Viral Alarm & The Best China
On 19 May 2020, Radio Television Hong Kong 香港電台, the city’s public broadcaster announced that the popular satirical political skit show Headliner 頭條新聞 would go into ‘temporary recess’ after having been officially reprimanded for mocking the police in an episode featuring the actor (and former policeman) Wong Hei (王喜, 1967-) broadcast on 14 February 2020.
As we noted in July 2019, when we introduced Headliner as part of our series ‘Hong Kong Apostasy‘, this topical show has for thirty years reported on, analysed and mocked the politics of the day. Previously, the official website of RTHK had celebrated the fact that:
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.
— Radio Television Hong Kong
trans. G.R. Barmé
We also observed that:
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.
Here we celebrate Headliner by offering a skit broadcast shortly after RTHK announced that the show would go on ‘furlough’. ‘The Mandela Effect’ features the comic duo — Ho-chi 豪仔, a canny Palace Eunuch played by the writer Tsang Chi-ho (曾志豪, 1977-), and the scheming Dowager Empress 太后 played by the veteran broadcaster Ng Chi Sum (吳志森, 1958-).
We are grateful to Tsang Chi-ho for his support and encouragement.
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
24 May 2020
For the controversial skit, deleted from the RTVHK Headliner site, see:
- 《頭條新聞》, 第1集——無品芝麻官 (於2020年4月14日播放), YouTube, 20 April 2020, from minute 10:45 to 13:40, in Cantonese with subtitles in Standard Chinese
On the Dowager Empress
Abdicating the Throne
22 May 2020
- Tsang Chi-ho 曾志豪 and Ng Chi Sam 吳志森 (RTHK), ‘Hong Kong Headliner — Kill Bill’, China Heritage, 14 July 2019
- Wong Wing-sum 黃泳欣, ‘Hong Kong Headliner Makes Headlines’, China Heritage, 24 July 2019
- ‘志森與志豪’, YouTube
- 王喜, ‘忠__勇毅離職演說’, YouTube, 20 May 2020
- 曾志豪, ‘小豪子留守決定’, ‘志森與志豪’, YouTube, 21 May 2020
The Mandela Effect
Tsang Chi-ho & Ng Chi-sum
Hong Kong Headliner 2020
Episode 15, Broadcast on 22 May 2020
Translated by Geremie R. Barmé
Dowager (tearing pages from a calendar): Fantastic. Only four weeks until we’ll be on permanent holiday.
Dowager (holding the torn pages): Eunuch, where’s the garbage bin? The one that was here.
Eunuch: It’s been removed.
Dowager: What do you mean, removed? Where will Our Garbage go in the future?
Eunuch: Dowager, as Nelson Mandela said: ‘Toilet paper and underwear are all valuable.’ I think you should try and treasure them now.
[Note: The quotation here comes from From Beijing With Love 國產凌凌, a popular 1994 spoof on a James Bond movie directed by Stephen Chow, see below. The film makes numerous satirical references to Mainland life and politics, including the 4 June 1989 Beijing Massacre.]
Dowager: I’m speechless!
Eunuch: Why be downcast?
Dowager: Because Mandela never said any such thing. I’m certain that it was [the actor-director] Stephen Chow.
Eunuch: No, it wasn’t; maybe it was [that other actor] Ng Man Tat.
Dowager: Really? Mandela never really said: ‘The collapse of education is a collapse of a nation’?
[Note: On 19 May, Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of Hong Kong, erroneously attributed this line to Nelson Mandela when defending her government’s increasingly interventionist approach to education. The latest controversy surrounding high-school education — a long-term sticking point both for the Communists — focussed on a ‘biased’ history exam paper question included in the 2020 Diploma of Secondary Education exam that asked candidates whether they agreed with the view that Japan did more good than harm to China from 1900 to 1945.]
Eunuch: Dowager, it doesn’t matter who said it, what’s important is who is doing the destroying.
Dowager: Read out the questions in the latest exam paper for me, Eunuch.
Eunuch: ‘Who was sentenced to life in prison for violent resistance and endangering the state?’
Dowager: The Black Shirts! [Note: a term for Hong Kong protesters whose trademark uniform features black T-shirts, pants and footwear.]
Eunuch: Wrong. It was Nelson Mandela!
Dowager: Not him again! Law breakers must be arrested.
Eunuch: Question two: ‘Who demanded that a specialist investigation be carried out by an independent body?’
Dowager: The Black Shirts, again!
Eunuch: Wrong! It was also Nelson Mandela. He declared that a truth and reconciliation commission should be set up [in 1995].
Dowager: Damn. Mandela is the answer to every question. But, he was black, not a black shirt. Don’t you have any other answers for me? We need to balance things out.
Eunuch: I do indeed. So, let me ask you this: Who were the ones wearing yellow headgear at the time of the yellow headgear uprising?
[Note: 黃巾起義 is a play on words. The Yellow Turban Uprising occurred in the Tang dynasty and is regarded as a ‘progressive’ political movement in the official Party version of Chinese history; Hong Kong protesters wear yellow hardhats which, along with black T-shirts, symbolise resistance to the Beijing-controlled government.]
Dowager: It was definitely the Black Shirts! This time I’m sure I’ve got it right, that’s because Elder Sister gave that as the correct answer herself.
[Note: ‘Elder Sister’ is a reference to Regina Ip (Lau Suk-yee 葉劉淑儀), the first woman to be appointed the Secretary for Security and, since 2003, a strong advocate favouring national security legislation to implement Hong Kong Basic Law Article 23. The long-frustrated legislation would eventually be imposed by Beijing. Ip is said to harbour an ambition to head the Hong Kong government.]
Eunuch: Wrong yet again!
Dowager: Now, you’re not going to tell me that Mandela wore a yellow turban as well? I want to watch another channel. I’ve had enough of this.
Eunuch: Dowager — according to the Mainland definition the Yellow Turbans were a righteous peasant uprising.
Dowager: Then who the heck came up with these ridiculous exam questions? We must fire them and exam questions like that have to be struck from the books.
Eunuch: Dowager, before I carry out your instructions just answer one more question. What do Nelson Mandela and the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ governance framework have in common?
Dowager: Some people might think they’ve seen ‘One Country, Two Systems’ in operation, but they were just confounded by the ‘Mandela Effect’.
[Note: The Mandela Effect refers to a psychological effect, one in which large numbers of people believe something existed or happened when, in fact, it is a fiction.]
- 《頭條新聞》, 第15集——曼德拉, RTHK, 2020年5月22日, in Cantonese with subtitles in Standard Chinese, from minute 5:22 to 7:20; or,
- 《頭條新聞》, 第15集——曼德拉, YouTube, 2020年5月22
Other Material Related to the Cancellation of Hong Kong Headliner:
- Hong Kong Toolbar, ‘頭條新聞壽終正寢?’, 《商業電台》, YouTube, 21 May 2020 (Tsang Chi-ho and Wong Hei discuss the official rebuke of RTHK, in Cantonese)
- ‘王喜《驚訊》腰斬後首集《頭條新聞》諷警內容比例大縮水’,《蘋果日報》，22 May 2020
- 區家麟, ‘批鬥香港電台’, 《蘋果日報》，23 May 2020
If this is the best of possible worlds, what then are the others?
— Voltaire, Candide
Translated by Geremie R. Barmé
‘Tragedy shows how what is worthwhile in life is shattered, comedy shows how what is worthless is torn to pieces.’ [— trans. Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang]
It’s nearly a century since Lu Xun offered this definition [in February 1925]. He added: ‘satire is a streamlined version of comedy.’
Tragedy is premised on what is valuable in life, while comedy is based on that which is presumed to hold no value. The sense of tragic loss and despair is generated by a sense of devastation and destruction; while the ‘worthless’, when revealed for what it is, appears to be comic. The key to tragedy and comedy is not in the final outcome, it’s a matter of being able to see things from a completely different angle.
In real life, the funny and the heartbreaking are often, to an extent, not all that different from each other. Franz Kafka transformed the horrors of the modern world into a sense of dread and lurking terror, while Fyodor Dostoevsky treated all human dramas and tragedies as existentially absurd. Over the past year it has been very hard to find anything that could elicit a laugh as we have witnessed the devastation of all that is of true value here in Hong Kong.
And that’s why I know that the friends at Hong Kong Headliner have faced such a daunting task over the past twelve months. Although it’s no great surprise, they have just been handed a death sentence. An administration that is at the beck and call of the totalitarian power in Beijing could not possibly tolerate satire in the long run; power-holders are notoriously humourless. Lin Yutang, the man who devised ‘幽默 yoūmò’ as the Chinese equivalent for the English term ‘humour’ observed that humour comes from a place of confidence and tolerance.
[Note: Lin Yutang wrote: ‘Only when one’s personality is naturally developed and given full play can one achieve a high-mindedness and become broad-minded and tolerant toward life with a ‘‘smile out of understanding-of the-heart/mind’’.’]
Hypersensitive, recalcitrant, pusillanimous types who are obsessed with conspiracy theories have tremendous difficulty in appreciating humour. The odious Hong Kong administration that has long wanted to close Headliner down is the epitome of what Lin Yutang was talking about, for it is possessed of all of those qualities that mean it is absolutely bereft of humour.
Over the decades Hong Kong has never suffered from a dearth of essays and creative works satirising the follies of the day or politics. During the maelstrom of the 1960s, when the Mainland was awash in blood during the Cultural Revolution years and Hong Kong was dealing with riots stage-managed by pro-Beijing Leftists, the cartoon humour of Yim Yee King [Ah Chong 阿蟲] flourished as did ‘the absurdities’ or satirical feuilleton of Sum So [Ko Hung 高雄]. Following Sum So’s death [in 1981], Hah Kung, ‘the Master of Mirth’, took over his absurdities column [in Ming Pao daily — although he was eventually cashiered by the owner Louis Cha for pointedly mocking Deng Xiaoping]. Hong Kong Economic Journal also published the ‘Drunken Discourses’ of Eastern Hedgerow. All of these creators were exemplars of biting social commentary and political satire.
[Note: For an example of Hah Kung’s style, see ‘The Legalisation of Rape’ in ‘The Nobility of Failure’, China Heritage, 14 August 2019].
In the 1980s, the local English-language station Pearl TV broadcast the BBC satires Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister. It was a sitcom about British bureaucracy that soon became something of a classic of political satire. One of the most famous lines [spoken by the character Sir Humphrey Appleby, after Otto von Bismarck] was:
‘First rule in politics: never believe anything until it’s officially denied.’
One of the themes of both series is the political truism that the best way to get the minister to agree to a proposal is for it to be: timely, simple, popular and inexpensive. Four other words are sure to kill off any policy which the minister may erroneously support, that it is: complicated, time-consuming, costly and controversial. The most efficacious way to make sure that the minister rejects a pet project is to tell him that it is ‘daring’. Now, while ‘controversial’ proposals may lose a few votes, one that is ‘daring’ could well lose the election.
1980年代，英國BBC播出電視處境劇《Yes Minister》和續集《Yes, Prime Minister》，香港明珠台也曾轉播。這套《是的，首相大人》劇集以嘲諷英國政壇各種現象為主題，成為經典。其中最著名的金句有：「政治第一定律：不要相信任何事，除非官方否認。」而貫串全劇思想的就是：有四個詞能讓大臣採納提案：快捷、簡單、時興、便宜。還有四個詞能讓提案被大臣否決：複雜、耗時、昂貴、爭議。要徹底排除大臣採納的可能性，就得說這個決定「有魄力」。「有爭議」只表示「會失去部份選票」，「有魄力」表示「會輸掉整個大選」！
In 1987, a comic ‘diary’ was published under the name Jim Hacker, the fictional cabinet minister in Yes, Minister. In 1991, a Chinese version titled We Obey, Minister: the Diary of Cabinet Minister Hacker appeared on the Mainland, translated by Cheng Hong, Premier Li Keqiang’s wife. A Hong Kong version by Nam Fung Chang titled simply Okay, Minister appeared with Chinese University Press in 1993.
RTHK broadcast the first series of Hong Kong Headliner in 1989. It’s more than possible that it was inspired by Yes, Minister. Be that as it may, Headliner has been a feature of Hong Kong life for the past three momentous decades. Over the years, the show’s creators have managed to find humour and to offer viewers comic release amidst and within the countless vicissitudes and disturbing developments that we have experienced.
Life is hard and societies are invariably prone to conflict. People are always dissatisfied with the politics of the day. But satirical skits are not news reports; one cannot demand that they be objective, judicious or balanced. That’s why they are such delightful confections: they exaggerate reality and thereby can reflect more truthfully the ever-changing concerns and sentiments of normal people.
Margaret Thatcher, the British prime minister at the time that Yes, Minister was created, said that it was her favorite TV program. It reflected reality in a unique fashion and that’s why even people in government thought they should take it seriously. They also knew that by watching a show like that people could vent their pent up frustrations by proxy.
Totalitarian politics does not permit of criticism, let alone can it tolerate satire. The power holders cannot understand that comedic exaggerations are often a true reflection how normal people really feel. Similarly, they fail to appreciate that satire is an outlet, a kind of social release valve that gives people a way of coping with their frustrations. They are also completely blind to the fact that, although they ban a TV show or forbid satirical sketches, they can’t shut down the way the people of our city are really thinking and feeling. In fact, all they will manage to achieve is to inflame passions even further and stoke the sense of outrage.
- 李怡, ‘封禁社會安全閥門’, 《蘋果日報》，2020年5月22日