Can Chinese TV shows recapture their former glory in SE. Asia?

By Huang Tingting Source:Global Times Published: 2016/8/22 19:18:39

Scenes from The Happy Life of Jintailang and The Journey of Flower (top) Photos: IC

Scenes from The Happy Life of Jintailang and The Journey of Flower (top) Photos: IC

For Chinese TV producers, the late 1980s throughout the 1990s was definitely a time to be remembered as Chinese TV dramas swept across Southeast Asian countries to sensational ratings. The Princess Pearl series in particular broke records in Asia while many others topped the region's most-watched list.

Though data about viewership numbers from that time is lacking, many living in the region can still recall the days when the influence of Chinese TV dramas was huge.

"The Condor Heroes was super popular during the 1990s, so popular that kids were using plastic Chinese swords to fight each other," posted Tia Suksomrat, a self-described Bangkok citizen, on question-and-answer website Quora under the question "Are Chinese pseudo-historical dramas popular in other Southeast Asian countries other than Vietnam?"

Decades later, the success of The Legend of Zhenhuan and 2015 hit Nirvana in Fire, as well as the airing of the Burmese version of The Happy Life of Jintailang in Asian countries have given people the impression that Chinese TV dramas are becoming popular once again.

However, while data from the Beijing Center of International Copyrights Exchange shows Southeast Asian countries remain the major importers of Chinese mainland TV dramas, it's still too early to jump to the conclusion that "Chinese TV dramas have 'conquered' TV screens overseas," as the titles of some online news outlets seem to suggest.

"The Chinese TV drama that many Thai people watch most today is still 1993's Justice Bao," Vit, a Chinese citizen working in Thailand, told the Global Times on August 15.

Adapting to the local market

"The 1990s are considered the golden age of Chinese TV dramas in Southeast Asia," Zhou Xing, a professor at the School of Art and Communication at Beijing Normal University, told the Global Times.

"However, there is little data that allows us to see how popular these shows have been in recent years."

As to the claim by news articles that "two of the five most watched TV dramas on ZingTV, one of Vietnam's largest online streaming platforms, are produced by China," that certainly doesn't seem to be the case anymore.

Clicking into ZingTV, apart from local programing the list of most popular TV series is populated by shows from countries such as South Korea, Thailand and India, while only a few, such as Nirvana in Fire and Translator, were made in China.

"In the 1990s, Chinese dramas (mostly period dramas) were all the rage in Vietnam," wrote another Quora user Dzung Tran.

"Starting in the early 2000s, South Korea got everyone hooked on their version of dramas featuring doll-like actors and actresses and proven addictive recipes."

For Chinese TV dramas targeting the Southeast Asian market, competition from South Korea and Thailand was just one of the many challenges they have had to face. Localization is also an important aspect that can't be neglected, even in a region that is said to "share similar cultures."

"It's important that we see to it that our TV dramas won't offend local audiences," said Zhou.

"Therefore, there are things we need to keep in mind that should be checked before broadcast, such as making sure the subtitles have been properly translated or whether content might be against the country's religious practices."

Wu Hengcan, a counselor with the Chinese Film Association of Malaysia, agreed that localization of imported Chinese TV dramas is important in a 2014 interview with overseas Chinese-language newspaper World Journal, "Subtitles in the local language are definitely needed while dubbing is not a must."

However, for many Vietnamese not only is dubbing a must, making local adaptations of Chinese TV shows is also important as well. From 2014's The Empress of China to the 2015 hit The Journey of Flower, Vietnam has remade a number of Chinese TV series into what Chinese netizens have called "weird-looking"or "too localized" adaptations.

Its remake of Princess Pearl, which is supposed to take place during the early Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), features its princes and princesses taking selfies with smartphones.

While these adaptations have been considered "totally unacceptable" for Chinese audiences, local audiences seem to love them.

"With growing cultural awareness, Vietnam is trying to shrug off China's influence by making their own versions of shows instead of broadcasting the originals," Zhou said.

"It's just natural for Vietnam to be standoffish when it comes to Chinese dramas during politically sensitive periods," Zhou added, referring to the suspended broadcast of Chinese series Shanghai Bund on one of Vietnam's provincial TV platforms this July after its main actor Huang Xiaoming voiced support for China on the South China Sea issue on social media.

Focus on home

In 2014, China's 1986 version of Journey to the West was rebroadcast on Myanmar TV as Liu Xiaolingtong, the actor who played the role of the Monkey King in the series, was visiting the country.

The most popular Chinese TV hits in Southeast Asia have always been period dramas. 

"Period dramas are less political," Wu pointed out.

While popular, Zhou doesn't view the export of Chinese period dramas in recent years as "a success," since he feels that they don't have as much social impact as dramas set in modern times. 

"Just look at the most-watched South Korea and US dramas in our country, most of these are telling modern stories."

"The majority of Chinese TV drama lovers in that region are overseas Chinese anyway," Zhou said when asked where Chinese TV dramas should head in the future.

"Therefore, instead of tailoring TV series to satisfy overseas appetites, it's more effective to focus on the home market and try to make episodes based on stories that can reflect the lives of modern Chinese rather than ancient fantasies," said Zhou.


Newspaper headline: Turning the tide

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