The face reflected in the television screen

The lights dance every night at 8 p.m. They bounce to the rhythm of symphonic music, meticulously programmed. Forming patterns like zig-zags and swirls, the colourful lights decorate the exterior of skyscrapers that line the shore of Hong Kong Island. On arpeggios they run up and down the buildings, showing off their agility. Search lights and lasers shine on tonic chords and erratically follow the baseline notes. It’s a drama that only lights and sounds can create.

Photo by Constantine Augustin
Photo by Constantine Augustin (https://flic.kr/p/7h3MKS)

The Symphony of Lights is a Guinness World Records light show at Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong. Although Emily Tin is seeing it for the first time in person—she feels right at home. The scenery is familiar. Victoria Harbour is the backdrop to a scene out of “Mysteries of Love” (談情說案), a Cantonese television show from 2010.

The TV show is one of many that Emily has watched since she was a child. While she was born and raised in Canada, she grew up in a home where her immigrant parents continued to consume media funneled from their motherland—Hong Kong.

A tradition rooted in heritage

TVB dramas—mini-series produced by Television Broadcasts Limited in Hong Kong—have always been a big part of Emily’s life.

“It’s like an every night tradition. We usually just watch whatever’s on TV,” says Emily. What she means by TV is the Fairchild channel, a Chinese-language broadcast in Canada that is co-owned by TVB.

With chopsticks and main dishes laid out on their dinner table, Emily’s family watch the nightly local news reported in Cantonese. Prime time TV follows—featuring two dramas running from 8 to 10 p.m., one hour each. The dramas are entirely overseas content from TVB. Even though Emily has moved out of Thornhill, Ont. to study music education at Western University, watching TVB dramas continues to be part of her routine.

They are her companions during dinner. She eats in front of her laptop while streaming series produced in Hong Kong. One that she often re-watches is Moonlight Resonance (溏心風暴之家好月圓), a story about two families and their intricate connection.

Her dedication to consuming media from Hong Kong meant that its landmarks became familiar—long before she visited for vacation.

“I was really happy when I went there,” says Emily, “I definitely felt like it was something really cozy to me. Maybe because I see it all the time.”

The dramas are a portal connecting Emily to her Chinese roots. While her entire life has been in Canada, she cannot deny the impact that her heritage has had on her life.

A balancing act

“I feel like I’m really divided both ways, with being Canadian and being inherited with my own culture,” says Emily. She also says the two cultures that make up her experiences can conflict.

For example, Emily says she will have a traditional Chinese wedding when she gets married. To her it seems intuitive, but some of her peers have been confused about her decision.

“That’s nothing they would’ve expected from a Canadian-Chinese,” she says.

She also mentioned having to call her protective Asian mother every night because she will worry otherwise. Emily says in her experience, Asian parents tend to be more protective, but her non-Asian Canadian friends have the freedom to be more detached.

Her roots are also apparent through her ability to speak Mandarin and Cantonese at a high level. Watching Chinese shows and reading the subtitles are a way for her to practice. She says her language skills are a big reason for getting hired this past summer.

Sometimes she will even speak to her Canadian friends in Chinese if she knows they have the ability. Emily finds it difficult to stick with using one language. She explains there are things with no direct English translation.

“I definitely don’t think I could just use one to communicate with someone, you know, it’s hard.”

But it’s not perfect. Emily says, “My parents are always like, ‘Oh if you go back to Hong Kong, people are gonna laugh at your Cantonese,’ because it’s not the best and sometimes it’s broken.”

The imperfection of her Chinese is not uncommon among Canadian-Chinese. And neither is her inner conflict with figuring out the culture she aligns with most. Emily is able to connect with her Chinese culture through watching TVB dramas. But as a Canadian-Chinese adult, there aren’t many ways for her to relate to something that is wholly herself.

And that’s where Blood and Water comes in.

The diversity of blood

Blood and Water is a series broadcasted by OMNI TV. It features a predominantly Asian cast and uses three languages—English, Cantonese and Mandarin.

The characters weave the three languages together seamlessly in their conversations. Sometimes they switch halfway depending on what they’re saying and who they’re talking to. There are also times when two people will converse, with one speaking Mandarin and the other Cantonese.

Yipeng Ben Lu, one of the show’s producers, says it mirrors the experiences of Chinese-Canadians.

“That’s how we live our lives,” he says.

When the production team was casting talents for Blood and Water, Lu was involved in every decision to ensure the authenticity of the show was intact. For example, the actor who plays the immigrant mother was a first-time talent. However, Lu said her naturalness and excellent command of Mandarin gave the cultural relevance necessary for her character. On the other hand, the actor who plays a Canadian-born was allowed to have an accent in her Cantonese.

“We’re telling a North-American Asian story. Kids growing up here. You’re gonna end up with an English accent. That’s how we are,” Lu says, “I’m not trying to tell a Chinese story out of mainland.”

For one avid fan of the show, Cathy McKim says Blood and Water offers a glance into a world with which she isn’t familiar. The Torontonian arts and culture blogger behind “Life with more cowbell” thinks the show’s use of all three languages is distinctly Canadian.

“It’s really cool to hear the different flavours of the different languages as they come out. And the different interactions and the different modes of communicating culturally.”

Lu says although the show uses all three languages, the goal isn’t to appeal to a Chinese audience.

He pointed to the diversity of ethnic Chinese, including but not limited to those with origins in Vietnam and Taiwan. Not to mention even within mainland China, the difference between northerners and southerners are stark. There isn’t an all-encompassing Chinese audience that the show can target.

“The notion of Chinese-Canadian is quite fragmented,” he says.

Lu explained that the show does, however, distills some cultural identity issues faced by Canadian-Chinese.

The main character Jo Bradley is an ethnic Chinese woman who was adopted by her Caucasian mother. Jo grew up in Canada. Her mother tries to connect Jo to her roots by making her learn Mandarin and teaching her Chinese folk tales. Throughout the first season she finds herself stuck between Canadians who consider her to be Chinese, and the Xie family who rejects her Chinese identity because she grew up with a white mother.

Lu describes Jo’s experience, “She cannot deny the existence…that this is my heritage that I know nothing about. But you can’t deny the heritage because you are in an Asian body.”

Finding resonance on screen

As an authentic representation of the lives of many different Chinese-Canadians, Blood and Water is a sign to Lu that Canadian society is moving forward in becoming more inclusive.

“What this does is to build a sense of belonging to viewers,” he says, “and that is why a show like that is important as a cultural cornerstone.”

Moving forward, both Lu and Cathy say Canadians need to do more work to ensure more diverse stories are told. Ones like Emily’s.

But until then, Emily still has Chinese TV to look to. From offering a way of practicing a language skill to connecting with her heritage, the dramas are an integral part of her life.

“If I never grew up watching TV or any kind of Asian drama, I don’t think I would be the me I am today.”