Hong Kong Apostasy
This is the latest chapter in ‘Hong Kong Apostasy’, a China Heritage series devoted to the 2019 Hong Kong Protest Movement and featured in ‘The Best China’ section of this site.
Following the release of ‘We Connect’, Episode 17 in its Spring-Summer 2019 season on Friday the 19th of July, Headliner 頭條新聞, a topical and popular Hong Kong TV show that specialises in political commentary and pointed spoofs, went into summer recess. After the dramatic events of the evening of the 21st of July, however, the show’s holiday plans were shelved. Late that night a large mob of thugs dressed in white shirts who were wielding bamboo canes and lengths of PVC pipe indiscriminately attacked anti-Extradition Bill protesters and bystanders at the MTR station in Yuen Long 元朗, a district in Hong Kong’s New Territories. The assault — one immediately decried by the non-Communist Hong Kong media as a ‘terrorist attack’ 恐襲 — saw numerous people wounded as well as the hospitalisation of forty-five others.
The local police and MTR workers failed to respond to calls for assistance throughout the rampage. This lead to speculation that a terrifying line had been crossed: the pro-Beijing Hong Kong authorities now appeared to be in cahoots with underground mobsters and they were prepared to use street gangs to quell legitimate public protest.
Meanwhile, Carrie Lam 林鄭月娥, the Chief Executive of the territory all but ignored the extent and the significance of the violence. Instead she bewailed the paltry, although purposefully incendiary, attack on symbols of Beijing’s political presence in Hong Kong: that same night, protesters had spattered the Mainland Liaison Office building with volleys of eggs and sprayed black paint on the national emblem of the Chinese People’s Republic. At that press conference Lam spoke in the odious ‘wooden language’ (langue de bois) favoured by Communist bureaucrats and remained recalcitrant in refusing to countenance any of the demands of the protesters, the main one of which was for the authorities to withdraw — 撤回, pronounced ‘cit3 wui4‘ in Cantonese — Lam’s detested Extradition Bill.
In light of these developments, on 23 July, the production team behind Headliner announced with some fanfare that they had decided to ‘Withdraw’ and ‘Rescind’ — mockingly employing the word 撤回 — their earlier decision to take a summer break 抖暑. Or, as they put it on the show’s Facebook page:
TOPic interview with the compères of Headliner:
- 吳志森、曾志豪, ‘在亂世中堅守真相’ (Sticking to Objective Reality in a Time of Chaos), TOPic, 24 July 2019 (in Cantonese)
For more on Headliner, see:
- Radio Television Hong Kong, ‘Hong Kong Headliner — Kill Bill’, China Heritage, 14 July 2019
For an ongoing dialogue between Ng Chi Sum 吳志森 and Tsang Chi-ho 曾志豪 of Headliner, see:
- Chi Sum & Chi-ho 志森與志豪, YouTube, from 29 April 2019-
And, regarding the tradition of Chinese Communist thuggery, see:
- Xu Zhangrun 許章潤, ‘The Case for Humanity Over Bastardry’, China Heritage, 10 July 2019
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
24 July 2019
Essays on the 2019 Hong Kong Protests in China Heritage:
- Lee Yee 李怡, ‘Endgame Hong Kong’, China Heritage, 5 July 2019
- Lee Yee 李怡, ‘Young Hong Kong’, China Heritage, 16 July 2019
- Lee Yee 李怡, ‘Hong Kong Goes Grey for a Day’, China Heritage, 20 July 2019
- Lee Yee 李怡, ‘This is Who We Are — We Are Hong Kong’, China Heritage, 22 July 2019
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
Truth & Courage —
Headliner in a
Season of Discontent
Wong Wing-sum 黃泳欣
Translated by Geremie R. Barmé
‘We take the pulse of Reality; we are not beholden to Those in Power.’
During this period of mass unrest in Hong Kong, the spoof program Headliner produced by RTHK 香港電台 is enjoying an uptick in popularity among viewers. Skits that feature ‘The Dowager Empress and The Eunuch’ and ‘The Generalissimo and The Aide-de-Camp’, as well as features like the musical parody ‘Cheng Trap’ by Cuson Law Kai Sun [1965-], offer insights into contemporary social realities and provide a timely emotional outlet for many Hong Kong people. The compères of ‘Headliner’ — Ng Chi Sum [吳志森, 1958-], Brother Sum, and Tsang Chi-ho [曾志豪, 1977-], Ho-chi — believe that to lampoon politics and current affairs you have to be in tune with popular sentiment as well as being empathetic to the full gamut of emotions — the joys and outrage, the heartbreak and delights — of the population at large.
Every Second Counts, Though Everyone Mucks In
From April through July this year, Headliner has been reporting on the Anti-Extradition Law Protests in Hong Kong. As the situation has evolved, the people behind ‘Headliner’ have felt an increasing urgency to make shows that reflect their unique sensibility.
In each weekly episode of Headliner, Brother Sum and Ho-chi are responsible for about six minutes of air time each. In serials skits like ‘The Dowager Empress and The Eunuch’ and ‘The Generalissimo and The Aide-de-Camp’, they deploy comedy and farce to offer a running commentary on current affairs in the city.
The show is broadcast at 18:00 on Friday evenings so, every Thursday afternoon, the two stars get together with the ‘Headliner’ production crew to exchange and discuss the ‘intelligence’ they have all gathered during the week and decide how to compile the latest burlesque report. That evening following the pre-production meeting Ho-chi drafts a script and, following revisions and final drafting the following day, the team film the week’s episode from 14:00 to 16:00 on Friday afternoon. After an intensive period of editing, the show broadcast early Friday evening.
Changes and additions covering breaking news from the time of the pre-production meeting on Thursday up until filming starts on Friday afternoon can be accommodated. As Brother Sum says:
‘During the Anti-Bill Protests we make changes to the script on a daily basis. News means just that: it has to be both new and up-to-date. Since we all have a background in journalism, we’re used to grabbing every available second to update our stories.’
During the recording of the latest episode [Episode 17 broadcast on 19 July 2019], for example, when reports came in that a few hundred masked pro-government vandals had attacked the ‘Pedestrian Tunnel Lennon Wall’ at Tai Po Market, last-minute changes were made to update the show.
When talking about their popular appeal ‘headliners’ Tsang and Ng say that the songs reworked by their partner Cuson Law — ‘Cheng Trap’ and ‘Brickbats’ (parodies of Alan Tam’s ‘Love Trap’ and Vivian Lai’s ‘Each of Us Has a Dream’ respectively), both the reworked lyrics and their interpretation were wildly popular and soon went viral.
‘A Basket of Deplorables’ in Episode 15 [broadcast on the 5th of July] was particularly resonant with viewers. In it the Headliners contrasted footage of protesters breaking into the Legislative Council [on the afternoon and evening of the 1st of July] with the commonplace political violence witnessed for years during actual LegCo sessions. The soundtrack of that skit was the [well-known and bitter] song ‘June’ by Pong Nan [Nan Yik-Pong, 藍奕邦]. As Brother Sum says, the whole indecent was truly unforgettable:
‘For us this was the most succinct way we could think of to highlight [all that hypocritical talk about ‘violence’]: to show the constant and garrulous rejection by the Pro-Beijing Camp of various proposed bills in LegCo and pair those scenes with footage of young protesters breaking in to the legislative chamber — contrast and compare: the point couldn’t be more obvious. It was our shorthand for what we regard as being the nub of the issues of the day. There’s no need for lengthy disquisitions; you can say everything you needed to in a two-minute clip.’
Adding songs and sound effects to news footage allows the makers of Headliner to deliver pointed messages, although the onscreen talent emphasises that credit should really go to their team of young colleagues who work behind the scenes.
Staying at One’s Post: The News is About Reporting the Truth
There’s so much breaking news these days that people have a tendency to wonder: ‘Which [TV and Radio] channels can tell the most truth?’ Also, ‘Can they really tell the Truth in full?’
Ho-chi thinks that word-of-mouth is often more important than mere viewer ratings. Recently, apart from praising the show for ‘getting it right and sticking it to them’, many online citizens have praised the show for its courage in Truth Telling. Their views are summed up in such comments as: ‘I never thought you’d be able to tell it like it really is, or be able to say so much!’ Others say, ‘It turns out that your show is about taking the struggle to the Powers-That-Be on behalf of the common people!’
Brother Sum has been working in the media — both as a front man on TV and behind the scenes — for a good thirty years. He says:
‘To me, that people put it like that is actually incredibly sad. News should by its very nature be about reporting the truth, and those involved in journalism have a particularly crucial responsibility to report the truth about sensitive issues. This should be the basic responsibility of all journalists in a free society. Liars have good reason to be afraid; why should you need courage to tell the truth?
‘Journalists should call a spade a spade; to be praised for telling the truth is evidence that our society is in very serious trouble.’
Brother Sum also made the point: ‘We should regard holding to the truth as our duty; not being beholden to the power-holders’, and every episode of Headliners is about doing just that scrupulously. The most recent episode of the show titled ‘We Connect’ [and broadcast on 19 July] trenchantly touches on the violent protester-police clashes at a shopping mall in Sha Tin on 14 July. Ho-chi is completely frank: When I was working on the script I had to remind myself that protesters had thrown things down at the police from the galleries surrounding the atrium of the shopping mall and we could not ignore the fact that these were forms of violent resistance; if we did so we would err on the side of partiality. [Equally, we had to point out that] Before that policeman’s finger was bitten, he’d been using his other fingers to gouge the eye of the protester who bit him: our account had to reflect both sides of the story.
Initially, there were reports that the policeman who had used a ‘straight-arm takedown’ on a protester had been a child star and Ho-chi considered that they should somehow include it in the skit but, in the end, since they were unable to verify the story the producer suggested they drop it. Ho-chi readily agreed:
‘We are a public media company, and we represent a particular stance. This kind of attention to detail and editorial care is of crucial importance at times of crisis like the present.’
森哥強調，每一集也嚴謹把關。在剛過去一集「We Connect」，他們提及7月14 日沙田衝突一事。豪仔坦言，寫稿時也提醒自己，當日有示威者高空擲物，不能省去示威者暴力反抗一事，否則變得偏頗；也有警員被咬手指之前，曾挖示威者的眼睛，他認為兩方面的事實也需呈現。
Social Therapists: Letting Hong Kong Take a Breath
Since June this year, many people have been feeling increasingly anxious and distressed. Brother Sum recently encountered a viewer who said they were feeling depressed and anxious but felt some relief when watching Headliner, although they added: ‘I was not only laughing as I watched, I also felt like crying.’ They hoped they would keep up the good work. Brother Sum was touched and said that Headliner was akin to the Lennon Walls which gave an outlet, a form of therapy for the public. They had ended up providing a kind of therapy:
‘Audiences get a feeling of relief from watching our shows. When we make fun of someone or other, saying what so many people are feeling, they have a sense of relief.’
Ho-chi adds: ‘It is as though we are saying what people are feeling deep inside.’ He recalls that when he put on a Warrant that was controversial, and when playing the Generalissimo and his Aide-de-Camp, all of the dialogue was spoken on behalf of Hong Kong people: ‘Did they really say this before they set out? Why don’t they display the warrants? Why not all of them?’ Or, in the episode titled, ‘Mother and Father Officials who love their People Like their Children’, the Dowager Empress [played by Ng Chi Sum] was representing Carrie Lam being interviewed by TVB when she shed tears supposedly out of concern for the students, even though it was a manifestly insincere performance; she doesn’t give a damn about Young Hong Kong.
Keep On Keeping On
‘Luckily for us, you can express what we are feeling and thinking’ — these are words that a viewer shared with the makers of Headliner, and Ho-chi very much takes them to heart. When we ask if there has been pressure on the TV station from ‘upstairs’ the Headliner team responds that they frankly have no idea. They are, however, aware that sooner or later their ‘historical duty’ will most probably be terminated without notice. Anyway, they know that, sooner or later, they’ll have to hand the baton on to others. ‘Let’s just make one episode of Headliner at a time and see how that goes’, Brother Sum constantly reminds them. Ho-chi adds that it wouldn’t really matter if they were replaced by others, as long as the style and spirit of the show is maintained. The most important thing is that Hong Kong enjoys freedom of expression and people can still speak out. As Brother Sum emphasises, Headliner is just like a slapstick onscreen version of a political caricature or cartoon:
‘As long as satirical political cartoons are still permitted, it doesn’t really matter who makes them. They’re an expression of freedom, so nothing should be off limits.’
Headliner Broadcast Schedule:
- Fridays 6:00pm on TVB Jade
- Fridays 8:00pm on RTHK Channel 31/31A
- Episodes simultaneously available online at: tv.rthk.hk and RTHK Screen
- 星期五 6pm 無綫電視翡翠台
- 星期五 8pm 港台電視31/ 31A
- 港台網站tv.rthk.hk、流動程式RTHK Screen同步播放並提供節目重溫。