Hong Kong pop culture

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Mr Tall feels the need to explain Hong Kong popular culture, but he is afraid. It is very hard for him to know where to start on this subject.

Now, we Americans know about stupid celebrities and mindless television. We've tasted drivel, and we know that we like it. Those of us under 50 or so have been immersed in a pop culture whose idiocy knows no lower limits -- a culture that has produced Howdy-Doodie, Scooby-Doo and Mr Magoo. We even rhyme bad!

So I am not a huge fan of popular culture in general. I have not, however, completely escaped acquiring some characteristics of pop-cultural geekdom. For example, I like the Simpsons very much. No, wait -- if Mrs Tall reads this, she will chastise me severely for engaging in such irresponsible understatement. Let's therefore rephrase: I am at least mildly obsessed with the Simpsons. I see it as my one tangible link back to American pop culture. My knowledge of other American TV shows and pop musicians and so on is, however, almost non-existent. I've been in Hong Kong a long, long time -- 12 years, and counting -- which is long enough to fall very far behind my American peers.

But this cultural void has not been filled by Hong Kong's own brands.

It's not to say that nothing good comes out of the HK pop-culture machine. Hong Kong film studios have produced some great stuff: the 'Once Upon a Time in China' series, for example, is electric at times, and more recently 'In the Mood for Love' was a fine film.

But when we descend to the day-to-day world of TVB Jade and ATV home, the Chinese-language avatars of the only two TV stations in Hong Kong, our road gets much, much steeper -- downward, that is.

A good recent example is the Miss Hong Kong contest. Usually, the degree to which a country's people care about a national beauty contest is a reliable indicator of its stage of economic development. In industrialized countries, only a small fraction of people takes beauty contests seriously. In many third-world countries, however, they're no laughing matter. Contestants who represent their countries well at 'Miss World' or 'Miss Universe' pageants can become household names.

'Miss Hong Kong' manages to combine the worst of these two worlds. On one hand, the whole event is cheesy and demeaning. The contestants are treated like imbecilic children in bikinis, which nevertheless seems appropriate in a disturbing number of cases. On the other hand, everybody here watches it, and it's all over the newspapers and magazines for weeks. The contest is even split into two segments so it can be presented on two evenings, so you can't say it's not being taken seriously on some level.

A related phenomenon is the annual advance of the Miss Hong Kong First Runner Up into the upper echelons of Hong Kong celebrity. For some reason, if you want to get famous in Hong Kong -- or at least infamous -- it's best to come in second. There are some exceptions, winners such as Maggie Cheung and Anita Yuen who have done very well, but generally it's Miss Tears of Frustration, Resentment and Disappointment who cashes in big.

And how does she do that? Well, often she ends up on TV or in the movies. But definitely, undoubtedly, as surely as the harbor stinks -- she will sing. The hardest adjustment the westerner must make to Hong Kong pop culture is accepting the fact that all Hong Kong celebrities sing in public, whether they can or, as is mostly the case, cannot. One constant of Hong Kong prime-time TV is the continuing popularity of garish, endless, tedious variety shows on which Hong Kong's glitterati appear and -- you knew this was coming -- sing. After a few minutes of this, I know how the Psalmist feels: Why do the wicked prosper, O Lord? Surely some smiting is in order?

That Biblical interlude completed, we can sum up: the depths Hong Kong pop culture are indeed pretty low, but not much lower than in many other places. In fact, give me a Miss Hong Kong loser over Britney Spears any day -- just don't let her sing. Actually, don't let either of them.