With shows like The Empress (武媚娘) and Journey to the West (西游记), much of China’s television spins yarn into fantastic renditions of ancient culture and myth, but with Hakka Sisters, a radical 25-episode series that premiered on HKTV in December, current events and pop culture lead the way. Produced two years ago, the show, which follows a sister on each side of the Hong Kong border embroiled in love, hatred and cultural differences, is taking full advantage of recent flare ups of cross-border tension between Hong Kongers and Mainlanders. And it puts Dongguan at the center of the affair.
In early-1970’s rural Dongguan, both girls grew up happily in an ethnic-minority Hakka family until an opportunity for one to live in Hong Kong appeared. Misunderstanding and resentment rose between the two, while ten years have passed. They’ve barely kept in touch—one in Dongguan, one in Hong Kong. When they reunite, the story revolves around their family and romantic relationships.
This is a tale of two sisters in two cities, but the plot and its situations are manifested by subtle changes between mainland China and Hong Kong. Once an undeniably dominant financial center, today almost two decades after reverting to Chinese rule, Hong Kong is becoming a city competing with Shanghai and Beijing.
The local stereotype of Hong Kongers, represented in the show by younger sister Anson (Maggie Cheung Ho Yee) who works for a prestigious public relations consultancy, is a prideful, educated sophisticate that despises those who are not like her, especially mainlanders. She worries they will lose their identity in a wave of “mainland-ization.”
On the other hand, her older sister Liang Meitian (Prudence Liew) represents a Chinese upper-class and its conventional values of using toughness and social savvy in ethically gray areas for gaining success and riches. In her innermost mind an envious streak sheds contempt for her people across the border, where she sees a singular people divided by a twofold political system.
This show is by no means what you would expect. Its boldness covers not only the frail humanity of a population in flux, but also momentous occasions. Waves of illegal border crossings in the 80’s; the 1997 transfer of Hong Kong from British rule; and sensitive events like elections, public assembly, and collisions between Hong Kongers and mainlanders, are also to be seen, if not repeatedly.
Given the ongoing atmosphere since last October, the show provides honest and vivid insight into the matters of its kind. One of the reasons they also set the show in Dongguan is that it’s one of the fastest growing cities in China, and its accumulation of wealth has begun to establish influence on Hong Kong, as China has as a whole.
The social critiques shed light on imperfections on either side. In the story it reveals typical but illegal means by which some mainland people conduct business and gain wealth, and issues with local governance, which we see happening every day in real life. It also blasts Hong Kongers heavily for their arrogance and self-righteousness. Unbiased and objective are the compliments I would give to the show.
The show is shot in Hong Kong, and Dongguan’s Qingxi and Fenggang Towns, two towns in Dongguan where Hakka people have populated densely. Viewers will see scenes reflecting a true to life depiction of their lifestyle.
But this is not the typical Hong Kong TV series that I, a Guangdonger, have been watching for 20 years. I believe the show—bold and radical as I would describe it—is changing the face of HKTV. Times are different, so are their minds. Only by acknowledging and understanding the conflicts can society be able to reconcile and move forward. The show may have provided the cure, maybe not, but for anyone who has been watching TVB series, seeing this show is an eye opening experience.
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