2020 / 2月
The Splendors of Hakka TV Drama
Chen Chun-fang /photos courtesy of Hakka TV /tr. by JR Lee
Shows from Hakka TV have been nominated for Best Television Series at the Golden Bell Awards every year since 2008. Hakka serial dramas cover a variety of topics from adaptations of Taiwanese literature to life and death, mental illness, and rural school closures. Over time, Hakka TV has improved on the choice of subject matter, the scriptwriting, and the casting, enabling one quality story after another to make their way onto the screen.
So why not set aside your preconceptions of Hakka culture, look past the language, and join us in watching these shows?
In October 2019, Hakka TV came out with the first drama in Taiwan to explore mental illness, called Light of Cloudy Day. Set in a psychiatric facility, this warm and powerful drama tells the story of patients, family, and medical personnel, and how they interact.
Transmitting positive energy through drama
The show has resonated with viewers so much that each time an episode airs, people leave emotional comments on the Light of Cloudy Day fan page saying how the show moved them to tears, or brought up some of their own memories. The screenwriter, Huang Jingtian, was once a nurse and has bipolar disorder, so she fully understands the stigma attached to mental disorders, as well as how patients label themselves. While she hopes her show can educate society on mental illness, she is more concerned with helping patients understand that having a mental illness is not because they are not good enough, nor is it retribution for doing something bad. She wants patients to instead rip off these negative labels and gain the courage to face their illness.
Most people believe mental illnesses stem from psychological problems, yet in addition to emotional factors such as stress and trauma, mental illness in fact may also be related to abnormalities in a person’s brain tissue. Depression, as an example, is caused by an imbalance in certain neurotransmitters; it is not an illness which can be cured by simply telling someone to think more positively. Thus, like any other illness, mental illness can be controlled by finding the cause and administering pharmacological and non-drug treatment.
Huang Kuei-hui, head of the program department at Hakka TV, says this drama aims to raise awareness of such illnesses. She also hopes viewers know that everyone will at some time have emotional difficulties that should be dealt with promptly, and that if you do get sick, you should see a doctor rather than ignoring it or believing in home remedies. As a trailer for the show says, “We can’t cut ourselves into a shape which conforms with the world’s expectations. Just keep walking forward and even a cloudy day will be a good day.” Life has its ups and downs. The goal is not to turn cloudy days into sunny days. It’s about giving the show’s viewers the strength to keep moving forward.
Hakka shows for all
With the recent revival of Taiwanese movies, both film budgets and remunerations have increased, so that TV stations have needed to offer higher pay to attract talented cast, thus raising production costs. Huang Kuei-hui says that when she took over the program department, it cost roughly NT$800,000 to produce one episode of a series, but in less a decade, that cost has increased to NT$2 million. With the budget unchanged, only one series can be produced per year nowadays, when two or three were possible in the past.
As Huang notes, in the past shows on Hakka TV used to focus on stories about “Hakka people and Hakka affairs,” portraying the struggles of the Hakka people in Taiwan. For example, in the 2007 drama The Story of Hsu Pang-hsing, actor James Wen plays the eponymous Hakka doctor, said to be “the best surgeon in Taiwan”; Hsu was also the founder of Meiho Senior High School and an avid promoter of baseball in Taiwan.
However, over time, this emphasis on extolling the achievements of Hakka people tended to confuse people into assuming Hakka TV dramas were only meant for Hakka viewers. To break this stereotype, the station began to center its shows on specific issues to get non-Hakka viewers interested in Hakka serial dramas. In the 2010 campus youth drama The Kite Soaring, a group of high-school dropouts encounter a teacher who uses unconventional teaching methods. The series attempts to relate more to viewers and get them to dip their toes in the dramas offered on Hakka TV.
For those who have never been exposed to Hakka-language drama series, Huang Kuei-hui recommends starting with Long Day’s Journey into Light, which is set in a funeral home and explores issues of life and death. Everyone has experienced the passing of a loved one, and the actors in the show perfectly portray how we might react when saying goodbye to someone close to us. “A rather therapeutic work of art, the show resonates with viewers by getting them to draw from their own experiences, and find some solace in the process.” Huang states that shows on Hakka TV may not garner a lot of attention on the first airing, but the high-quality material and strong cast help the shows stay fresh and popular years after their releases. For example, according to a data analysis from online video platforms, Long Day’s Journey into Light has remained the most popular show from Hakka TV since its first airing in 2015 and there are constantly new viewers watching it.
Breaking language barriers
Hakka TV prioritizes producing a quality show when casting characters, and so looks for actors who would best fit the role. Even if the actors are not versed in Hakka, as long as they are willing to accept the challenge, the station will hire a language coach to train them in Hakka pronunciation. The coach will also translate their lines into Hakka and record them sentence by sentence, once at a slow pace and once at a normal speed, so that the actors can memorize their lines before shooting begins. Once shooting commences, the coach will help the actors adjust their intonation to better match the role, and will be present on the set or on location to check that their pronunciation is correct. It’s no easy task for the actors to focus on both their lines and acting, so if it takes ten hours a day to shoot a show in Mandarin, it will take 16 hours to make the same content in Hakka, to give the director and actors sufficient time to get things down pat.
Interestingly enough, according to Huang Kuei-hui’s years of observation, actors learning Hakka fall into two categories: those who know Taiwanese and can learn Hakka in about one month; and those who only know Mandarin and struggle more in learning the language. Hakka has seven tones, and Taiwanese has eight. But since Mandarin only has four, Mandarin speakers find Hakka tones more difficult. Luckily, Taiwanese actors are quick learners, and performing their lines in an unfamiliar language doesn’t affect their acting. They can still maintain the flow of the plot, so most viewers won’t even notice it’s not their native language. As for viewers who worry they won’t understand Hakka shows if they do not understand Hakka, Huang points out that Taiwan has seen a surge in Korean dramas in recent years, which has increased audiences’ acceptance of foreign-language dramas. Even if viewers don’t understand Korean, it doesn’t prevent them from following the plot. Both domestic and foreign drama programs broadcast in Taiwan are routinely subtitled in Chinese, so audiences are used to seeing subtitles on their TV screens. Huang encourages everyone to take the same approach towards Hakka serial dramas.
Globally-oriented Hakka shows
As part of the publicly owned Taiwan Broadcasting System, Hakka TV is not concerned about revenue like a commercial TV station. It has a mission to highlight social issues and transmit cultural traditions, which in turn impacts the depth and breadth of the topics covered by its dramas. The show Somewhere over the Sky, for example, features social phenomena such as rural school closures, second-generation immigrant children, and skipped-generation families. Labor rights issues that have often been in the news in recent years, such as the working hours of security firm employees, the legal definition of overwork, and the labor inspection system, are addressed in a more lighthearted way in a Hakka TV series called Karoshi, which aims to use drama as a medium to inspire curiosity and awareness of social issues.
The 2019 drama Survival is a reinterpretation of Taiwanese literature. The show’s producer Chen Nanhong, who graduated from the Department of Taiwanese Literature at National Cheng Kung University and studied the Taiwanese physician and poet Loa Ho (1894-1943), selected the best of Loa Ho’s works and adapted them into a period drama. His drama portrays the problems the common folk faced during the Japanese colonial era such as an identity crisis, corporate monopolies, and government control of purchasing prices. Even a century later, the many problems Loa described the Taiwanese people as facing still reflect the pent-up frustrations modern Taiwanese people have towards wealth disparity and the uncertainty of their youth’s future. In this way the show has bridged the distance between Taiwanese literature and ordinary people.
To promote these series, all Hakka TV serial dramas can be watched for free online on the station’s official website, on YouTube, and on LINE TV. “We dare to say that no one else in the world is producing shows in Hakka.” Huang Kuei-hui says confidently, “We want to be Hakka with an international outlook, and we hope that when anyone talks about Hakka culture, they will think of Taiwan’s Hakka TV.” Thanks to the global reach of the Internet, there is a place for Hakka serial dramas in the world’s Hakka culture.