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I Want to Watch TV! How the Hong Kong Government Killed Local Television and the Hong Kong Dream

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Even in a city where big street protests are regular events, last Sunday's impromptu rally was extraordinary. Tens of thousands of people, many of them first-time protesters, were mobilized in just a few days, most of them by a Facebook page that attracted close to half a million followers in a city of only seven million.

They weren't marching for the right to elect their own leader, to remove the latest scandal-hit official, or against human rights abuses in China. They were marching to demand the right to watch more and better TV drama, and for free.

For decades, the city that exported its TV culture to the world had to make do with two free terrestrial TV stations. Then, when the government decided to reform the television market, it announced it would move towards lifting the limit on the number of domestic free TV licenses. Studies were conducted, bids were invited.

After three years of deliberations and delays, the government suddenly announced last week it would approve new licenses for two of the three contenders. The winners were companies owned by two existing pay-TV operators, i-Cable and PCCW respectively, both of which are run by scions of Hong Kong business dynasties.

There was no room at table for the most attention-grabbing and ambitious bid, from Hong Kong Television (HKTV). The brainchild of self-made telecoms entrepreneur Ricky Wong Wai-kay, HKTV was also the only company intent on producing original drama. Not only that, it promised to produce Hong Kong dramas made in the style of the best American offerings.

The outrage at the rejection of HKTV's license bid was almost visceral, united people across different sectors and generations of society and quickly became a major political issue.

This outpouring of public anger has to be understood against some background: First, the central place of television, and in particular TV drama in Hong Kong popular culture; and second, growing public discontent with Hong Kong's most unpopular government and leader since the territory's 1997 handover to China.

The Rise and Fall of Hong Kong Television

Television did not arrive in Hong Kong until 1967, and local TV drama began to take off in the 1970s. The locally born children of migrants who had fled war and revolution in mainland China came of age and the idea of a Hong Kong identity started to form. Television both reflected that emerging identity and shaped it.

At the time, China was a closed book to much of the world and Britain was a distant colonial master. My colleague Professor Eric Ma Kit-wai, a leading expert on Hong Kong television, points out that without a national identity and no binding high culture, television was the shared experience that brought Hong Kongers together.

Season finales of popular TV series were watched by up to 80 percent of the viewing public. Wedding banquets had to be planned to avoid them.

If the 1970s were the beginning, then the 1980s and 1990s were the golden age of Hong Kong TV. Some of the biggest Hong Kong movie stars cut their teeth in the television series of the era, Chow Yun-fat, Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing and Maggie Cheung Man-yuk to name just a few.

For two decades, Hong Kong TV drama was not just influential in Hong Kong -- it more or less defined Chinese popular culture throughout the world, particularly among Chinese diaspora communities and in South East Asia.

Ma traces its decline to the falling fortunes of Asia Television (ATV), the smaller of the two terrestrial stations. Although ATV had always trailed its rival Television Broadcasts (TVB) in resources and ratings, it had presented a real challenge to TVB by being more willing to take risks and try new formats (disclosure: I worked in ATV's news department between 1993 and 1998).

However, after a series of changes in ownership, the station all but ceased original drama production, adopted a doggedly pro-Beijing stance, and watched its credibility and ratings slide.

Once this happened, TVB strengthened its market dominance. "The lack of competition fostered complacency," says Ma.

Critics and viewers now complain of unconvincing, recycled plots, fake-looking sets and hackneyed dialogue. But there is simply nowhere else to turn for local drama.

Both Actors and production staff have suffered, with low wages and restrictive contracts that bar them from taking on work outside TVB for extended periods even if they are on short-term contracts.

Into this picture walks Ricky Wong Wing-kay, a plucky 51-year-old who made his name as Hong Kong's Telecoms boy wonder back in the 1990s.

After studying Electronic Engineering at university, Wong worked in sales and marketing for IBM in Hong Kong before migrating to Canada. There he saw how Canadians enjoyed cheap international telephone calls through using "callback" services.

Wong and his cousin set up City Telecom, secured government approval to bring callback to Hong Kong, slashed IDD prices and brought an early end to the monopoly on IDD services in Hong Kong.

Wong's next move was even bolder. Despite market misgivings, he invested billions of Hong Kong dollars to build a huge fibre-optic network and launched fast speed broadband services for residential use. The company he founded, Hong Kong Broadband, is now the second biggest internet service provider in Hong Kong.

But even this does not match Wong's decision to sell his telecoms business and invest the money in pursuing his TV Dream. Over three years, Wong spent HKD 900 million (USD 116 million), hired hundreds of actors, scriptwriters, production and technical staff and produced hundreds of hours of original programming.

Emulating American TV

One of Wong's obsessions in raising the bar for local TV is to emulate the best of American television, as exemplified by the quality series produced by the likes of HBO and Showtime.

Earlier this year, he launched an American TV "bootcamp" for staff and made them study, break down, analyze and replicate scenes from shows such as House of Cards, Glee, Nikita and The Killing with local actors and using translated Cantonese dialogue.

For Cap Fung, a 28-year-old former journalist and novice scriptwriter, the workshops were a revelation. Wong gathered his creative staff, who were used to burning the midnight oil, and made them sit and watch American TV shows at 9 a.m.

"I was struggling to stay awake and hadn't had time to eat any breakfast," recalls Fung, "so I was watching and munching away on a frankfurter bread roll."

The first screening of the day was a bloody fight scene from the Roman slave rebellion series Spartacus: Blood and Sand.

"Suddenly, a character had his leg hacked off. I looked from the screen to my sausage and just felt sick."

Fung says Wong immersed himself in the workshops, analyzing the number of scenes and shots, the dialogue, the development of parallel plot lines and even the lighting, along with the staff.

I wondered if the professionals might bristle at this, view it as unnecessary meddling.
Fung answers that most colleagues didn't see it that way and that Wong was willing to listen to and accept the opinions of others, even if they contradicted his own.

In fact, it is hard to find a member of HKTV staff who has a bad word to say about him. He seems to have united people at every level of the company, from the artists, to the creative and production staff to the catering staff, around his vision of a Hong Kong television renaissance.

Established TV veterans who made their name at TVB speak movingly of how working on HKTV productions pushed their creative buttons, allowed them to find pride and joy in their work for the first time in decades.

And now this sense, that Hong Kong deserves better TV, and perhaps deserves better in general, has spread into the streets.

It's Not Just About TV

Many have speculated there are political reasons behind the move, that Beijing views Wong as an unpredictable maverick, that it fears his station would drive the obedient ATV out of business. But Wong himself has taken great pains to dismiss such claims.

He is a member of the Zhejiang province committee of China's top advisory body, he has said he does not have "the whiff of politics" about him. He has also stressed that the production of news and current affairs would take a back seat to drama and infotainment at HKTV.

As yet, there are no obvious or compelling reasons for the rejection of HKTV's bid. Despite rules of confidentiality, government officials and members of Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying's cabinet have been subtly and not-so-subtly distancing themselves from the decision.

Wong has announced he will challenge the decision in the courts. Public opinion is behind him.

For Hong Kongers, the lack of transparency and perceived lack of fairness over the decision is an affront to Hong Kong's core values. They suspect the Beijing-backed Leung of riding roughshod over Hong Kong's institutions and established rules.

And in restricting the people's choice of TV programmes, the government has angered those Hong Kongers who always saw themselves as apolitical. It's almost as if you can hear people shouting: "You can take away our voting rights, you can take away our press freedoms, but you can't take away our TV!"

Ricky Wong and the End of the Hong Kong Dream

If anything has benefitted from this whole sorry saga, then it is the personal stock of Ricky Wong.

Many have joked that if there were a free election for the city's Chief Executive today, Ricky Wong would win it. Here is a successful businessman who wants to entertain Hong Kong and who can move the masses. It is a joke the highly unpopular actual incumbent will not find funny.

If Li Ka-shing is the archetypal Hong Kong tycoon of the 20th century -- a refugee from the mainland who built up an empire spanning property, telecoms, infrastructure and retail, then Ricky Wong is a model for the 21st century. The local boy made good, with an eye for opportunity, the guts to follow his instincts, the smarts to pull it off, modern management methods and personal charisma.

His Hong Kong success story is the kind of narrative marketing gurus would die for - a contemporary free-market fairytale with a hero who can walk with kings but not lose the common touch.

His failure is the failure of the mainstream Hong Kong narrative on its own terms. He who dares doesn't win, hard work doesn't pay off, the market is not free, the playing-field is not level.

For my colleague Eric Ma, the rejection of HKTV's bid is tantamount to killing Hong Kong's creativity, to killing Hong Kong in a cultural sense.

But it is even more than that. For years, Hong Kong's establishment has peddled a Hong Kong dream based on enterprise and hard slog, with perhaps a lucky break along the way. That dream has now been exposed. The emperor has no clothes.

The government's actions and the way it has bumbled and blustered through the aftermath is nothing short of the snuffing out of the spirit of enterprise in this bastion of capitalism.