnational city it is today. Chinatowns are often enclaves within host societies such as Australia, Canada, the United States, and Southeast Asia where Chinese migrants have settled en masse, usually as national minorities. While there has been substantial migration from the Chinese mainland, Taiwan, and Hong Kong in the latter part of the 20th century, earlier waves of migration dating back to the 19th century brought many laborers trying to escape poverty, famine, and war to the plantations, railroads, and mines of the Americas, South Africa, and Australia. Even earlier, the Chinese have been migrating to Southeast Asia for centuries as traders, merchants, and laborers.

  • A history of racialization: Although the British took a hands-off approach to governing Hong Kong, Hong Kong Chinese subjects living under British colonial rule were nevertheless confronted with many racially discriminatory practices (e.g. British expatriates were given better job opportunities with more benefits than local Hong Kong citizens; there were no democratic avenues for the Hong Kong Chinese to participate in the governance of the city). Chinatowns in many Western countries, such as the United States, came to be as a result of the exclusionary and racist practices of host nations that ghettoize the Chinese in these enclaves. In numerous US accounts, for example, the stories of racism, legal exclusion, immigration, class inequality, labor, and Asian American history were told through the lens of Chinatowns.

  • Reliance on kinship networks: As Eliza Lee has argued, because the British colonial government was primarily interested in promoting a laissez-faire economy in Hong Kong, it neglected to provide social services and to instill a sense of civic duty and participation on the part of the citizenry.[15] As a result, the Hong Kong people relied on themselves and family members for all needed services, thus fostering a strong sense of individualism. In Chinatowns, many immigrants rely on family and compatriots to find work in Chinese-owned restaurants, garment factories, and other small businesses. Immigrants tend to cluster in Chinatowns because most, having been admitted to the United States through family sponsorship programs, come to join their families already living there.[16]

  • Model minority myth: Hong Kong’s rapid development has often been dubbed an economic miracle. Despite its roots as a small fishing village, Hong Kong rose quickly to become one of the most important economic hubs in Asia and the world. Through hard work, impoverished migrants from China were able to rise out of poverty and achieve economic stability. The story of how Li Ka-shing, the wealthiest tycoon in Asia, came to Hong Kong with only $2 in his pocket but still managed to build a vast business empire is legendary. In the United States, Chinese Americans have been called the model minority who despite humble beginnings and discrimination were able to “make it” in their new country. Many 2nd generation Chinese Americans are able to enter the middle class and leave Chinatowns where they grew up for the suburbs. Peter Kwong labels the Chinese immigrants who live in Chinatowns and work in low-paying manual and service jobs as the downtown Chinese. He distinguishes them from the uptown Chinese, Chinese Americans working in professional sectors for whom Chinatowns are not the center of their world.[17]

  • Industries: Before Hong Kong became a major financial center in the 90s, it was a major export-driven manufacturing center in the post-war era. Hong Kong later evolved into a service-based economy. Chinatowns in major cities such as New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco were also driven by the manufacturing sector, namely the garment industry, as well as the service sector, such as the laundry, restaurant, and home-care industries.

  • Spoken languages: Cantonese, Mandarin, and English are the three most common languages/dialects spoken in Hong Kong and Chinatowns. Because of different waves of immigration to Hong Kong and Chinatowns, other common dialects include Hakka, Fujianese, Wenzhounese, ToiShanese, and Shanghainese.

  • Food: Cantonese and Hong Kong style cuisines (Cantonese food with Western influences) dominate restaurant menus across Hong Kong and different Chinatowns.

  • New immigration from China: Hong Kong and Chinatowns have periodically received large influxes of new migrants from China over the last 50 years or so, causing a rift between older immigrants who identify with the dominant Hong Kong culture, and newcomers, many of who may not even be Cantonese. Yet, in the case of US Chinatowns, many new Chinatowns have also been mushrooming alongside older Chinatowns that align more closely with other Chinese identities. For instance, the Chinatown in Flushing, New York City has historically been home to the Taiwanese American community.

  • A place where East meets West: The official Hong Kong tourist site, discoverhongkong.com, describes Hong Kong as “a dynamic metropolis steeped in unique blends of East and West.” As a major cosmopolitan center and international port, Hong Kong prides itself as a unique cultural site that fuses Chinese, Asian, and Western influences. Chinatowns, situated within Western societies and alongside other ethnic enclaves, are likewise contact zones between Chinese and Western cultures.

  • Chinese globalism: Hong Kong plays a significant role in defining the contours of Chinese globalism as a major finance center, immigration and emigration gateway, and exporter of goods and culture. The experiences of Chinese globalism have also influenced the development of Chinatowns. Gary Okihiro characterizes a typical view of Chinatowns: “they have been classed as self-contained, isolated communities, ethnic enclaves that are both insular and connected to American society, and as transnational ports for the flow of goods, capital, and labor.”[18] Both insular and global, at once isolated from the nation-state but yet intimately tied to diasporic, transnational family and Asian networks, US Chinatowns typify the space of alternative modernity alluded to by Ong and Nonini.

  • Built space: Because of the immigration from Hong Kong to Chinatowns in North America, Australia, and England, many of these Chinatown streetscapes look similar to those in Hong Kong. For instance, the classic clusters of Chinese signs that decorate buildings and storefronts, similarly designed restaurants and small businesses, crowded streets, etc.

The relationship between Hong Kong and Chinatowns is not to be reduced to analogy alone. Hong Kong has shared a long history of migration and capitalist and cultural networks with Chinatowns all over the world. According to the Asia Pacific Migration Research Network,

“Before the Second World War, Hong Kong served as the major port for the Chinese living in Guangdong and other provinces to venture abroad. Consequently, it became the key economic centre for the overseas Chinese, handling an intense traffic in people, remittances, and information.”[19]

After the formation of the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) imposed strict restrictions on emigration to places outside Greater China. Over a million Kuomintang supporters fled to Taiwan and about the same to Hong Kong after the CCP came to power. Before the normalization of relations between China and the United States in 1979, most Chinese migrants were from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Southeast Asia, many who were originally refugees fleeing Communist China. After 1979, Chinese migrants to the Western world included more and more people who were emigrating directly from the People’s Republic of China. According to Skeldon,

“Those born in China and living in the United States increased from just 170,132 in 1970 to 286,120 in 1980, and on to 1,518,652 in 2000.”[20]

Ever since the signing of the Sino-British joint declaration in 1984 reverting political rule of Hong Kong back to China in 1997, large numbers of Hong Kongers emigrated to escape Hong Kong’s uncertain political and economic future. In the 80s, about 20,000-30,000 people immigrated annually to places such as the United States, Canada, and Australia. Migration peaked after the 1989 Tiananmen incident, with about 60,000 migrants leaving Hong Kong annually. Earlier waves of emigration from Hong Kong were mainly unskilled and poor laborers trying to find work elsewhere.[21] Family reunification policies subsequently brought many of their family members to join them. Many working class immigrants settled in Chinatowns. According to a report written by the Asian American Federation of New York, one third of Manhattan Chinatown residents live below the poverty line while 45% earned $20,000 or less.[22] As the middle class grew in Hong Kong and as Western nations enacted skills-based immigration policies, many highly skilled, educated, and wealthy professionals began to emigrate. This new class of immigrants generally lives outside traditional Chinatowns, often in ethnic clusters in other parts of the city or the suburbs.

Capitalist investment followed the migrants as investors sought to safeguard their funds from the colony’s uncertain future. These investments were quickly diverted to real estate speculation, which, in the case of NYC, in effect “undermined the very foundations of the Chinatown economy.”[23] Hong-Kong-organized crime also expanded its international networks to Chinatowns to escape political uncertainty and to diversify its ventures. Immigrant entrepreneurs emulated small businesses in Hong Kong. Hong Kong culture — ranging from films, magazines, television programs, music and fashion to everyday slang — occupied the daily lives of Chinatown residents and populated Chinatown streets.

While Hong Kong presented a model modernity for Chinatowns to emulate, Chinatowns, as extensions of Hong Kong’s social, cultural and capitalist networks, gradually became important sites of Hong Kong modernity. Hong Kong television appeals to Chinatown audiences by focusing on similar experiences of urban modernity, thus illuminating the transnational processes that produce and connect these seemingly disparate locations. At the same time, the contradictions that may arise from these televisual encounters complicate notions of cultural intimacy that bind diasporic audiences to the homeland. For instance, Hong Kong television narratives may highlight the experiences of globalization through representations of foreign travel; for Chinatown audiences, many who rarely leave Chinatown, these representations may be reminders of their own immobility. Chinese diasporic viewers outside Chinatowns, perhaps living in the suburbs, may identify with the characters’ ability to travel but not their urban lifestyles.

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