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Hakka TV joins multicultural mix

Public station caters to ethnic minority

TAIPEI — Niche programming is always tricky — and even more so when you’re trying to cater for an ethnic group whose language is in danger of disappearing as a spoken tongue.

But that is the task that Taiwan’s government has taken on, with the assistance of Taiwan Television Enterprise, one of the island’s three main terrestrial stations.

They have launched Hakka TV, a public station catering to the Hakka, who comprise 15% of the island’s 22.5 million population.

The Hakka are an ethnic group originally active around China’s Yellow River area that began to migrate across the region more than 2,000 years ago. The Hakka language is a dialect of Chinese and the name literally translates from the Chinese as “guest people.” However, the question of whether or not the Hakka, or their language, are Chinese is a sensitive subject in Taiwan.

The station, which hopes to reach 5 million households by the end of the year, is another effort by politicos to diversify and internationalize TV programming.

It joins other government-funded projects in this multicultural mix, including an English-lingo news program, a station that broadcasts mostly in the Taiwanese dialect, and a proposed aboriginal station that could reach viewers at the end of the year.

It’s an interesting time for Taiwan, an island off the coast of China that is slightly smaller than Maryland and Delaware combined. After decades of martial law ended with the first major change in political power in 2000, the island has come to a cultural crossroads.

Although the majority of the population speaks Mandarin Chinese, foreign-lingo programming regularly tops the ratings, especially Japanese and South Korean soap operas and English-lingo nature programming.

The island’s residents have elevated learning a foreign language to a national obsession. This year, government declared learning English a top priority, and the legislature routinely flirts with the idea of making English a semi-official language.

Many schoolchildren learn Chinese, English and Hakka as part of their curriculum; it is not uncommon for children to learn their ABCs before they can write Chinese.

That makes it even more important for the various ethnic groups to protect their heritage.

One obvious problem Hakka TV has encountered since its launch last month is a lack of original programming.

Currently, the web features seven to nine hours of original programming in the Hakka dialect daily with previously aired content filling the rest of the air time. Popular shows include a Hakka-lingo chat show and a soap skein.

Its launch was fast-tracked by the legislature and the Council for Hakka Affairs, who put up the $7 million coin for the station’s startup. Taiwan Television Enterprise provides production facilities.

“Television is a part of our lives. That’s why we chose it as the medium to preserve and promote Hakka culture,” Council for Hakka Affairs chair Yeh Chu-lan says.

“Hakka TV is not just for Hakka who don’t speak Mandarin Chinese. Its mission is to help people of all ethnic backgrounds appreciate the beauty of our culture.”

With this double mandate in mind, the station faces the challenge of catering to its core Hakka audience and attracting a broader viewership.

Hakka TV finds itself in the dilemma of — in the words of one Hakka scholar — “watering down” its programming to appeal to non-Hakka speakers.

Just as the government’s English-lingo news program features slightly simplified English for those studying the language, Hakka TV must do a balancing act for those who speak Hakka and those who don’t.

In view of this, scholars met on Aug. 3 to discuss some of the problems Hakka TV has yet to overcome. One commentator noted that Hakka TV focuses too much on Hakka history instead of presenting a more vibrant view of contemporary Hakka life.

Many observers also emphasized that the station — like other niche stations on the island — needs a clear, defining purpose.