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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 Territorys prolonged separation from China, the coming to adulthood of a generation born in the colony, the benefits of the economic boom, and the governments 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 ideologiesthe ideas conveyed by the medium of televisionand 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 Territorys recent history: the 1970s and the 1990s. Eric Ma endeavours to show that television does not necessarily have an influence upon peoples 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 deviceswith no political interference, little competition and a generous budget surplusgradually 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 peoples sense of belonging to the Territory. Eric Ma goes on to remind us that the building of any identity is achieved by excluding another groupcreating 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 Territorys 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 Kongs 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.