SCMP Chief Editor Tammy Tam Column Takedown (2)

In the body of text below, I comment on a column written by SCMP chief editor Tammy Tam paragraph by paragraph. I have numbered each of her paragraphs for easy reference. I have also presented her copy in bold text, to distinguish it from mine.

Link to her column: https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/hong-kong-economy/article/2186526/china-sci-fi-blockbuster-wandering-earth-has-raised

(Title)
China sci-fi blockbuster The Wandering Earth has raised the bar for Hong Kong film industry as it seeks to rekindle reputation as Hollywood of the East

For it be perfectly grammatical, Tam’s title would need the addition of a couple of words (the words I added are capitalized): “China sci-fi blockbluster The Wandering Earth has raised the bar for THE Hong Kong film industry as it seeks to rekindle ITS reputation as Hollywood of the East.”

(Subtitle)
Many local actors and filmmakers are vying for a piece of the lucrative mainland market, but tastes are changing and standards are rising, meaning Hong Kong faces a challenge to compete

The phrase“meaning Hong Kong faces a challenge to compete” isn’t really called for: Tam’s claim that the Hong Kong film sector is facing a more trying operating environment is already implied in what came before the phrase (“vying for a piece of the lucrative mainland market” amid changing tastes and rising standards) , so reiterating this point in so short a paragraph serves no purpose. The following is a more elegant way to state what Tam wants to say:“The lucrative mainland market is becoming a tougher playing field for Hong Kong actors and filmmakers as they grapple with the changing tastes of its audience and the rising standards of its films.”

1. The talk of the whole country has been The Wandering Earth, billed as China’s first, big-budget science fiction thriller.

Make a claim as exaggerated as a film being “the talk of the whole country“ – especially when the country in question is the world’s most populous one – and you’re actively inviting your readers to cast doubt on you.

To avoid putting her credibility as a writer at risk, Tam could come up a more toned-down version:“The Wandering Earth, China’s first big-budget science fiction thriller, is generating a lot of buzz in the country.”

Alternatively, if she still prefers to begin her column in a dramatic tone, she could write this: “Rarely has a film captured the imagination – not to mention pride – of so many mainland Chinese as The Wandering Earth, China’s first big-budget science fiction thriller.”

I can’t leave the first paragraph without asking, why on earth is there a comma between “China’s first” and “big-budget science fiction thriller”?

2. Interestingly, there has not been much applause for the Lunar New Year blockbuster from industry peers both on the mainland and here in Hong Kong. That could perhaps be explained by the “two of a trade seldom agree” culture shared among many Chinese, especially in the literature and entertainment circles.

Didn’t Tam just described the film as “the talk of the whole country” in the previous paragraph? Now she is saying it received a cool reception from industry peers. These conflicting cues would be justified if Tam wanted to say the audience’s enthusiasm for the film has been misplaced, but nowhere else in her column does she make this point.

We are only two paragraphs into Tam’s column, but already she has eroded her credibility twice.

The claim that the “two of a trade seldom agree” inclination is unique to Chinese culture is unconvincing. Correct me if I’m wrong, but my impression has always been that westerners tend to air their disagreements more openly because they don’t prize the appearance of unity as much as the Chinese.

The phrase “literature and entertainment circles” is awkward. Imagine using“arts and entertainment circles”instead; the effect is no longer jarring. This is because in English, as a matter of habit, we regard literature as highbrow and entertainment as lowbrow. Linguistic habits do influence how we think, so English-speaking people seldom place “literature” in the same mental category as “entertainment.”

My guess is when Tam wrote “literature and entertainment circles,” she must have had in mind the Chinese phrase “文藝圈,” which directly translates into “literature and entertainment circles” in English. In other words, she is serving SCMP readers Chinglish here!

3. But the critical question remains: are the golden days of Hong Kong’s film industry really over, despite our government’s wish – if not wishful thinking – that the city’s old “Hollywood of the East” reputation can be restored by certain policy initiatives

Tam is at pains to create a smooth transition from paragraph (2) to (3), yet “but the critical question remains” wouldn’t do the job, because little of she said in the previous two paragraphs would lead the reader to think the topic of Hong Kong films should also warrant discussion.

Suggested rewrite: “The blazing success of The Wandering Earth should prompt the Hong Kong government – long keen on reviving the local film industry – to do some serious soul-searching: has its policies fallen short of improving the prospects Hong Kong films in the formidable market up north”?

What is the word “certain” doing in “certain policy initiatives,” when “policy initiatives” would do?

Because (as we shall see) in this column, Tam tries to persuade her reader that the Hong Kong government can play a crucial role in restoring Hong Kong films to their former glory, it is odd to see her accusing the government of “wishful thinking” here. My guess is deep down, Tam doesn’t believe government intervention can do much to lift the local film industry out of its doldrums. But she was made chief editor because she was trusted to make a show of solidarity at first opportunity – an SCMP employee once described her as someone “whose idea of news judgment is sticking a picture of CY Leung into everything” (https://www.hongkongfp.com/2015/11/06/south-china-morning-post-to-have-new-editor-amid-mass-exodus-of-staff/ ) . So, Tam’s allusion to “wishful thinking” is most likely a slip-of-the-tongue moment, proof that the last vestiges of humanity can still reside in a sing-the-government’s-praises machine.

4. The Lunar New Year season has always been a prime time for the lucrative mainland movie market. Hong Kong-style comedies and kung fu films used to be top draws, but it seems the tide has changed.

“Prime time”is usually used in the domain of TV; I’d use “peak box office season” for the movie industry.

Since Tam has already used the word“lucrative” to describe the mainland film market in her subtitle, why not replace the “lucrative” in this paragraph with China’s impressive box office takings data?

I’d therefore revise the first sentence of paragraph 4 as follows: “In China, the world’s second-largest film market – box office receipts hit $8.87 billion in 2018 – the Lunar New Year has always been the peak box office season of the year.’

A quibble about the sentence “Hong Kong-style comedies and kung fu films used to be top draws, but it seems the tide has changed”: since box office receipts can be objectively measured, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as “it seems the tide has changed” for them. Either Hong Kong films have been able to earn more, or they have been earning less. Why not simply write “but the tide has changed?”

5. This festive season, The Wandering Earth, made with only a modest investment of 320 million yuan (US$47 million), managed to rake in more than 3 billion yuan at the box office in the first week of its release.

Excuse me – didn’t Tam say in paragraph (1) that The Wandering Earth is “China’s first big-budget science fiction thriller”? Why, then, is the cost of making it suddenly described as “modest”?

6.The movie tells the story of how a group of fearless Chinese, including an astronaut and his family, prevent the sun from destroying the planet by taking Earth to a new home 4.2 light years away in outer space.

7.With breathtaking special effects using self-designed 3D techniques, this sci-fi epic has been compared by film-goers with Hollywood mega productions such as The Martian and The Core.

By “self-designed,” I think Tam meant “homegrown.”

“Compared by film-goers with Hollywood mega productions” should be “compared by film-goers to Hollywood mega productions.”

8.The Wandering Earth was released in the United States during the Lunar New Year season, generating some positive reviews, and is expected to come to Hong Kong soon.

Why didn’t Tam bother to find out the date of the film’s launch in Hong Kong? Surely the local movie houses must have already planned their schedule? Indeed, I got the film’s Hong Kong release date by doing a simple Google search.

I‘d re-write the paragraph as follows: “The film was simultaneously released in the US, where it earned some positive reviews. It will be shown at theaters in Hong Kong on the last day of February.”

We are now almost halfway into Tam’s column, and I’d like to make an observation about its structure. Notice paragraphs 5 – 8 largely consists of facts Tam needs to feed the reader in order to lay the ground for her arguments. The way she presents such background information, however, leaves a lot to be desired. Ideally, a writer should get her reader hooked as early as possible. Not only has Tam failed to interest her reader in paragraphs 1- 4; in the ensuing four paragraphs, she bores her with one humdrum detail after another. A solution would be to place such details strategically, so that they will register on the reader without being the center of her attention.

Below is my re-write of paragraphs 1-8. My version contains 189 words (35% fewer words than Tam’s 291). It cuts to the chase and does an okay job of making the reader want to read on.

  1. The Wandering Earth, China’s first big-budget science fiction thriller, swiftly became this Lunar New Year’s number-one hit, raking in more than 3 billion yuan at the domestic box office in the first week of its release.
  2. Admittedly, the film – which cost 320 million yuan to make and centers on a Chinese astronaut and his family doing their part to save the earth from being destroyed by the sun – received a cool reception from industry peers in the mainland and Hong Kong. But this didn’t stop mainlanders from flocking to watch it, captivated as they were by the film’ s breathtaking display of homegrown 3D techniques, which film-goers have deemed on the par with Hollywood mega productions such as The Martian and The Core
  3. The blazing success of The Wandering Earth – it was simultaneously showed in theaters in the US, where it generated some positive reviews – should prompt the Hong Kong government to do some serious soul-searching: what can it do to help Hong Kong films play catch-up in the formidable market up north”?

Now compare my version with Tam’s:

  1. The talk of the whole country has been The Wandering Earth, billed as China’s first, big-budget science fiction thriller.
  2. Interestingly, there has not been much applause for the Lunar New Year blockbuster from industry peers both on the mainland and here in Hong Kong. That could perhaps be explained by the “two of a trade seldom agree” culture shared among many Chinese, especially in the literature and entertainment circles.
  3. But the critical question remains: are the golden days of Hong Kong’s film industry really over, despite our government’s wish – if not wishful thinking – that the city’s old “Hollywood of the East” reputation can be restored by certain policy initiatives?
  4. The Lunar New Year season has always been a prime time for the lucrative mainland movie market. Hong Kong-style comedies and kung fu films used to be top draws, but it seems the tide has changed.
  5. This festive season, The Wandering Earth, made with only a modest investment of 320 million yuan (US$47 million), managed to rake in more than 3 billion yuan at the box office in the first week of its release.
  6. The movie tells the story of how a group of fearless Chinese, including an astronaut and his family, prevent the sun from destroying the planet by taking Earth to a new home 4.2 light years away in outer space.
  7. With breathtaking special effects using self-designed 3D techniques, this sci-fi epic has been compared by film-goers with Hollywood mega productions such as The Martian and The Core.
  8. The Wandering Earth was released in the United States during the Lunar New Year season, generating some positive reviews, and is expected to come to Hong Kong soon.

9. The movie, of course, was not without flaws. There was also heated debate on social media about whether it went overboard in portraying the Chinese as saviours of the world.

“The movie, of course, was not without flaws” – your thoughts, of course, cannot be assessed by us, Ms Tam! If the flaws you have in mind aren’t worth specifying, why bring them up and then leave your reader mid-air?

This version is more readable: “Despite the film’s spectacular performance at the box office, the audience’s praise wasn’t unqualified: on mainland social media, there was heated debate on whether the film went overboard in portraying the Chinese as saviours of the world.”

10. Yet the success of this dark horse, in a sense, should spark some serious reflection on Hong Kong’s struggling movie industry, which once was the envy of the Asian market.

It is “Asian film industry peers,” not “the Asian (film) market” that’s capable of doing the envying.

As for “yet the success of this dark horse, in a sense, should spark some serious reflection on Hong Kong’s struggling movie industry” – now, I do pride myself on my ability to guess what Tam is trying to get at, but this time I have to admit defeat. Surely, behind the film’s stellar cast and 3D effects, behind (as Tam herself has pointed out) the film’s self-positioning as “China’s first big-budget science fiction thriller,” laid a calculated effort to create a hit worthy of Hollywood? I therefore can’t think of any sense in which the film’s success can grant it a dark horse status.

11. Placing high hopes on the film sector as a key component of Hong Kong’s economy, the government requested special treatment for it from Beijing in the 2003 free-trade agreement known as the Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA). That was when Hong Kong’s growth had been crippled by the Sars outbreak.

The reader would have an easier time processing this paragraph if Tam presented the Sars-related information sooner rather than later. Compare her version with mine: “The Hong Kong film industry first caught the eye of the government in 2003, when the city had just recovered from the Sars outbreak and the government decided to bank on the sector as one of its engines to drive economic recovery. Local officials then lobbied Beijing to grant special treatment for Hong Kong films under a free-trade agreement known as Closer Economic Partnership Arrangement (CEPA).”

12. Hong Kong movies were then excluded from the annual import quota of 20 international films. A further update of CEPA in 2008 opened the door to Hong Kong-mainland joint ventures.

The problem with this paragraph is Tam can’t assume everyone is aware that China imposes an annual quota on the number of foreign films allowed to be shown in its theaters.

This version takes care of the reader better: “Back then, China allowed only 20 foreign films to be shown in its theaters each year (the allotment has since been raised to 38). CEPA benefited Hong Kong films by exempting them from this quota. A further update of CEPA in 2008 opened the door to Hong Kong-mainland joint ventures.”

Notice while Tam describes Hong Kong films as being “excluded” from the annual quota, I describe them as being “exempted” from it. This is because in English, we use “exclude” when one’s access to an advantage has been cut off; when we want to indicate we manage to avoid being put at a disadvantage, however, we use the word“exempt.”

As the chief editor of the SCMP, Tam’s inability to distinguish between “exempt” and “exclude”, “self-designed” and “homegrown”, “compared to” and “compared with”, “literature and entertainment circles” and “arts and entertainment circles” – if this isn’t the best gauge of how low the SCMP has sunk, I don’t know what is.“

13. Go north to earn RMB” soon became a popular phrase among Hong Kong film stars and investors.

14. There was censorship expected and they had to meet different needs across the border, but joint productions provided a way out.

The wording of paragraph 14 is so awkward. I’d actually attach its content to paragraph 12, so that when the reader next goes on to read about the “Go north to earn RMB” phrase in paragraph 13, she can understand its drawing power better.

My version:

12. Back then, China allowed only 20 foreign films to be shown in its theaters each year (the allotment has since been raised to 38). CEPA benefited Hong Kong films by exempting them from this quota. A further update of CEPA in 2008 permitted Hong Kong filmmakers to set up joint ventures with their mainland counterparts, a move that put them in a stronger position to tackle censorship issues and adapt to the tastes of the mainland audience.

13. “Go north to earn RMB” soon became a popular phrase among Hong Kong film stars and investors.

Now compare my version with Tam’s:

12. Hong Kong movies were then excluded from the annual import quota of 20 international films. A further update of CEPA in 2008 opened the door to Hong Kong-mainland joint ventures.

13. “Go north to earn RMB” soon became a popular phrase among Hong Kong film stars and investors.

14. There was censorship expected and they had to meet different needs across the border, but joint productions provided a way out.

I can’t leave paragraphs 12 – 14 without raising a query. According to Tam, the last time the government came to the movie sector’s aid was 11 years ago, when it petitioned Beijing to update CEPA in 2008. Since the Hong Kong film industry as it currently stands is still a far cry from its heyday, the only conclusion the reader can draw is any government attempt to boost the sector has been half-hearted at best. So, Tam has failed spectacularly in her job as government cheerleader!

15. Among the many adventurers heading north, Stephen Chow Sing-chi was a Hong Kong success story. The actor turned director and producer, well known for his comedy blockbusters, was a role model for many of his mainland counterparts who admired and learned from him.

16. Chow was also a guaranteed box office wonder. His 2016 hit Mermaid earned record revenue of 3.4 billion yuan.

Now, if I had been unfamiliar with the trajectory of Stephen Chow’s career, I would have been misled by Tam into assuming that the majority of Stephen Chow’s triumphs occurred on mainland soil after the CEPA update in 2008. To provide readers with an accurate time frame, I’d revise the two paragraphs as follows:

15. Among the Hong Kongers who ventured to conquer the mainland market after CEPA was Stephen Chow Sing-chi, whose string of comedy blockbusters in the 1990s had long made him a household name among his mainland peers.

16. His preceding reputation enabled his career to scale even great heights in the world’s second-largest economy. His 2016 hit Mermaid, for example, earned a then-record revenue of 3.4 billion yuan.

17. But Hong Kong is now witnessing a change of taste in the mainland market. Chow’s New King of Comedy is still doing quite well this year, but is not necessarily the movie of choice.

Tam’s logic in paragraph (17) is flawed: a film doesn’t need to be the movie of choice in order to do well financially. Futhermore, Tam’s mentioning of a dip in Chow’s fortunes flatly contradicts her description of him in the previous paragraph as a “guaranteed box office wonder.”

Tam could avoid these problems by writing “this year, however, saw a dimming of Chow’s star power – his “New King of Comedy,” which was also released in the Lunar New Year slot, earned a mere 530 million yuan in the first week of its release, compared to The Wandering Earth’s 3 billion yuan over the same period.”

18. Such a reminder came earlier with mainland-made war action films Wolf Warrior 2 and Operation Red Sea being the top blockbusters of 2017 and 2018 respectively.

I’d rewrite this graceless paragraph as follows: “While it is too early to say Chow’s success in mainland has run its course, Chow and other Hong Kong filmmakers have to grapple with a new reality: the fact that Wolf Warrior 2 and Operation Red Sea – both war action films with patriotic overtones – topped the box office charts in 2017 and 2018 respectively is telling. Filmmakers who want to stay in the game in mainland may have to produce films in this genre.”

19. Over a decade, CEPA has opened up a vast market, but also thrown it wide open to competition, which will only intensify. Hong Kong movies have their work cut out to keep up.

The first sentence of the last paragraph is so sloppily written ( even by Tam’s standards)that the only explanation for its existence is (1) Tam was in a hurry to end her column and (2) by this point her copy editor had so exhausted himself correcting the numerous slip-ups Tam had made earlier in her column that he was left with no trace of energy to deal with this sentence.

I don’t have the luxury of Tam’s copy editor, so here we go. I’d revise the sentence as follows: “ CEPA may have cleared a hurdle at the entry point for Hong Kong filmmakers, but their challenges really begin when they set foot in the increasingly competitive landscape that is the mainland market, with its fickle audience and even more fickle censors – the latter seemingly always ready to demand ban on new content on a whim.”

As for the very last sentence of this column – by stressing Hong Kong filmmakers “have their work cut out to keep up,” Tam is in effect saying “get on the good side of the Chinese Communist Party and you can get ahead.” To be sure, Tam has done very well for herself in adhering to this strategy – she has demonstrated by her example that in present-day Hong Kong, one doesn’t need to possess decent English in order to be the chief editor of an English-language paper, provided that one has proved one’s political loyalty. Still, considering Tam’s tone-deafness to the English language, I doubt if it was her intention to broadcast her life philosophy in so open a manner to the world!

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