copyright 2010, Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media
Jump Cut, No. 52, summer 2010
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.[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.”
Hong Kong can be considered an example of what Hay calls
“televisual cities whose ‘stories’ [are] organized around invisible international markets.”
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. 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.”
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. In turn, these imagined worlds become “sets of metaphors by which people live.”
Through the diasporic circulation of Hong Kong TV shows, the experience of Chinese modernization is, echoing Miriam Hansen, “articulated, multiplied, and globalized.” 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.”
Modernism, or modernist aesthetics, describes the range of “cultural practices that both articulated and mediated the experience of modernity.” 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.” 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. 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.”
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.
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:
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.”
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.”
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. 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. 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.” 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.
Hong Kong television:
serial form, genre and global distribution
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.” 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:
“the Hong Kong local is always already overdetermined by the framework of the transnational that structures our perception of its reality. In the case of Hong Kong, the local is the transnational itself in its becoming.”
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
“use[s] the construct…to mean the collective and unconscious images of family order that underlie public politics.”
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.
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.
Global Chinese subjects
The death of the traditional extended family in serials like Greed of Man sows the seeds for the inception of the small nuclear family cultivated by young professionals. The portrayal of their lives and the lives of young singles, who live by themselves or with friends, began to occupy more and more of television’s airways. While close to their extended families, they maintain a healthy distance. Hence, serials feature the story of young doctors, their careers, friendships and romances in Healing Hands (miao shou ren xin 1998), flight attendants and pilots in Triumph in the Skies (chong shang yun xiao 2003), service workers in the tourism industry in Ups and Downs in a Sea of Love (shi wan dun qing yuan 2002), and idealist volunteer doctors in The Last Breakthrough (tian ya xia yi 2004). These young people aspire to cosmopolitan lifestyles and outlooks; many have been schooled abroad. These kinds of characters were predated, however, by female protagonists in family melodramas who, fed up with the perverse loyalty the men in their lives have towards their families, simply packed up and moved abroad.
Such women and young professional characters are representative of Hong Kong’s new transnational subjects, figures who allegorize the experience of contemporary Chinese global modernity. Like subjects of global Chinatowns, these transnational and cosmopolitan figures must mediate the relations marked by postcolonialism, neocolonialism, and Chinese transnationalism. The prominent families featured in Gem of Life are Shanghainese in origin, representing an important facet of Hong Kong history. Many of the first refugees to Hong Kong were businessmen who fled from Shanghai to Hong Kong during WWII and the Civil War in China. They were instrumental in helping to industrialize Hong Kong. Early in the serial, we learn that Martin, one of the richest characters, and his good friend, Melissa, laid the foundation for their business empires in one of Indonesia’s Chinatowns. They later wanted to build a resort on an island in Indonesia but when that venture failed, the two kept the island, a place they went periodically to sort out personal problems. Hong Kong, in this narrative, stands as a city that sits at the crossroads of the Chinese diaspora, built from the capital generated from diasporic business endeavors.
Martin often lets Philip, a fellow businessman he met in Indonesia, take advantage of him in business dealings, a cause of frustration between Martin and his son, because the father feels indebted to Philip for helping him out in Indonesia. Within the multicultural context of postcolonial Indonesia, Chinese Indonesians turned to each other in the face of discriminatory policies against the Chinese resulting from their dominant presence in Indonesia’s economy. From Shanghai to Indonesia to Hong Kong, the lives of Chinese migrants or the “global” Chinese are thoroughly molded by the racial and class dynamics of postcolonial relations.
Since the 80s, anxieties about the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule in 1997 have led to an emigration craze well-documented on drama serials from the period. Although these stories are not explicit narratives about living abroad as, for example, Chinese Americans, they project Hong Kong’s fantasies and apprehensions about being Chinese in the West. For instance, many incidents in family melodramas show an unhappy family member coming home after migrating to the United States or the UK. Not only do we hear the sob stories about the harsh life in Chinatowns and the abuses these characters endured, we later find out that these same characters have become mentally unstable. They end up becoming a menace to their Hong Kong families. In other instances, characters considering the prospects of migrating are frightened by the specter of Chinatown life.
Even today, these narratives still ring true for overseas viewers. In Moonlight Resonance, produced in 2008, a wealthy but uneducated family sends the youngest son to Manchester for boarding school. His father and stepmother, neither of whom speaks English, are fairly uninvolved in his studies and social life. When his birth mother goes to visit him, she finds out that despite his wealth, he spends all his time hanging out in Chinatown and thus has never been able to learn proper English. He is clearly unhappy in England, a mood brought out by his dark and depressing apartment. The lonely and harsh life of a Chinese student in London is further visualized by an image of his mother slowly struggling her way to his apartment in a bitter snowstorm to bring him his favorite Chinese dish. Another character in the serial, a doctor whose father saved all his money from selling ice-cream as a street vendor to send him to school in the UK, falls into a depression when he gets to England and instead of studying, spends his time gambling his tuition away in Chinatown dens.
Juxtaposed against these explicitly harsh representations of Chinatowns and life as Chinese immigrants are the stories of the socially mobile, cosmopolitan women who move abroad because of unhappy relationships. In Healing Hands, for example, one of the female doctors leaves Hong Kong because her boyfriend is unable to commit to their relationship. Her departure and eventual return forces him to realize his love for her. They are comfortable in any environment that will allow them to lead a Westernized, upper middle-class, and independent lifestyle. Nor do they remain stuck in one place, like the Chinatown migrants, but are highly mobile, often making frequent trips back to Hong Kong.
These are the truly flexible citizens mentioned by Aihwa Ong in her book Flexible Citizenship. According to Ong, flexible citizens are
“individuals…[who] develop a flexible notion of citizenship and sovereignty as strategies to accumulate capital and power.”
Thus, Hong Kong businessman may stay in Hong Kong trying to accumulate capital from one of the world’s freest and most successful economies while their wives and children try to establish citizenship in Western countries where they can shield their capital in case things sour under the new Chinese leadership. While these practices do not exactly describe the situations of the traveling women in Hong Kong serials, they have put in place a culture of mobility, displacement, and flexibility that enables and encourages these women to travel in the first place.
The presence of Chinese American and Chinese Canadian actors and actresses on Hong Kong TV serials provide indirect representations of Chinese diasporic subjects. Two of the younger actresses, Joyce Cheng and Aimee Chan, in Off Pedder (bi da zi ji ren 2008-2009), were both born to Hong Kong parents but raised in Canada. Joyce Cheng was introduced to the Hong Kong entertainment industry at a very young age through her parents, Lydia Shum and Adam Cheng, well-known celebrities in Hong Kong. Aimee Chan got her initial contract with TVB after winning the Miss Hong Kong 2006 beauty pageant. In Off Pedder, Cheng plays a cheerful and naïve newspaper reporter who left her studies in the States to follow her boyfriend back to Hong Kong. Chan also plays a magazine reporter but she also leads a double life as an undercover police officer. Like Cheng, she grew up abroad, in her case in South Africa.
Throughout the series, both Cheng and Chan’s characters are good-humoredly teased for their limited Chinese. In one episode that describes how they become best friends, the two of them go shopping and show off their impeccable English at the cosmetics counter as a playful act of performance. On the one hand, this scene highlights their privilege as cosmopolitan subjects able to traverse different spaces and cultures. But most significantly, in a city that views fluency in English as a necessary condition of upward mobility, their proficient bilingualism is a likely source of envy and admiration for many viewers. On the other hand, they are able to bond as diasporic subjects due to their ability to play with their identities. If Hong Kong’s return to China poses an impending trauma and identity crisis for Hong Kongers pre-1997, then this episode foregrounds the light-hearted performativity of identity in post-1997 Hong Kong. By inserting humor back into the identity game, the serial wishfully seeks to equalize the field for both local and diasporic Hong Kongers by developing characters who can participate in Hong Kong society without the burden of the colonial system’s practice of assigning privilege to cosmopolitan, educated, and English-speaking subjects.
Finally, recent serials feature stories of transnational workers, such as flight attendants and international doctors, who no longer migrate for immigration purposes or for any significant length of time. Even as emigration from the colony has fizzled out, these new transnational journeys have generated new ideas about Asian modernity and globalism. The new mobile figures portrayed on Hong Kong television, for instance, usurp the role played by earlier migrants (e.g. coolies, low-wage workers such as waiters and seamstresses) and pose a different, more idealistic and skilled version of a global Chinese labor force.
As Hong Kongers take the spotlight on the Chinese global stage in these serials, negative imagery of the mainland Chinese as conmen, mistresses (er nai), and prostitutes (bei gu) circulate widely in dramas such as Loving You II (wo ai ni II, 2003). These images have waned as Hong Kongers have become more comfortable with integrating Mainlanders and Mainland culture into Hong Kong’s social terrain. As for other ethnic minorities (such as the Nepalese) and migrant workers (e.g. Filipina and Indonesian domestic workers) who live and work in Hong Kong, they are virtually absent from any form of cinematic and televisual representation except for marginal roles, signifying the impossibility of integration in Hong Kong culture and society for these subjects, as opposed to Hong Kong’s ethnic Chinese kin across the border and beyond. One actress who consistently plays a Filipina maid in Hong Kong serials was recently cast in a minor role in Off Pedder as the African wife of a Hong Kong man, thus emphasizing the entertainment industry’s lack of sensitivity to cultural differences.
Postmodernism, history and the popular imagination
Many recent Hong Kong television programs, hybrid in form and generously quoting from other popular television shows and films, are exemplary of a postmodernist sensibility. According to Simon Malpas, postmodernism can be characterized by a suspicion of metanarratives, otherwise known as “grand narrative[s] of progress.” Postmodernism signals the death of grand narratives by calling literary forms and genres into question, thus marking a different relationship to conceptions of historical change, knowledge and truth. This breakdown in form can be characterized by certain tropes:
As a result, signifiers and images are emptied of meaning and allowed to circulate freely.
If family melodramas, and the family-run corporations they usually feature, are rehearsals of Hong Kong’s grand narrative of modernity, then more recent television shows — which emphasize the banal, the everyday, a global migration of cultural forms and people, an intertextuality that attends these movements, and the priority of surface aesthetics and style over content — work to problematize this narrative. The diasporic imaginaries they forge, in turn, are increasingly politically and emotionally neutralized into expressions of the banal, everyday world of consumer capitalism. Granted, this account of postmodernism has become so commonplace that it actually renders another grand narrative for Hong Kong. Analogous to melodramas about the romance of Hong Kong capitalist growth cultivated by hardworking families and visionaries are serials about the everyday lives of ordinary people in Hong Kong, obsessed with popular culture, consumer goods, and materialist desires.
Take for example the comedy, Virtues of Harmony II (jie da huan xi 2003-2005), which effectively captures the postmodern consumerist culture of contemporary Hong Kong. Virtues of Harmony II depicts the everyday life of an ordinary, lower middle-class family in Hong Kong. There are no dramatic plot-turning events in the show; conflicts are minor in comparison with those found in melodramas. Instead of running a company, as in most family-driven dramas, the family members are employees in a corporation. The family also owns a restaurant (cha can ting), which typifies many of the Cantonese restaurants in Hong Kong. In general, they are disgruntled workers who are always trying to find ways to do less. Through the use of humor, Virtues depicts a general atmosphere of cynicism towards the value of work in a consumer-driven society. Work in Virtues of Harmony II is only a means of keeping up a certain middle-class, bourgeois consumer lifestyle rather than enacting one’s personal values or ideals.
The show is highly intertextual, using examples from current events, advertisements, commercials, popular trends and Cantonese popular culture to frame its stories. Current events are often alluded to without in-depth attention. For example, someone might crack a joke about the avian flu or mention the new KCR West Rail on the serial when these were popular topics of conversation in Hong Kong. Although the serial does not provide any thorough commentary on the current events the characters reference, it creates a space that invites its audience to reflect on these everyday events. Characters often make allusions to the latest consumer electronics (i.e. cameras, cellular phones) and films such as Dumplings and 2046 almost as soon as they are released. In this way, the serial enables and sustains the transnational circulation of commodities.
For viewers in Hong Kong, the serial dovetails smoothly with current events and everyday life and is indistinguishable from the aesthetic flow of mass media and popular cultural forms. For diasporic viewers, the show provides the experience of this daily televisual flow, which cannot be reproduced in the ways in which shows are packaged for overseas distribution (i.e. as single products). Even if the serial is distributed as a contained product, the experience of watching Virtues is anything but contained; that is, the show functions as a synecdoche for the more general flow of Hong Kong popular culture.
Virtues also reference old television shows and films, often by inserting characters into well-known scenes reconstructed from these old productions. For example, a character may fantasize about a possible love affair by imagining herself as Xiao Long Nu, who has a torrid and forbidden love affair with her disciple on the widely acclaimed TVB adaptation of Return of the Condor Heroes (shen diao xia lu 1983). Meanwhile, scenarios from the older legendary program are reenacted by the cast members of Virtues. We are invited to watch these scenes through the frame of a TV set within the serial. The framing of the TV set is significant because it essentially turns the present moment into an object of spectatorship and contemplation. Since it is often difficult to achieve a critical enough distance from the present in order to analyze it as a historical moment, the framing of the TV set and the circulation of the serial overseas create a spatial distance, one that allows us to recognize a particular moment as an object of analysis. Moreover, it demonstrates how Hong Kong history can be sutured into the audience’s imagination through popular culture.
The comedy often parodies the seriousness of the events and dramas it mentions, for instance, by re-staging certain famous scenes from highly acclaimed or internationally successful films such as Dumplings (e.g. eating dumplings at a teahouse). In Virtues, such a scene is over-dramatized under circumstances that don’t merit the amount of seriousness that was given the original. Or characters imagine that the tragic news stories they hear on television have befallen family members or friends. In this kind of parodistic restaging, these scenes offer an implicit critique of the sensationalism that popular culture and journalism have lent issues such as prostitution, urban angst, piracy, and Chinese migration, leading to oversensitive reactions on the part of the public.
Yet, these issues, already highly mediatized, do not have lives of their own outside the media, outside a show like Virtues. In other words, by deploying these events and other forms of popular culture, Virtues displays an extreme form of self-reflexivity, a kind of overly self-involved media event. The issues themselves become non-issues; that is, they don’t carry any kind of discursive weight. The show only provides a surface gloss, the naming of the signifier. In sum, it brings together an endless play of empty signifiers — a news story invokes a suspicion on the part of a jealous husband, who then fantasizes about the tragic end of his marriage by projecting himself into a scene from a 1950s melodramatic classic. Or, in another example, a dinner with an emotional character reminds the others of the dinner in an old soap opera, Looking Back in Anger, where an evil brother tries to poison his entire family. Empty of depth and lost in a series of frames, these associations are architectural and spatial but not causal; as such, there is no deeper meaning that can explain why these associations are made. These formalistic traits are not unique to Hong Kong television but are perhaps illustrative of a more general trend in global television.
Virtues effectively undoes the boundaries around a singular television set to enable a seemingly infinite flow of images, references, and information. In the process, the audience is thoroughly implicated and inserted in the televisual text. The same effects can be observed in two other recent TV serials, Yummy Yummy (2005) and Fantasy Hotel (ka ixin bing guan 2005). Yummy Yummy is a television show about another television show; it tells the story of several young contestants from Hong Kong and Singapore who participate in a reality game show. The reality show and the television show of which it is part take place partly in Hong Kong and the rest of the time in Singapore. Again, the framing techniques are worth mentioning. While the multiple frames introduced in the show would appear to produce a feeling of distance, the effect is quite the opposite. To watch a TV show about a TV show creates the illusion that we are behind the scenes, with full access to the production apparatus, the hidden origin of meaning. The fact that the reality show aims to achieve a reality effect produces a pseudo-documentary feel, hence giving us the impression that we too are a part of TV’s (non)reality.
Fantasy Hotel is about a group of tour guides who also run their own guesthouse in Hong Kong. They take mainland groups on tours of Hong Kong and put them up in their guesthouse at a discount. Like Yummy Yummy, this show creates an atmosphere that invites audience participation. As the tourists are taken on a tour of Hong Kong, we too are taken on a tour, a form of travel-in-dwelling. While the transformative power of capital allows for the process of circulation to take place, a process likewise enabled by the postmodern aesthetics of recent Hong Kong TV serials, the difference with shows like Fantasy Hotel lies in the consequences. Whereas the self-referentiality and self-involvement of family melodramas have an insular (and hence destructive effect), the aesthetic tactics of these postmodern TV texts expand the frame. Whereas family melodramas move inwards, postmodernism allows the narrative to expand outwards across time and space. As a result, the excesses of capital are successfully distributed and absorbed outside domestic and intimate spaces, so that both capital and the family have a chance of surviving. Yet, at some point, this expansion will begin to feel insular itself, when the question of the survival of capitalism will again be raised.
The intertextual use of popular films and shows from the past results not in nostalgia but a light-hearted engagement with the past, a past that has become an eternal present. Our eternal present has no teleology. Everything exists at the same time thanks to a play of infinite frames, the spatial logic of a postmodern global condition marked by an endless parade of consumer, capitalist and popular flows rolling across borders instantaneously. Virtues, along with an increasing number of TV shows filmed overseas, such as Split Second and Yummy Yummy (2005), attempts to map relationships through space rather than through history.
The most recent grand production from Hong Kong, Gem of Life features numerous scenes in Paris, Shanghai, Macau, Zhuhai, Indonesia, and Thailand. Hong Kong in Gem of Life cannot simply be understood as a unique city-state under the dominion of China but must be understood in relation to its position within Greater China, the Pearl River Delta, and Southeast Asia. The priority of space over time is a clear sign that historical changes in Hong Kong are now tied to a larger global system, which is rendered indecipherable by teleological narratives of history.
To understand history in Hong Kong, one must get a grasp of this system, by perhaps first developing a framing technique that can help us break up and decipher its infinite flow of information. At the end of Dance of Passion, one of the protagonists returns to her hometown, the Loess Plateau in Shanbei, as a tourist traveling with a tour group. We later find out that her purpose in returning is to spread the ashes of her dead husband. As she walks around reminiscing, the visual scene becomes populated with people from her past engaging passionately in everyday life, whether it be playing with a child, taking a walk with a partner, or competing in a sports game.
Unlike the classic flashback, which offers a historical frame to explain certain factors that led up to the present moment, this last scene from Dance of Passion is staged in such a way that its artifice is brought to the fore. For instance, as the protagonist looks around, she sees her friend who smiles at her as if posing for a photograph. Like a diorama that came to life, the scene acts out a touristic form of engagement. As added effect, before we enter this scene, the tour guide gives a brief history of the area in a voiceover. Looking upon this scene with the gaze of a tourist may be a facile way of approaching history. Nevertheless, it considers the ways in which historical understanding is necessarily filtered through the multiple frames of personal memory, tourism, and television media.
In the sense that Hong Kong popular culture has come to characterize Chinatown culture, I see shows such as Virtues of Harmony II as producing a certain kind of global Chineseness. Through television, Hong Kong produces a cultural Chineseness that resonates with the Chinese diaspora. The popularity of Hong Kong television amongst the overseas Chinese ensures a diasporic intimacy with Hong Kong popular culture and current events. While historical claims and myths of origins may wane in forging a collective imaginary, the global circulation of Hong Kong popular (and consumer) culture upholds affective links between audiences and Hong Kong Chinese identities. The history of popular culture, therefore, becomes the shared history between members of the Chinese diaspora. The intertextual and intercontextual nature of recent TV serials, borrowing from international (i.e. US) televisual forms and filming in disparate locations, not only helps these serials travel well; they also help to establish diasporic ties where they don’t already or no longer exist.
In short, the presence of Hong Kong TV serials and other cultural forms in Chinatowns asks that we revisit the idea of Chinatowns as insular, traditional, backward ghettos and that we consider Chinatowns as spaces that are decidedly imbricated in the global, popular, and contemporary. Hong Kong and Chinatowns, as translocal entities networked through television and popular culture as well as economic and familial ties, constitute what I call global Chinatowns.
We should not underestimate the impact of cultural products from Taiwan and Mainland China on the Chinese diaspora. A comparison between diasporic interests in Chinese cultural products from China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and other Chinese communities would be an interesting supplement to this paper. I focus on Hong Kong television because Hong Kong’s roots as a global city, Hong Kongers’ acute histories and experiences of emigration and immigration, and Hong Kong television’s outreach to global markets from the very beginning have lent a particular diasporic and global resonance to Hong Kong televisual narratives, making them particularly apt case studies. For diasporic viewers, Hong Kong television’s production of urban and cosmopolitan identities and fantasies of mobility is in a sense liberating especially when contrasted to China’s nationalistic and socialist projects, from which many of them have fled.
Nevertheless, Hong Kong television is now trying to tap into the China market (and its diasporic followers), acknowledging Hong Kong’s increasingly elaborate interconnections with the Mainland. All TVB productions are now subtitled in standard Chinese although dubbing the shows over in Mandarin is still a popular practice. On the whole, there is more collaboration between the entertainment industries in the Mainland and Hong Kong. The Drive of Life (sui yue feng yun 2007), which coincided with the 10th anniversary of the Handover, is co-produced with CCTV and features Mainland actors. Scenes on the Mainland are produced using Mandarin. When the serial was broadcast in Hong Kong, all the Mandarin dialogue was dubbed over in Cantonese. Meanwhile, the Cantonese dialogue was dubbed over in Mandarin in China’s broadcast of the serial. Hong Kong’s reintegration with China has given cause for television producers to think about Chinese globalism vis-à-vis an integrated China.
The Drive of Life tells the story of one family’s effort (a family that is split between Hong Kong and Beijing) to build China’s automobile industry by designing China’s first brand of automobiles. Instead of simply being capitalist driven, the Hong Kong tycoons in this serial want their businesses to further the national cause. Chinese globalism, in this sense, is inevitably a nationalist project. If China’s relation to the world has largely been defined by its production of commodities for the world market and if Hong Kong was founded on a dispute over that most notorious commodity of all, opium, then Hong Kong television’s troping of Chineseness through commodity culture not only highlights this history but demonstrates the ways in which Chinese national culture is built on the history and circulation of commodities.
Heart of Greed and Moonlight Resonance both end with contestations over the ownership and control of family businesses — a Chinese dried seafood chain (e.g. abalone), in the case of the former, and a chain of bakeries selling mooncakes, traditional Chinese pastries usually filled with lotus seed paste and egg yolks eaten during the Mid-Autumn Festival, in the case of the latter. These serials bring to the fore the triangulation that must occur between family, nation, and capital in order for China to enter the world stage as a national and economic power. Only by valuing Confucian family ethics over individualism are characters in these serials able to run successful businesses based on “Chinese” products, certainly not an insignificant source of national pride. The protagonist in Moonlight Resonance has a grand plan to package mooncakes as souvenirs for tourists, which would not only bode well for the family business but would identify something that is uniquely Hong Kong for people to bring home. While mooncakes are not unique to Hong Kong, the plan is to create and market a brand that would indelibly associate them with Hong Kong. Commodities, therefore, function not only as objects of capitalist exchange but also as cultural exchange, a form of cultural ambassadorship.
Conclusion: close reading and ethics
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. 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 Chinatowns 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.
“because television is already quite self-conscious about addressing viewers, already ‘encoding’ presumptions about viewer ‘decodings’ within the text itself, discussions of television textuality are significant to — and indeed, just as significant as — discussions of television viewing.”
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,
“analytic interest should not be in the products themselves…the larger analytic interest should be oriented towards the structures and modalities through which the products partake in the social and economic material relations within the different locations where the products are produced, circulated and consumed.”
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”:
“the true series is not the published sequence of programme items but this sequence transformed by the inclusion of another kind of sequence, so that these sequences together compose the real flow, the real ‘broadcasting’.”
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.
1. See Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB), Corporate Introduction (TVB (USA)), http://jadeworldtv.com/index.asp?version=1&root=149&categoryid=191
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2. James Hay, “Invisible Cities/Visible Geographies: Toward a Cultural Geography of Italian Television in the 1990s,” in Television: The Critical View, ed. Horace Newcomb, 5th ed. (New York: Oxford UP, 1994), 605.
3. Ibid., 611.
4. See Arjun Appadurai, Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1996).
5. Ibid., 35.
6. Ibid., 33.
7. Ibid., 36.
8. Miriam Bratu Hansen, “The Mass Production of the Senses: Classical Cinema as Vernacular Modernism,” Modernism/Modernity 6.2 (1999): 68.
9. Ibid., 59.
11. Simon During, “Popular Culture on a Global Scale: A Challenge for Cultural Studies?” Critical Inquiry 23 (1997): 810.
12. See Yiu-Ming To and Tuen-yu Lau, “Global Export of Hong Kong Television: Television Broadcasts Limited,” Asian Journal of Communication 5.2 (1995): 112-115 for an account of TVB’s expansion into China, Taiwan, and overseas Chinese communities in Asia and the West. It is also important to note that the development of satellite television has made it possible to extend television markets beyond areas with high concentrations of Chinese viewers.
13. Aihwa Ong and Donald M. Nonini, eds., “Chinese Transnationalism as an Alternative Modernity,” in Ungrounded Empires: The Cultural Politics of Modern Chinese Transnationalism, (New York: Routledge, 1997), 11.
14. Mayfair Mei-Hui Yang, ed., “Introduction,” in Spaces of Their Own: Women’s Public Sphere in Transnational China, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999), 27.
15. Eliza Lee, Gender and Change in Hong Kong: Globalization, Postcolonialism, and Chinese Patriarchy (Hong Kong: University of Hong Kong Press, 2003), 7.
16. For more information about family and kinship ties in Chinatown, see Min Zhou, Chinatown: the socioeconomic potential of an urban enclave (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1992), 208-211.
17. Peter Kwong, The New Chinatown (New York: Hill and Wang, 1996), 5. The uptown Chinese also includes the highly-educated professionals immigrating to the United States post-1965, as a result of skills-based immigration policies (i.e. policies that offer preferential treatment for applicants with certain skills).
18. Gary Okihiro, The Columbia Guide to Asian American History (New York: Columbia UP, 2001), 135. For more on the impact of transnational and global processes on the development of Chinatown, see Michel Laguerre, The Global Ethnopolis: Chinatown, Japantown and Manilatown in American Society (New York: St. Martin’s Press, Inc., 2000); Jan Lin, Reconstructing Chinatown: Ethnic Enclave, Global Change (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998); and David Palumbo-Liu, Asia/America: Historical Crossings of the Racial Frontier (Stanford: Stanford UP, 1999), 255-279.
19. Asia Pacific Migration Research Network, “Migration Issues in the Asia Pacific: Issues Paper from Hong Kong,” United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization,
20. Ronald Skeldon, “China: From Exceptional Case to Global Participant,” Migration Information Source, http://www.migrationinformation.org/Profiles/display.cfm?ID=219.
21. Asia Pacific Migration Research Network, “Migration Issues in the Asia Pacific: Issues Paper from Hong Kong.”
22. Asian American Federation of New York, “Neighborhood Profile: Manhattan’s Chinatown,” Asian American Federation of New York, www.aafny.org/cic/briefs/Chinatownbrief.pdf.
23. Peter Kwong, “New York Is Not Hong Kong: The Little Hong Kong That Never Was,” in Reluctant Exiles?: Migration from Hong Kong and the New Overseas Chinese, ed. Ronald Skeldon (Hong Kong: Hong Kong UP, 1994), 263.
24. Robert Allen, ed., “Introduction,” in To Be Continued…Soap Operas Around the World (London: Routledge, 1995), 22.
25. Ibid., 23.
27. Melodrama is a fairly conventional television genre in Hong Kong. However, I distinguish family melodramas from other forms of melodrama because of the grandness of their scale of production and distribution.
28. I am using Mandarin pinyin to Romanize the Chinese titles of the television serials I write about in this paper because it is the Romanization system that most readers with any knowledge of Chinese is likely to be familiar with, including myself.
29. For example, Files of Justice (yi hao huang ting).
30. For example, Virtues of Harmony II (jie da huan xi).
31. Anthony Fung, “Coping, Cloning and Copying: Hong Kong in the Global Television Format Business,” in Television Across Asia: Television Industries, Programme Formats, and Globalization, eds. Albert Moran and Michael Keane (London: Routledge Curzon, 2004), 74-87.
32. Kwai-Cheung Lo, “Transnationalization of the Local in Hong Kong Cinema of the 1990s,” in At Full Speed: Chinese Cinema in a Borderless World, ed. Esther Yau (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), 263.
33. This was the case before satellite technology and internet pirating became more popular options for accessing these shows (prior to the late 90s).
34. See Casey Lum, “Chinese Cable Television: Social Activism, Community Service, and Nonprofit Media in New York’s Chinatown,” in The Huddled Masses: Communication and Immigration, eds. Gary Gumpert and Susan J. Drucker (New Jersey: Hampton, 1998), 121-144 for an overview of communications technology in New York City’s Chinatown.
35. See Aihwa Ong, Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality (Durham:
Duke UP, 1999).
36. Eliza Lee, 8.
37. Ong, 143.
38. See Amy Lee, “Hong Kong Television in Chinatown: Translocal Context(s) and Transnational Social Formations,” in Hong Kong Film, Hollywood and New Global Cinema: No Film is an Island, eds. Gina Marchetti and Tan See-Kam (London and NY: Routledge, 2007), 63-76
40. The narrative of Heart of Greed bears some resemblance to an earlier serial from 1987, The Seasons (jijie). The family in The Seasons own a chain of herbal shops. Their oldest son, like the oldest son in Heart of Greed, was thought to have been adopted as an infant but is later revealed to be the illegitimate child from his father’s illicit love affair. But in both cases, the fathers maintain that they were tricked into bed by the women they slept with.
41. Part II and III were aired 2000 and 2005, respectively.
42. Ong, 6.
43. Simon Malpas, ed., Postmodern Debates (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 8.
44. I have gleaned most of these postmodernist features from Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” New Left Review 146 (1984): 53-92. He describes schizophrenic writing as a breakdown in the signifying chain and pastiche as a “neutral form of mimicry” (65).
45. For an example of transnational television’s relation to banality from another context, see Asu Aksoy and Kevin Robins, “Banal Transnationalism: the Difference that Television Makes,” in The Media of Diaspora, ed. Karim H. Karim (London: Routledge, 2003), 89-104. They argue that transnational television’s emphasis on the banal subverts older forms of diaspora, which depend on a static image of the mythical homeland from the past: “what we regard as significant about transnational television is that, as a consequence of bringing the mundane, everyday reality of Turkey ‘closer’, is it undermining this false polarising logic. The ‘here and now’ reality of Turkish media culture disturbs the imagination of a ‘there and then’ Turkey” (95).
46. Virtues of Harmony II is the modern-day version of Virtues of Harmony I, which is a period piece.
47. Travel-in-dwelling is Clifford’s term. See James Clifford, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1997).
48. Meaghan Morris, “Transnational Imagination in Action Cinema: Hong Kong and the Making of a Global Popular Culture,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 5 (2004): 197. One form of aesthetic contingency is the use of Asian American and Asian Canadian actors and actresses. While they do not play Asian Americans or Asian Canadian on these shows, they represent a certain type of globalized character (i.e. they sometimes speak English for no apparent reason). In this way, Asian Americanness and Asian Canadianness speak to a more generalized concept or disposition rather than any specific ethnic or racial identity.
49. A similar scene occurs in Heart of Greed, where the patriarch (who is the same actor playing the role of the father in When Rules Turn Loose) tries to calm the tensions in his family by appealing to the logic of a Chinese character.
50. Lynne Joyrich, Re-Viewing Reception: Television, Gender, and Postmodern Culture (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1996), 7.
51. Ibid., 12.
52. See Amy Lee, “Hong Kong Television in Chinatown: Translocal Context(s) and Transnational Social Formations”; Amy Lee, “Hong Kong Television and the Making of New Diasporic Imaginaries,” in TV China, eds. Chris Berry and Ying Zhu (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2008), 183-200.
53. Chua Beng Huat, “Conceptualizing an East Asian popular culture,” Inter-Asia Cultural Studies 5 (2004): 204.
54. Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form, ed. Ederyn Williams (London and NY: Routledge, 1974), 91.
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