In Hong Kong, where unsmiling mainland Chinese authorities have asserted their “comprehensive jurisdiction,” satire has become a dangerous form of humor. But at least one new satirical segment is soon set to brave the Special Administrative Region’s airwaves.
From next month, activist and broadcaster James Ockenden is launching “The Alphard Wars” on RTHK. The pitch is a weekly 5-minute segment within a half hour talk show “Wham Bam Tram” about transport in the city. Public transport in Hong Kong is generally excellent, but it has its idiosyncrasies. And recent acceleration of private car ownership, in one of the most densely populated places on the planet, is counterintuitive.
Ockenden runs a lobby group called Transit Jam, and has previously railed against Hong Kong’s curiously low cost on-street parking regime and minimal fines for infraction. This failure to use the price rationing system, Ockendon argues, is no deterrent to the city’s fat cats whose chauffeur-driven machines (blacked-out seven-seater Toyota Alphards are a favorite status symbol) hog meter-controlled parking spaces, double park, or circle endlessly in the busiest parts of town waiting for their masters to call. This creates inconvenience for pedestrians, especially parents with push chairs or baby carriages.
“Alphard Wars” features performances from a small number of actors including Jo Chim (“Mean Girls,” “Resident Evil: Apocalypse”) as a “cardboard granny” (an old lady who scrapes a living by scavenging street refuse) and a hero cop who get into an accident and swap bodies. The Cantonese- and English-speaking granny tries to shift the police focus towards protecting pedestrians and declaring war on cars.
Ockenden, who appears in what he calls an “Eric Idle role,” says he has plenty of material. It ranges from the missed opportunities around the old Kai Tak airport, to the government’s pork barrel decision to outlaw ride hailing firms such as Uber. He plans to push the envelope to include other, related forms of government bureaucracy: silo mentalities; business-first policy; and to swipe at ministers who have seemingly never walked anywhere crowded or humid.
The first episodes recorded by the “Alphard Wars” team have been given a green light by the under-pressure controllers at RTHK, though the name of Carrie Lam, the city’s Chief Executive could not be cited. The station is itself a government department and many of its staff are civil servants. But in recent years RTHK has come under almost constant fire from pro-Beijing forces which are now in the ascendancy.
RTHK has been repeatedly criticized for its independent-minded journalism, especially during the pro-democracy protests of 2019-20, which ruffled the feathers of government and police. Humor is in especially short supply.
In June, just weeks before the imposition of the National Security Law, RTHK indefinitely suspended its satirical show “Headliner,” which had been running since 1989 and the colonial era. Its offence was a February 2020 episode that poked fun at the police, suggesting that they were hoarding protective gear for themselves during the early days of the coronavirus outbreak. The broadcast regulator, the Communications Authority issued a warning saying that the episode had “denigrated and insulted” the police.
Ockenden’s genius may be to have found one of the most obscure patches of broadcast spectrum available. Backed by the Community Interest Broadcast Scheme, his show will go out largely in English (a minority language in the city) and on Channel 7, an AM radio frequency, at 10pm on Saturday nights from April 10.
While some might consider that a scheduling graveyard, Ockenden is delighted. “We think of it as the “Saturday Night Live’ slot,” he told Variety.