Hong Kong: Asia's Hollywood

World's third-largest production center is unruffled by '97 transfer to China. ENTERTAINMENT INDUSTRY

EVERYONE here is wondering what changes China's takeover of Hong Kong in 1997 will bring. The thriving film and television industry are banking on the likelihood that their business will keep expanding. Statistics show 97 percent of Hong Kong residents own at least one TV set. Also the number of cinemas here has been increasing - from 133 in 1988 to 152 now, and they're still building. Mostly containing 400 to 500 seats, these movie theaters have become a favorite leisure center for Hong Kong residents.

When you view the island from Kowloon at night, the slender skyscrapers beyond the business area add to the patchwork of lights. But if you look at the same scene in the daytime, you see a jumble of antennas jutting out from those pencil-slim high-rises, most of which are government-sponsored low-cost housing.

The apartments, 20 feet square, house five people, and most contain at least one TV set, some a VCR. The preference of viewers here is for Hong Kong-produced programs in Cantonese. Many of these residents will remain on the island after '97, for they haven't the funds to go elsewhere if they wanted to.

Russell Cawthorne, vice-president of Golden Harvest, a giant in the film industry in Asia, estimates, ``The Russians are the No. 1 movie fans, with Hong Kong and India tied for second place.''

What is beyond guesswork is that this city has the third largest film industry in the world, after the United States and India. Although TV-watching is at the highest level ever here, moviegoing dropped slightly last year, with films from overseas being effected the most.

Since its founding 21 years ago, Golden Harvest has had its share of hits - the Bruce Lee films and recently ``Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,'' which brought in over $130 million.

Currently Golden Harvest is producing a ``Ninja'' sequel, subtitled, ``The Secret of the Ooze,'' in Wilmington, N.C. Interestingly, ``Ninja'' was an enormous hit overseas, but in Hong Kong the reaction was mild.

``We make motion pictures for international release for theatrical, television, cable, video, and satellite distribution,'' Mr. Cawthorne explained when I visited the studio in Hong Kong.

``Through the years, American audiences have been familiar with our motion pictures - Tom Selleck in `High Road to China,' Burt Reynolds in `Cannonball I and II,' Amy Irving in `Show of Force,' and of course `Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.'

``But Asians like to see Hong Kong-made films, with Asian actors speaking Cantonese. There's a tremendous market in Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Thailand, Taiwan, the Philippines, and maybe in the future, China.''

Golden Harvest has developed some Asian superstars like Jackie Chan, who, early in his career, was dubbed the next Bruce Lee. Today, he stars in, co-writes, choreographs the martial arts for, and produces his own films. Mr. Chan is justifiably proud he's never made a picture that didn't make money in the Pacific Rim.

Another star, Michael Hui, is called Hong Kong's answer to Woody Allen. ``His initial hit was `Mr. Boo, The Private Eyes,' a comedy in which he played a detective,'' Cawthorne says. ``Raymond Chow, who started Golden Harvest 21 years ago and now is chairman, wanted the Japanese to play the movie. It was a hard sell. Chow finally convinced them to try it and volunteered to dub it in Japanese, so they would understand the humor. The Tokyo execs didn't want it dubbed; they'd run it in Cantonese, with Japanese subtitles.

``They compromised and ran both versions. Of course, the Cantonese version was the hit,'' Cawthorne admits, ``and we learned the execs on the ground floor knew their business.''

Raymond Chow is an influential figure in the film world of Asia. He worked for years for Sir Run Run Shaw, a giant force in films and TV. In the '70s, when television was eclipsing the movies, Shaw decided to follow Hollywood and cut back on production. At one point they were going to lease the studio to a US producer who wanted to do a TV series called ``Hong Kong 5-O.'' The deal fell through; the producer took the production to Honolulu and renamed it ``Hawaii 5-O''; and Chow went into production for himself.

THE Shaw brothers operate the largest production facility among commercial TV stations in Asia. Their studio and outdoor sets in Clearwater Bay in the South China Sea are headed by the legendary Sir Run Run Shaw. Their TV company, Television Broadcasts Ltd., is the territory's dominant station.

As an executive confirmed, ``TVB is one of the world's largest producers and distributors of TV programs. We produce 5,000 hours of original programming yearly, achieving a market share of approximately 80 percent of prime-time viewership.''

The other TV company in Hong Kong - Asia/TV - is headed by Selina Chow. As CEO of ATV, she explains, ``We operate two channels, one in Chinese, the other in English.''

Ms. Chow looked calm and collected, even though she had braved the 5 p.m. traffic to come to the studio for our chat. Her schedule has to be exact, since she is also an active member of the legislature here.

``I have been in TV 20 years,'' she told me. ``I have seen television grow until today it has almost total penetration. It has become the most powerful medium in Hong Kong.

``Our Chinese channel is in Cantonese. We do our own documentaries, news, dramas, and educational features. Both major TV [give] at least four hours of educational and government service.

``On the English channel, we buy many shows from the US. You can see `L.A. Law' and `thirtysomething' on ATV, as well as motion pictures like `Back to the Future.' We do buy some from the United Kingdom, including a soap series.''

LIKE Golden Harvest's Raymond Chow, she too got her start with Sir Run Run Shaw. She worked for TVB for nine years.

With Hong Kong's 6 million people, 98 percent of whom speak Cantonese, there is plenty of room for more film and TV companies. In the last decade, 3,400 locally made movies were released in the territory, with a revenue topping $1 billion (HK) in currency.

Before 1997 rolls around, the tourism and film industries seem determined to bring more overseas producers to the territory. With the government officially transferring from London to Beijing, the drive for short-term projects and long-term profits has become dominant.

Hong Kong is developing a parade of Asian stars who are becoming well known in the Pacific Rim countries. There is also a growing list of small filmmakers making an impact in the TV and movie fields. Last year, the new kid on the block was Hong Kong Cable Communications, the city's first cable-TV company.

Just around the corner is satellite television, with HK-based HutchVision developing plans to send its signal to 2.5 billion people in 35 countries.

The business skyline here is dominated by I.M. Pei's architectural triumph, a new headquarters for the Bank of China, which rises over the city. At 72 stories, it is the tallest and most up-to-date building on the island.

Its presence seems to set the scene for the Chinese takeover, but its glass and metal fa,cade also signals that China that has stepped into the 21st century, at least architecturally.

Only time will tell if the Chinese will give the TV, movie, and cable industries the same freedom and challenge they now enjoy.

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