Long stands the 10,000-li (5,000-km) Great Wall.
The Yellow River flows constantly...
When this song, The Great Wall Will Never Fall, comes on, the clock automatically turns back to 1983.
That year, a 1981 TV series called The Legendary Fok, produced by Hong Kong-based Asia Television Ltd., made its way onto TV screens courtesy of Guangdong TV in 1983. The first-ever Hong Kong show to enter many a mainland living room, its theme song alone would rally together entire families in front of a television set.
The series was based on the life of martial artist Huo Yuanjia (Cantonese: Fok Yuen-gap) who lived in Tianjin, north China, and protected his motherland and people from foreign invaders with some outstanding martial skills in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Given "superhero" would be the preferred career path for many young boys, they could be seen imitating Huo's every move on playgrounds nationwide in the 1980s.
Throughout the 1980s and 90s,Hong Kong's film and television industry was thriving, John Leung Chi-yan, Director of the Office of the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China in Beijing, said.
"Today, Hong Kong dramas and musical performances on TV variety shows still attract huge mainland fans," he told Beijing Review.
The golden era
In the last two decades of the 20th century, Hong Kong films and dramas gained popularity across Asia.
A fan of these well-liked TV series, Liu Jiahui grew up in Dongguan, Guangdong Province, about 90 km from Hong Kong. For him, TV shows produced by Hong Kong companies created a sense of personal connection with the region.
The likes of Huo Yuanjia and Hui Man-keung were less influential in his generation, or those born in the 1990s. Hui was the main character in The Bund, produced by Television Broadcasts Ltd., more commonly known as TVB. Hailed as "The Godfather of the East," the show aired on the mainland in 1985.
"The most popular topics for my generation were martial arts, think 1995's The Condor Heroes adapted from Cha Leung-yung's novel, and life in imperial times—like ancient palace intrigues," Liu said.
In their heyday, Hong Kong television companies also released many successful classic contemporary dramas echoing the region's improving urbanization.
Skyscrapers, bustling streets, subway crowds, dazzling neon lights and people all seemingly living the high life... For many like Liu, the TV series served as a window into Hong Kong's culture and society. From clothing and hairstyles to the work environment, the shows' wide range of lifestyle elements sparked popular trends among mainland youth.
Liu first visited Hong Kong in 2011. "The place looked like an old friend, just as prosperous and fashionable as it had appeared on TV," he recalled.
In addition to the unique urban scenery, the series featured very particular narratives, Zhang Yan, professor at the School of Arts & Communication under Beijing Normal University, told Beijing Review. By carefully moderating the pace of the plot and creating suspense, these shows attracted more and more viewers.
Zhang believes contemporary dramas to be a sketchbook of Hong Kong covering different historical angles and levels of society.
For example, 1999's At the Threshold of An Era by TVB documented the rise and fall of three entrepreneurs amid real estate and stock wars between tycoons. After 19 years, its sequel, Another Era, came out. This time around, the story was set in the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008.
Their creation was closely related to and upgraded along with social development, the professor said.
The characterization of mainland people in Hong Kong series has evolved over the past years. Starting from underprivileged and "rustic" characters seeking a better life in the industry's early years, viewers today can spot more young and hopeful characters who strive to realize their dreams. Hong Kong has, after all, become a popular workplace for mainlanders from megacities like Beijing and Shanghai.
In the past 25 years, residents of Hong Kong and the mainland have enhanced their mutual understanding and recognition, Zhang said, adding this evolution has in turn forged a stronger bond between creators in both places.
So today, young people like Liu are uncovering consistencies between Hong Kong dramas and their own daily realities. "I think this drives them to better connect with these works," she explained.
For the love of views
Nearly 40 years have passed since The Legendary Fok swept through the mainland. Nowadays, people have a wider range of channels at their disposal to better understand Hong Kong, but the region's series still hold a special space in viewers' hearts.
A recent report, released by Xinhua News Agency and streaming platform Youku, shows that in 2021, audiences watched about 4 billion hours' worth of Hong Kong TV series on the Beijing-based platform, marking a year-on-year increase of 28 percent. Despite the shows still catering to all age groups, viewers born between 1990 and 2009 have gradually become the main fanbase, accounting for 42.8 percent.
"In the digital age, the TV industry is on the decline. But online platforms can help it adapt to the market and help more outstanding works reach netizens," Zhang said. She further pointed out that cooperation between Hong Kong and the mainland has become an industrial trend, igniting new presentations of Chinese culture.
This also means mainland drama production companies have moved from introducing to co-producing. Moreover, Hong Kong television companies have brought many famous mainland dramas to their residents, establishing a two-way street.
Interactions with the mainland also help the industry gain wider vision, Ma Fung-kwok, Chairman of the China Federation of Literary and Art Circles Hong Kong Member Association, said in a recent interview with Xinhua. He thinks Hong Kong's return to the motherland in 1997 has laid a solid foundation for increased communication between both places.
The Mainland and Hong Kong Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement in 2003 injected new impetus into the integration. With the advantages of language, culture and customs, the Outline Development Plan for the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area in 2019 created more preferential conditions to leverage the strengths and expertise of talents in Hong Kong.
"Many of Hong Kong's movie directors and actors have participated in major productions. Movies and dramas co-produced with the mainland further open up the space for growth," Leung said.
He also reminded that Hong Kong dramas should retain their cultural idiosyncrasy amid cooperation and when the time is right, TV shows can help promote this across the mainland.
(Yao Bei and Dai Yingzhu contributed to the story)
Printed Edition Title: Tuned Into the Times
Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon
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