Generation 40s – 四十世代

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A golden age when TVB dictated popular culture

South China Morning Post
EDT2 | EDT | By Alex Lo

For better or worse, TVB has been the preponderant influence in Hong Kong’s popular culture. Since it made its first broadcast in 1967, virtually every major singer and movie star began their career at the TV station.

Even today, few aspiring stars have much hope of making it if they do not have the good graces of the city’s dominant free-to-air station.

Early Canto-pop music – a mixture of western pop, rock and Mandarin songs from the 1940s and 1950s – might not have been invented at the station. But it would not have achieved the predominant music form it has become had such pioneering songwriters as Sam Hui Koon-kit, James Wong Jim and Joseph Koo Ka-fai not been heavily promoted by TVB. They, in turn, became legends in the local entertainment industry.

And for at least three decades, TVB’s Miss Hong Kong beauty pageant was one of the city’s most important social events of the year, attended by the great, the good and the wealthiest of local society.

“I started my broadcasting career in Hong Kong with TVB and witnessed its heyday,” said Robert Chua Wah-peng, probably the city’s most senior broadcaster and creator of TVB’s legendary live variety show Enjoy Yourself Tonight (EYT).

“I have therefore witnessed its cultural decline. Its stars used to be socially responsible, regardless of their private lives. Today, the programmes are hard to watch and the stars go in front of the camera and behave rudely and set a bad example for young people.”

TVB’s decades-long market dominance, according to Chua, means it could afford to produce inferior or repetitive programmes without fear of losing viewers.

It wasn’t always like this.

For those who lived through the 1970s and 1980s in Hong Kong, TVB was likely to be their primary source of entertainment when they left work or school. A second – and for a short time, a third – TV station such as RTV and later ATV, was never a serious challenge. As the controlling shareholder, Run Run Shaw made sure its finances outgunned any potential rival and that its programmes attracted the best talent.

Just as that period of time is considered the golden age of Hong Kong when its economy took off, it was arguably the best time for quality programmes at TVB. Dragon, Tiger and Leopard was an innovative crime drama series; one episode was based on Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, in which an unidentified man obsessively recorded his every thought on a tape recorder, except he turned out to be a serial killer.

Another drama series, The Northern Stars, for a time, made being a social worker almost hip.

Then came Gan Kwok-leung, arguably the best scriptwriter TVB ever had. He penned The Wrong Couples and No Biz Like Showbiz which restored the art of the dramatic dialogue that is hard to imagine for a TVB programme today.

TVB’s evening soap operas and their Canto-pop theme songs had most of the local Chinese population glued to the TV set. Its kung fu drama series, usually based on the martial arts novels of Louis Cha, made the writer a household name and his books a must-read for a generation of youngsters growing up in the city. Many Hongkongers, young and old, went to bed after watching the late-night EYT – the world’s longest running live show of its kind, according to Guinness World Records.

As a result, being chosen to play the lead characters in any one of those TVB drama series was a virtual guarantee of stardom. Even being consigned to hosting a children’s show at the not-so-prime-time 4.30pm could be a ticket to instant fame. The long-defunct 430 Space Shuttle children’s programme has since passed into local industry lore not for its especially educational or creative content, but because it was hosted at one time or another by such young then unknowns as Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Ekin Cheng Yee-kin and Stephen Chow Sing-chi.

TVB’s obliquitous influence extended far beyond the city’s borders. When the mainland opened up after the Cultural Revolution, underground cinemas sprang up. Most showed bootlegged TVB soap operas, kung fu dramas and EYT.

And virtually everywhere around the world where there was a Chinatown, TVB programmes were popular after VHS cassettes became widely available. They still are.

So, does Shaw’s sale of all his TVB stakes mark the end of an era? Chua thinks so, but he does not think it’s a bad thing.

“At least now, we have a chance of better programmes,” he said.