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Hong Kong TV Drama Plays Out Uneasy Ties With China

Gerry Mullany
Hong Kong, China Wanchai District
Patrick Escudero | | Getty Images

In Hong Kong, the tensions between residents and mainland Chinese visitors dominate the headlines of the city's papers, with mainlanders blamed for a shortage of school slots, bad manners in stores and a hypercharged property market.

So it should come as little surprise that a television show would come along to tap into these anxieties and, perhaps in a gift to the show's producers, also draw the attention of mainland censors.

"Inbound Troubles" tells the story of two cousins — one from Hong Kong and the other from the mainland — and the tensions in a city whose enviable wealth increasingly rests on a flood of mainland visitors who nevertheless draw scorn for lavish spending and, some say, boorish ways.

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In the show, the cousin from mainland China is shown littering, running red lights and parking illegally, while the one from Hong Kong makes his living with a travel agency that specializes in encouraging new arrivals from the mainland to part with more of their cash.

The TVB network show, which has just ended its month-long run, was aired as the city's leadership struggled to deal in Whack-A-Mole fashion with the latest supposed peril attributed to mainlanders: a shortage of baby formula said to have been caused by the hoarding of supplies by mainland Chinese who have crossed the border into Hong Kong (apparently out of fear of tainted supplies in China).

Some Hong Kong residents have become so agitated about the formula milk problem that they have asked the U.S. president, Barack Obama, to intervene, using a petition on the White House Web site titled, "Baby hunger outbreak in Hong Kong, international aid requested."

The petition has already drawn 23,000 signatures.

The show's candid depictions of mainland-Hong Kong relations — one scene focuses on the formula shortage — have drawn hundreds of complaints to Hong Kong regulators from viewers upset at things like its portrayals of mainlanders and its depiction of the Hong Kong's tourism industry as predatory. And Chinese officials censored trailers for the program on the mainland, where viewers could see it on TVB's overseas channel or through video streaming.

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China also did some trimming of the version shown on the mainland, once the program began airing there. It snipped out a depiction of a protest outside a Hong Kong clothing store, a scene apparently based on a demonstration against a Dolce & Gabbana store that let free-spending mainlanders photograph merchandise while banning Hong Kong residents from doing the same.

Still, the show clearly struck a nerve, becoming the TVB channel's highest-rated drama so far this year.

To some, the tensions captured in the show are a natural outgrowth of fears about Beijing's increasing influence in Hong Kong, a former British colony that retained considerable legal autonomy and civil rights after it was handed back to China in 1997.

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"Politically, more and more Hong Kongers resent the fact that Beijing is tightening its control over Hong Kong's political development," Willy Lam, a scholar on Chinese history and politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, wrote in an e-mail.

He added that the current leader of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, "is seen as a yes-man chief executive bowing to every instruction from the mainland authorities."

"There is a common feeling that fat cat mainlanders are driving up real estate prices," he said. "You have witnessed of course the drama over formula milk powder."

Although polls show that an increasing number of Hong Kong residents hold pessimistic views about the city's future and Hong Kong-mainland relations, in "Inbound Troubles" the two cousins gradually acclimate to each other, with the one from the mainland adapting to local ways.

Viewers say they appreciate the show's realistic depictions of the shifting social dynamics of Hong Kong and the growing impact of mainland China and its visitors on the city.

"I have a few bad experiences with mainlanders — most of them have to do with them jumping queues or being rude," said Tai Wing-yi, a student at Hong Kong Baptist University. "But not all are like that. Some of my classmates are from the mainland, and they are nice to be around, and they work hard. In fact, they are the ones who contribute more than the locals in group projects."

"The show highlighted the tension between mainland Chinese and locals in a funny way, and got the message across in a light-hearted manner," she said.

Chen Min, a mainland journalist who has visited Hong Kong many times, said that his social circle in the city included many more-educated and better-off local residents, who were usually polite, but that not all encounters were so smooth.

"Occasionally you run into problems that you didn't encounter before," he said. "Like a taxi driver who refuses to take you because you speak Mandarin, although you're holding a map and address in Chinese."

On another occasion, Mr. Chen said, he was lugging a heavy suitcase to a taxi. "The driver joked, 'Carrying cash to buy an apartment?"'

The popularity of the show — there is already talk of a movie — suggests that it could pave the way for treatments with similar themes, much as, in the United States, "All in the Family" started a subgenre of politically tinged situation comedies during the turbulence of the Vietnam War.

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In an opinion piece in Global Times, a populist mainland newspaper, Wendy Wang, a freelance writer from Shanghai, noted that mainlanders have long been derided on Hong Kong television, with men often portrayed as mobsters and women as flirty or worse.

But after the 1997 return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule, "mainlanders' characters grew wealthier but not wiser," she wrote.