Hong Kong Headliner — Kill Bill

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The Best China


‘The Bill is Dead!’

Following the announcement of the demise of Ah Biu, Eunuch Ho-chi has invited Monk Tripitaka to the Palace. He beseeches the priest to recite sutras to ensure Dead Bill will enjoy a speedy, one-way passage to an afterlife in the Western Paradise …

太后已經宣佈阿標壽終正寢, 眼見阿標死得不明不白, 小豪子拜託唐僧要好好超渡阿標,好讓它早日登極樂 …

‘The Bill is Dead’ — Monk Tripitaka (Ng Chi Sum 吳志森) and Ho-chi, the Eunuch (Tsang Chi-ho 曾志豪), in the Palace. Source: Headliner 頭條新聞, 12 July 2019

So reads the online teaser for the 12 July 2019 episode of Headliner 頭條新聞, a satirical show produced by Radio Television Hong Kong 香港電台 that, for thirty years, has reported on, analysed and mocked the politics of the day.

‘Kill Bill’, the lead item of Episode 16 of the show, took aim at the Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s 9 July announcement concerning the controversial Extradition Bill that she had been attempting to railroad through the territory’s hamstrung parliament. Roiled by weeks of mass protest, Lam reluctantly declared: ‘壽終正寢 The Bill is Dead’.

In one succinct line the writers of Headliner employ the unique mode of Cantonese-Chinese linguistic humour and word play; in so doing they draw together political commentary, Hollywood cinema and irreverent references to Buddhism, all in the context of one of the show’s trademark scenarios: an Imperial Court that features a canny Palace Eunuch and a scheming Dowager Empress. The show’s two ‘anchors’ are the presenter and writer Tsang Chi-ho (曾志豪, 1977-) and the veteran broadcaster Ng Chi Sum (吳志森, 1958-).

Headliner is in a grand tradition of political satire, one that has flourished in Hong Kong since the 1950s, although it also reflects a temper that has repeatedly found expression in radio and TV shows in various other cultures (or, in such publications as Mad MagazinePrivate Eye, or in the regular columns of Hong Kong’s own Apple Daily 蘋果日報). For example, Headliner brings to mind topical shows produced in the English-speaking world such as:

Headliner has been unwavering in its support for a culture of comedy, ridicule, outrage and vitriol. For over twenty years, our resolve has remained unshaken in tirelessly promoting a snarky attitude. We regard this as more important than life itself.

We believe that the bedrock of Hong Kong is Freedom of Expression.

We reaffirm our pledge to stand by the people of Hong Kong and to be a voice to conscience. This is the Core Value of Headliner.


— from the official website of Radio Television Hong Kong
trans. G.R. Barmé

In 2019, following a period in the doldrums, Headliner 頭條新聞 once more offers an important stream of snark in the life of Hong Kong. It is a show that stares into the ever widening credibility gap of Hong Kong life and lampoons mercilessly what it sees. Its existence is an ongoing victory for what in China Heritage we frequently refer to as ‘The Other China’. It is also integral to our interests in what we celebrate as The Best China, a realm where reality meets possibility and one in which Hong Kong takes the lead. (After all, in many ways, from the 1970s, Hong Kong helped Mainland China rediscover its own ‘Chineseness’, just as it has forged a path for Cantonese language, food and culture to ‘go global’ for over a century.)

As pluralism of thought, expression and social behaviour is outlawed and policed everywhere else in China’s People’s Republic, The Best China is coming under renewed and increasing pressure. As a result, outspoken cultural enterprises like Headliner are more important than ever before.


My first contact with the unique world of Hong Kong culture came about as an employee of Lee Yee 李怡, editor and main writer of The Seventies Monthly in 1977 (for more on Lee and his recent work, see The Best China section of this site). As I worked as a translator of political commentaries written by Lee Yee and his wife Liang Liyi under the pen name Chi Hsin 齊辛 and launched a fledgling career as a Chinese essayist, through friends in the local publishing and entertainment industries I had the good fortune to meet the noted humourists Hah Gong 哈公 — the Master of Mirth, Yau Ma Tei 优瑪蒂 and Tai T’ien 戴天. I scoured the daily press for satirical illustrations and satirical essays 雜文and was thrilled by the slapstick culture created by artists like the Hoi Brothers 許氏兄弟 as well as TV variety shows like ‘Enjoy Yourself Tonight’ (歡樂今宵, broadcast from 1967 to 1994).

My office Cantonese was barely passable and, although I could understand far more than I could ever express, I would never be at home using Cantonese; anyway, I was still battling with Standard Chinese and absorbed in reading non-vernacular literature. Despite such limitations, I knew that the cultural world of Hong Kong was unique and that the claims of Mainlanders about the territory being a ‘cultural desert’ were patently absurd — in particular since they were creatures of the vast Sahara of the Maoist era. Hong Kong was also far more Chinese than the late-Maoist or Deng-era Mainland — in its language, festivals and culture. Yet it was at the same time unmistakably international, and acted as a crucial entrepôt between the People’s Republic, Taiwan, Singapore and even Japan. It also was also the fulcrum of China’s international publishing industry, and in certain crucial ways it remains so today (see, for example, Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, ‘The Case for Humanity Over Bastardry’China Heritage, 10 July 2019).

If Hong Kong was a ‘cultural desert’ for purblind Mainlanders it was also often overlooked by many non-Chinese students and scholars of the Chinese world, in particular when its value as a ‘listening post’ for eavesdropping on the Mainland was diminished from the 1980s. Perhaps the 2014 and 2019 Hong Kong protests have alerted some Mainland-fixated specialists to the fact that the territory has been, is now and will remain a vitally important part of the Chinese world, or Global China. It is a world that has been frequently repressed on the Mainland but remains as a complex, diverse and pluralistic environment demonstrating at every turn what China has lost under its one-party state and what now threatens the former British territory.

To my mind, Hong Kong was and remains a place of cultural possibility, experimentation and expression, one enjoying a latitude that, even at the high points of the past forty years, has simply not been possible on the Mainland. Now that political climate change over the border is extending the threat of Chinese-style desertification, Hong Kong is more significant than ever. As a result of the 2019 anti-Extradition Bill protests, the international community might be able to appreciate something that those who have known Hong Kong have treasured all along.

In certain respects, Hong Kong is what a modern, pluralistic China could be like, but only if it were not dominated by a patriarchal authoritarian party-state. Its language, food, sensibilities, civility, obstreperousness, wit, rambunctious enterprise, intelligence — along with all the negatives of rabid materialism, self-concern, rudeness, indifference, supine attitudes, cowardice and so on (traits common in all societies) show us what China isn’t. Culturally, even now, that Other China occasionally makes itself heard. It does so in the work of thinkers like Xu Zhangrun, who features in China Heritage, and it sometimes shouts out, as it did in September 2017 when a ‘Chongqing-style Rap song’ written by 小艾EYE appeared. ‘You Lying Fucks’ 你TM個騙子 (‘TM’ = 他媽的) set its sights on the nightly CCTV national news 央視新聞聯播 broadcast out of Beijing and it featured the following lyrics:

Lying Fuck: bullshit every night
Lying Fuck: crap stories every night
Lying Fuck: cheating me every night
Lying Fuck: on screen at 7:00 every night …

你TM個騙子 每天晚上都在胡言
你TM個騙子 每天晚上都在胡編
你TM個騙子 每天都在對我欺騙
你TM個騙子 晚上出現在七點

哪個把我們欺負了 你鬥喜歡譴責
你又不敢發狠話 還要看別個臉色
還問我幸不幸福 你爺爺我姓艾
全國人民都很善良 就你老闆心壞

中國人的好朋友 一般來自非洲
現在科技這麼發達 「發微信撒!」

要與時俱進 還要開拓創新
要深化思想 都是說得好聽

Eye’s song provides an easy segue to our selections from the latest episode of Radio Television Hong Kong’s Headliner program.

— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
14 July 2019

  • A Note on New Sinology:

Readers familiar with the work of China Heritage and The Wairarapa Academy for New Sinology will be aware that we believe to engage meaningfully with the Chinese world — be it Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan or Global China — a basic fluency in the ideas, languages, culture, history and ideologies of its various constituencies is of crucial importance.

The following skits from Headliner illustrate just what that means; they demonstrate in an immediate and raucous fashion that the show’s creators are abreast of Hong Kong current affairs, familiar with dynastic and Republican cultural tropes and contemporary Communist Party discourse, as well as being at home in mainstream Western culture. In its free-wheeling fashion Headliner exemplifies a kind of Hong Kong sensibility that also casts a scintillating light on what China is today. For those who would tout their credentials as being ‘China Literate’, watching Headliner is an ideal way to test one’s mettle, or even learn a lesson or two.


Further Viewing & Reading:


‘ “Tasteless” Headliner: Let’s have more people of conscience with “inappropriate and ill-timed” views and fewer craven lickspittles’. Source: 阿果,「不合時宜」的頭條新聞, 2017年7月10日

The Bill is Dead


Below is our transcription and translation of two segments in the 12 July 2019 ‘Kill Bill’ episode of Headliner. For the whole show, click on the link here (Cantonese with subtitles in Standard Chinese 國語/ 普通話).

The Editor


The Eunuch & the Monk

Transcribed and translated by Geremie R. Barmé

Eunuch: What a way to go! Master Tripitaka, please you must offer up prayers of release.


[Note: The Buddhist bonze — Master Tripitaka 唐僧, literally the ‘Tang Monk’ — is a Headliner regular. His character is inspired by the monk Xuanzang 玄奘 in Wu Cheng’en’s classical novel Monkey, also known as Journey to the West 西遊記. ‘Tripitaka’ (Sanskrit त्रिपिटक, the ‘three baskets’ or collections of canonical Buddhist scriptures) is the name Arthur Waley uses for the monk Tang Sanzang 唐三藏 in his translation of the novel.]

Tripitaka: NamoNamo … Just who is it that you want this Old Priest to lead to salvation, Young Fellow?

唐僧:南無… 南無… 小豪子公公,你要貧僧超渡誰?

Eunuch: His name is ‘Ah Bill’.


Tripitaka: Ah Bill? How could they be dead?


Eunuch: Killed off by the Dowager Empress. She’s just announced: ‘The Bill is dead!’

小豪子:是太后殺死的!她說:’The Bill is dead’。

Tripitaka: You’re telling me that the Dowager ‘Killed Bill’?

[Note: This is a reference to Quentin Tarantino’s 2003 film ‘Kill Bill: Volume 1’. In Hong Kong the title of the film was translated as 《標殺令》, ‘The Kill Bill Order’.]

唐僧:甚麼?太后 Kill Bill?

Eunuch: To be fair, the Dowager did everything in her power but, unfortunately, Bill simply couldn’t be resuscitated. It’s been a total disaster. The end has come and may they rest in peace.


Tripitaka: Hold on a minute: if the end has come and they can rest in peace that means things have drawn to a successful conclusion. So how can it have been a total disaster?


Eunuch: You don’t get it: Bill’s had a hard life and died even before getting a Second Reading [in LegCo, or the unicameral ruling Legislative Council of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region].

小豪子:你不明白,Bill 的命運可苦了,過不了二讀便死了。

Tripitaka: Now I’m completely confused. Dead even before a Second Reading? But then what’s happened should really be described as ‘premature death’, or maybe ‘gone to the grave with deep regrets’, ‘given up the ghost before achieving anything’ or ‘was snuffed out kicking and screaming’. Anyway, regardless of how you want to put it, you certainly can’t describe it as ‘resting in peace’.

唐僧:你越說越混亂。不到二讀便死了?應該稱為 「夭折」、「含恨而終」、「中道崩殂」、「不得好死」。肯定不是「壽終正寢」。

Eunuch: Please, don’t say such things; the Dowager is very superstitious about using such taboo expressions. In her presence you can’t even say words like ‘Withdraw’ or ‘Step Down’.

[Note: Anti-Extradition Bill protesters initially demanded that the controversial bill be ‘withdrawn’ 撤回 from legislative consideration. In the face of Carrie Lam’s intransigence, protesters also demanded that she ‘step down’ 下台 from power.]


Tripitaka: Then this Old Priest must guide Bill to Buddha’s Western Paradise so they’ll never be reincarnated …

唐僧:那貧僧超渡 Bill,祝登極樂,永不超生,不要回望過去 …

Eunuch: And I have another request, Master Tripitaka. The Dowager has been acting weirdly ever since she announced that Bill would rest in peace.

小豪子:師傅,還有一事要拜託:自從太后宣佈 Bill 壽終正寢後,她的精神有點異樣。

Tripitaka: What seems to be the problem?


Eunuch: She’s constantly talking about ‘engaging the Youth of Hong Kong in dialogue’, but whenever she comes to she’s already forgotten all about it.


Tripitaka: Of course, it’s a good sign that she’s so concerned with the young, but what can be done about her erratic condition?


Eunuch: I’ve suggested that, if she can’t actually be bothered to meet anyone, she can always go online and join the discussion groups on LIHKG or Telegram. But, then, if she wants to be a bit more active, I’ve told her that every district in Hong Kong has a Lennon Wall just waiting for her to take a look. But she’s unwilling to go.

[Note: LIHKG and Telegram are online social media platforms used by protesters to organise their activities. Both are anathema to the Hong Kong authorities.]

小豪子:我已經建議她,如果不想操勞,可以上連登論壇或 Telegram 群組。如果向活動一下,各區連儂牆已等著她參觀。但她也不願意。

Tripitaka: Namo Amitābha! Well, the results of the Imperial Exams have recently been announced; why doesn’t Her Highness have a chat with the very top candidates or others who’ve passed?


Eunuch: Impossible: they’ve all had a liberal general education [that pro-Mainland reformers have tried to eliminate] and they’re ‘extreme radicals’. They simply don’t speak the same language as the Dowager.


Tripitaka: Well, then she shouldn’t limit herself to the young; she needs to be in touch with citizens of all age groups.


Eunuch: That’s why this Worthless Slave has recommended to Her Highness that she inspect what’s going on at Tuen Mun Park [where protesters had been demanding a quasi ‘red-light district’ be shut down].


Tripitaka: You must be joking! Do you really think the Dowager Empress should try competing with the ‘Dancing Aunties’?

[Note: The ‘Dancing Aunties’ or ‘dai ma‘ 大媽 were accused of disturbing the neighbourhood with singing and dancing by protesters involved in the ‘Restoration of Tuen Mun Park’ 光復屯門公園 protests of June-July 2019. As mass opposition to Carrie Lam and her agenda grew, disparate social issues became flash points and the focus of rolling protests.]


Eunuch: Not at all. I was thinking that she should be in touch with Reliable and Mature Citizens as well as the Old Fellows over there. She can perhaps gauge from them what they think of the Celestial Court.


Tripitaka: Really?! The views of the common people? One look at their expressions and you’ll know that all they want to do is to give her the finger.



John Lennon vs. Jackie Chan

Transcribed and translated by Geremie R. Barmé

  • Note: Below the Generalissimo’s Aide-de-Camp Tsui, who doubles as the superintendent of police, carries a riot shield inscribed with the words 官差 guānchāi, — ‘miscellaneous factotum for officialdom’, that is someone who is generally assigned distasteful tasks. A common term in traditional fiction and often used satirically in kungfu movies, 官差 guānchāi also brings to mind the dynastic-era expression ‘Yamen Runner’ 衙役 yáyí (for details, see here). These supernumerary accomplices to the power-holders, or 幫兇 bāngxiōng, are also known as ‘Claws and Teeth’ 爪牙 zhǎo yá.
The Commander and the Officer at a Lennon Wall. Source: Headliner RTHK

The skit opens with the Generalissimo 大元帥 checking with Aide-de-Camp Tsui 徐副官 on his ‘battle preparedness’:

Generalissimo: Riot shield?


Aide-de-Camp Tsui: At the ready!


Generalissimo: Truncheon?


Aide-de-Camp: At hand!


Generalissimo: Your armour?


Aide-de-Camp: Secured!


Generalissimo: Your official ID?


[Note: To avoid being identified — and subsequently held responsible for their actions — during operations to contain and/ or repress demonstrations, members of the police force removed or failed to show their official ID, or ‘warrant cards’. Nonetheless, they were wanted to be able to identify demonstrators for subsequent persecution]

Aide-de-Camp: You don’t need to show your ID when you’re on duty.


Generalissimo: What if you’re questioned about your ID by a popular lawmaker [of one of the local non-Mainland controlled political parties], or by a journalist?


Aide-de-Camp: Easy: I’ll charge them with obstructing an officer of the law and for hampering traffic.


Generalissimo: Excellent! So you’re setting out on this mission with a team of constables.

大元帥:Very good! 非常好。有一隊隊伍與你一起出發。

Aide-de-Camp: Your Humble Servants will give it everything we’ve got; we live to deliver.

[Note: 卑職 bēi zhí, literally ‘lowly office’, is a traditional form of self-debasement employed when addressing a superior. 全力以赴 — ‘Give it everything we’ve got’ — is commonly used by China’s state media to describe devotion to duty, and 使命必達 — ‘We Live to Deliver’ — is a tagline of the FedEx courier delivery service.]


Generalissimo: Remember, you must eliminate it root and all. I don’t want to see even the slightest hint left.


Aide-de-Camp: Your Humble Servants will ‘complete our mission’ [實踐抱負 is one of the mottos of the Hong Kong Police Force]. If I may ask though, what’s the code name for our mission?


Generalissimo: ‘Tear Up the Paper Lion Kings’.


[Note: 撕紙王= 獅子王。The 2019 film ‘The Lion King’ — a photorealistic computer-animated remake of Disney’s 1994 animated film — was released in Hong Kong on 9 July. Satirists immediately referred to the police as ‘The 拉人King’ — or ‘kings of detention’ (in Cantonese 拉人 ‘laa-yan’, sounds similar to ‘lion’) — and a mock poster and trailer to the film was produced, along with a new theme song, in which the Walt Disney Company was called Díshìnǐ 敵視你 — ‘You’re The Enemy’:

撕紙王 — The 拉人King]

Aide-de-Camp: Generalissimo, you might think this Humble Servant is an arse-kisser, but if I may say so this is truly a ‘formidable’ code name. So what enemy are we targeting?

[‘Formidable’ 霸氣 bàqì is a reference to ‘The Formidable Brother’ 霸氣哥, an outspoken individual who clashed with the police during the Umbrella Movement in 2014 and again in 2019. For details, see here.]


Generalissimo: Sticky labels!

大元帥:是Memo紙/ 便利貼。

Aide-de-Camp: You mean counterfeit currency?


Generalissimo: Post-it Notes! Go out there and tear them all off the walls for your Generalissimo. I don’t want one left.


[Note: ‘Lennon Walls’ were public spaces — walls of buildings, underpasses, tunnels, shopfronts, vitrines, lamp-posts, etcetera, used for the pasting up of ‘sticky notes’ bearing messages of support and encouragement for the protests. Attempts to remove these low-tech acts of micro-rebellion resulted in clashes and further protests.]

Aide-de-Camp: Hold on a minute, Generalissimo. You’re telling me that you’ve had your Humble Servant get decked out in full riot gear so that he can lead a sizable brigade of policemen just so they can tear off some Post-its?


Generalissimo: Are you questioning my orders?


Aide-de-Camp: How would I dare presume? It’s just that your Humble Servant simply doesn’t get it. It would be much easier to get some of the outsourced labourers employed by FEHD [the Food and Environmental Hygiene Department] to clean it all up.


Generalissimo: You don’t have a clue, do you? Do you have any idea just where those sticky labels have been stuck? They’re on things called ‘Lennon Walls’.

[Note: The proliferation of Lennon Walls as city-wide sites of protest was popularly referred to as ‘Blossoms Spring Up Everywhere’ 偏地開花.]


Aide-de-Camp: What’s a Lennon?


Generalissimo: Lennon is that foreigner, John Lennon.

大元帥:連儂就是約翰 · 連儂,是外國人。

Aide-de-Camp: So is that what Director Wang Zhimin [of the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in Hong Kong] was talking about [when he addressed the Chinese General Chamber of Commerce on 12 July]? He said that [protesters] were ‘in cahoots with Inimical Foreign Forces, inflating their own importance while behaving as dupes’.

[Note: 王志民又批評, 「某些外部勢力對香港指手劃腳, 公然干預, 香港亦有極少數人挾洋自重, 甘當外部勢力的「馬前卒」 , 企圖亂中取利, 社會應堅決反對。」]


Generalissimo: And that’s why you are dealing with what is essential a ‘diplomatic mission’. Lennon Walls have become the most dangerous places in Hong Kong. People are lighting fires, arguing and even getting into fights at them.

[Note: For details, see Hong Kong Lennon Walls.]


Aide-de-Camp: Speaking of getting into fights, that’s one area in which my colleagues and I really want to ‘forge ourselves as one with the citizens of Hong Kong’: by applying the choke hold, using our shields to ram crowds and, when it comes to dealing with female protesters,  just jumping right on top of them. There’s nothing we can’t do!

[Note: The clichéd expression ‘to be at one with the masses’ 與群眾打成一片, given here as ‘forge ourselves as one with the citizens of Hong Kong’, is used by the Communist Party to claim that its ‘Mass Line’ allows it to understand entirely the needs of the people it rules. Here Officer Tsui takes the word 打, ‘forge, become, beat’, at face value: to beat up.]


Generalissimo: Fisticuffs with the citizens? You are forbidden from fighting back even if you get pummeled by thirteen blows. Can you assure me that you’re up to it?

[Note: For video footage of the ‘thirteen blows’ 十三拳 referred to here, which were in fact aimed by an unidentified assailant at a peaceful protester protecting the sticky labels at a Lennon Wall who refused to retaliate, see here.]


Aide-de-Camp: Frankly, we are simply incapable of maintaining that kind of behaviour or sticking to those kinds of rules.


Generalissimo: There’s been so many ‘action shots’ recorded at Lennon Walls that I’ve come to the conclusion that they should be renamed.


Aide-de-Camp: And called what?


Generalissimo: They should be christened ‘Jackie Chan Walls’!

[Note: Apart from his fame as a kungfu actor, Jackie Chan (成龍, 1954-) is also notorious for his pro-Mainland zealotry. In December 2012, Chan criticised Hong Kong as a ‘city of protest’ and has repeatedly expressed support for political repression, hardly surprising for a performer whose fictional world is based on the brutish hierarchy of martial arts monoculture.]