Sibling rivalry

Sibling rivalry
Hakka Sisters stars Prudence Liew and Savio Tsang as a Chinese couple who have dealings with her estranged Hong Kong sister.

It's too soon to speak of a revolution in Hong Kong television, but the new Internet service HKTV gives me hope.

Since going live last month, it has been streaming bold, topical shows in a genre I think of as "non-TVB": notably, The Election, a political drama that unfolds around two chief executive elections in the near future, and Hakka Sisters, a tale of two siblings in two cities, Hong Kong and Dongguan, China, that takes a long, hard look at the cultural gap between them.

Frank and pungent, Hakka Sisters sees the apprehension of Hong Kongers, whose gleaming city is fading into a historical footnote right under their noses. (In Hong Kong, the show has been renamed a more resonant Not To Be A Hong Konger In The Next Life.)

More than a decade after reverting to Chinese rule, Hong Kong is turning into another mainland city that might soon be surpassed by Beijing and Shanghai.

Some Hong Kongers, such as public relations consultant Anson Leung (Maggie Cheung Ho Yee), bristle at menus that are written in simplified Chinese, not traditional, one more sign that their city is losing its identity in its chase for the mainland tourist dollar.

Others, such as her colleague Hill (Poon Chan Leung), wonder what will happen to Hong Kong if they all abandon it for opportunities in China.

But the show also looks at their predicament through the lens of history.

Not that long ago, Anson's uncle was an illegal immigrant, one of the Chinese who swam to Hong Kong - braving shark-infested waters with crude flotation devices such as rings of blown-up condoms - for a chance to score a Hong Kong identity card and make a better living.

Anson, who prides herself on her sophistication - on all that distance she has put between herself and the dirt of her birthplace, a village in Dongguan - hasn't been back home in decades. But she is enough of a realist to announce her roots in Dongguan, when she has to convince a new Chinese boss to let her handle a big project there, and to accept help from her estranged big sister, Dongguan restaurateur Liang Meitian (Prudence Liew, who is wonderful as a nosy, lip-curling Hakka woman who has moved out of the village but not shaken it off entirely).

The sisters have an unhappy history dating to their early years, when their mother chose to send the younger girl to Hong Kong on the older girl's visa.

Although Meitian is now somebody in Dongguan, with a business and a mansion, she still resents Anson's feeling of superiority.

The show neither takes sides nor gives either woman the upper hand, however.

Anson looks unassailable in Hong Kong.

She is the sort of bride who, when abandoned by a groom, empties a bottle of champagne into a toilet, goes to a gym and gets over him.

But in Dongguan, she seems naive.

She is shocked to learn her sister and brother-in-law (Savio Tsang) have rigged her property project to profit from it themselves. But Meitian isn't made the villainess.

It appears to puzzle her why she can't engineer a win-win situation for everyone and also rebuild her relationship with her sister.

Why can't she want both? The sisters stand for their cities too.

For all her outrage at her sister, Anson has to keep dealing with her for the sake of the project.

Their relationship - like that of their cities, maybe - is a mix of necessity, familiarity and contempt. They're family and they don't have to like it.

The year of SG50 - Singapore's 50th birthday - will be upon us and I'd like to strike a note of hope.

So I will have to talk about The Journey: Tumultuous Times, Channel 8's historical drama in commemoration of SG50, without quite talking about it.

Andie Chen and Shaun Chen are believable as an independence fighter and a gangster in 1950s Singapore, because they have the weariness of men who live in turbulent times.

Felicia Chin, too, is credible as a passionate teacher taking to the streets.

When I see them, I am able to hope for a better show: a drama that is less stagy and has less of the wooden, expository historical dialogue that turns to sawdust in most actors' mouths; a show that will be as bold and beautiful as that chapter in our history.


This article was first published on December 25, 2014.
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