Back in the heyday of Hong Kong movies, the city’s film stars and those groomed by the Hong Kong industry were among the biggest stars in Asia.
Now, facing the twin pressures of coronavirus’ impact on productions and performances and, for some, a cold shoulder from mainland Chinese audiences, many Hong Kong stars are becoming digital creators and entrepreneurs.
Not only have film and TV opportunities dried up, well-paid promotional gigs, such as ribbon-cutting ceremonies for shop openings and commercial launches at shopping malls, were called off throughout 2020.
Pop concerts were canceled due to strict social distancing measures in Hong Kong. In December, a concert by Hins Cheung caused a COVID-19 scare when four audience members and a show worker tested positive.
World tours taking in cities populated by Chinese-speaking communities had traditionally been a major source of income for Hong Kong entertainers, even for lesser-known starlets. But global travel restrictions have made these all but impossible.
While television productions are still happening in Hong Kong, only a handful of film projects went into production last year. And the city’s 163-day cinema closure caused release and production delays.
It was inevitable that entertainers would cultivate new opportunities online, says Winnie Tam, an entertainment publicist. “They need to find ways to maintain their exposure,” she said. Some top Hong Kong celebrities have even followed the mainland trend and are selling commercial goods online via live streaming.
Digitally-savvy younger performers are focusing on producing original content. Nearly every member of the 12-piece boy band Mirror, for example, operates his own YouTube channel and Instagram account, regularly uploading vlogs of their daily routines and interacting with their fans on live streams, in addition to promoting their musical and TV releases. Some have produced scripted mini-comedies and music gigs with other musicians. Others are selling fashion products they have designed.
Some more-established celebrities have became successful YouTubers. Remus Choy of male Canto-pop group Grasshopper shows off his cooking skills on his YouTube channel, and has accumulated over 100,000 subscribers since its launch last year. Stephen Chan, the former GM of Television Broadcasts and a radio show host, runs his own channel featuring short dramas, live music shows, celebrity interviews and political commentaries, and has amassed more than 125,000 followers. Singer-actor Ronald Cheng has more than 211,000 YouTube followers.
Some Hong Kong celebrities who have been banished from working in mainland China because of their political views are among the most active online. Actor Chapman To (“SDU: Sex Duties Unit,” “Infernal Affairs”) and singer-actor Denise Ho (Life Without Principle”) are examples. To’s “Lateshow” channel has more than 630,000 subscribers and he is expanding his channel to an online television platform. Ho runs a regular podcast interviewing folks from all walks of life on her channel with over 120,000 followers.
In addition to producing their own content, stars have been more open to making appearances on new media channels, Tam explains. Whizoo, Pomato, CapTV, Trial & Error and the Macau-based Manner are among the most popular among celebrities. “Shooting for these channels might take more time than giving interviews to traditional media, but these channels reach a younger audience,” she said.
The heavy reliance on digital devices amid the pandemic meant that celebrities were left with no choice but to find their audiences in cyberspace, said Agnes Lam, a journalism lecturer at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Young stars in particular. “They have to commercialize their private life,” Lam said.
A-listers previously shied away from appearing on the new media also have to adapt. Superstar actor-singer Andy Lau, who never had a social media channel, opened his first account on mainland China’s TikTok equivalent Douyin. He attracted 20 million followers within four days, before the platform downgraded him for watermarking his videos and including commercial links. Singer Eason Chan also fronted a live talk show in December to promote a new single.
But the most sophisticated player, according to Lam, is award-winning actor Chow Yun-fat. Chow does not have his own social media accounts or channels, but he remains a regular on people’s social media feeds. The veteran actor known as a hiking enthusiast who welcomes selfies with fans if they run into him on mountain trails. Selfies with Chow are among the most coveted items among netizens. “People play social media for Chow. He doesn’t have to manage his own account,” Lam says.