Eric Kit-wai Ma: Culture, Politics, and Television in Hong Kong

Several recent books on Hong Kong have precisely identified
the main factors that, during the 1970s, led to the emergence of a real Hong Kong
identity: they included the Territory’s prolonged separation from China,
the coming to adulthood of a generation born in the colony, the benefits of the
economic boom, and the government’s attempt to “socialise” the
population in the wake of the 1967 riots. In Culture, Politics, and Television,
Eric Ma Kit-wai, Assistant professor at the lecturer Department of Communication
at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, sets out to analyse the role played by
television, which was introduced to Hong Kong as late as 1967, in shaping and
preserving that identity.

In his introductory first part, the writer lays out the
theoretical framework for his study, that is to say, the relationship between
the television ideologies—the ideas conveyed by the medium of television—and
cultural identities. He devotes the next two chapters to a socio-historical analysis
of the role played by television in building an identity in two important periods
of the Territory’s recent history: the 1970s and the 1990s. Eric Ma endeavours
to show that television does not necessarily have an influence upon people’s
cultural identity, and that it generally has very little influence if it is imposed
from above. His view, on the contrary, is that it depends largely on the political,
social, cultural and economic context, and particularly on the interaction of
various social forces at a given moment.

The book illustrates well how television in the 1970s,
largely left to its own devices—with no political interference, little competition
and a generous budget surplus—gradually became the cradle for a new local
culture by providing the new generation born in Hong Kong with a range of reference
points that the colonial government in general and the education system in particular
had not wished to offer it. Thus, for the writer, the 1970s are clearly characterised
by the decline of Chinese influence over the Territory and its inhabitants, which
he calls “de-sinisation”. The essentially Chinese references that dominated
the post-war media gradually gave way to a purely local frame of reference, thus
enhancing people’s sense of belonging to the Territory. Eric Ma goes on to
remind us that the building of any identity is achieved by excluding another group—creating
a difference between them and us: he recalls the arrival of hundreds
of thousands of Chinese immigrants in the period following the Cultural Revolution,
and the impact that they had upon the consolidation of a Hong Kong identity; and
he examines how the resentment and prejudices of the local population were projected
onto the small screen and reinforced by the programmes of the time.

By contrast, the writer presents the 1990s as a period
of “resinisation”, a phenomenon caused both by the opening up of China
and by the approach of the Territory’s reversion to the Motherland in 1997.
By this time, television operated in a more competitive and more regional environment
and, like the print media, could not ignore either its own interests in China
or those of its advertisers. According to Ma, this decade was characterised by
the reinvention and rediscovery of forgotten historical and cultural links between
Hong Kong and China. Thus, at a time when identifying categories were being built
in this new context, the clear line that had separated Hong Kong people from the
mainland Chinese during the 1970s became increasingly blurred, and the role of
television in preserving Hong Kong identity became more and more problematical.

The book rests to a great extent on a thorough textual
analysis (set out in detail in chapters 4 to 6) of several television series,
on the results of audience research and on interviews with the leaders of the
main production companies (chapter 7). The writer pays particular attention to
a melodrama screened during the 1970s called “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”,
which explored, through the character named Ah Chian, the difficulties
faced by a young immigrant from the mainland in adapting to a modern society and
in interacting with the people of Hong Kong. In addition, Eric Ma shows how, for
example, the series “Great Times” and the documentary “Hong Kong
Legend”, both broadcast during the 1990s, lend themselves to polysemic study
and reflect the shifting of identifying categories over the period.

Culture, Politics, and Television in Hong Kong is
more than just the first book to go deeply into the role of television in the
creation of Hong Kong identity. The book goes further, in offering a more general
but nevertheless very stimulating theoretical reflection on the way in which television
discourse and ideologies interact with society (chapter 8). This is a book that
will definitely appeal to anyone with an interest in Hong Kong’s social evolution
over the past 30 years, and to all mediaspecialists, and no reader will fail to
appreciate the rich bibliography that brings the book to an end.

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