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People: Chen Guanzhong (aka Chan Koonchung)


"2004 will be a bubble year for TV drama production in China," says Chen Guanzhong (aka Chan Koon-chung aka John Chan). "20,000 hours of TV drama will be made this year. There is an oversupply."

His words carry weight. He is one of the most experienced players in Chinese media, having founded magazines, written and produced feature films and TV dramas, started and run a satellite TV station, and written novels, collections of essays and even a treatise on Marxist literary criticism. In the early 1990s, he pioneered Hong Kong investment in Mainland cultural and entertainment businesses. All four major Chinese cities have been his stomping grounds: his native Shanghai, Hong Kong where he moved with his family when he was four years old, Beijing where he lives now, and Taipei.

Chan is softspoken, and dresses like a Buddhist who lives on Via Montenapoleone in Milan, but the gentle, polished exterior belies a mind like a steel trap. So when he warns about the overproduction of TV dramas, investors ought to take note.

Why are so many TV series being produced?

Chan explains: "TV production is the only media business that foreign and private investors can legally invest in. Everything else, from the music business to magazine, book and newspaper publishing, to TV channel operation can only be done with some kind of "rental" agreement with a state-owned partner. There are two problems. Firstly, it is not clear who owns the product. Secondly, the investor is always at the mercy of the 'rent-seeking' partner."

What of the future?

According to Chan, the deregulation of the media industry is going to proceed very slowly, and not just because of government concerns about censorship and control. There is another major factor at play: "The self-interest of the state-owned companies that control media and media channels." Such companies have a powerful protectionist motivation which would exist even if the state was not concerned about foreign media companies having the freedom to produce anything they wanted.

Chan himself is still doing consulting for the media business, but is spending most of his time on his first love and metier: writing.

A review of of his fascinating career is below:


Quite a Lot Happened: a brief summary of a life in Chinese media

In 1976 Chan Koon-chung founded the groundbreaking cultural Magazine Hao Wai (City Magazine), which started out as a tabloid biweekly, something like the Village Voice, and transformed itself into the most profitable glossy lifestyle magazine in Hong Kong. In its first decade, Hao Wai caught a certain cultural moment in Hong Kong -- the adolescence of the city, the moment when a group of Hong Kong hipsters at the cutting edge of Hong Kong's cultural life started writing, in Chinese, about cosmopolitan affairs of concern to every other major world city. The magazine's scope was generous: everything from gay culture to left wing theory to fashion.

Because Hao Wai had a certain foreign flavor, the magazine became profitable in the 80s when 'yuppies' became a a target group for marketing people. At the time, Hao Wai was the closest thing Hong Kong had to a yuppie magazine, and the advertisements flooded in. Hao Wai never looked back.

Although Chan remained involved in Hao Wai until very recently, just a few years after starting the magazine, the financial pressures of having children forced him to look for other ways to make money. In 1981 he started writing screenplays. In the next three years, he was commissioned to write ten scripts. None of them made it onto celluloid. But in 1984, three of his scripts were filmed, and he was in the film business, going on to pen the screenplays for another three films, at a time when the Hong Kong movie industry started booming.

In 1984, Chan got the chance to work as producer on a film called Hong Kong 1941. He was hooked on production. Between '84 and '89, Chan produced twelve Chinese language movies and a clutch of English ones, including Wayne Wang's hit Eat a Bowl of Tea.

In the early 90s, he switched media again, and worked on a radio deals before moving to the Mainland to help set up CIM, the first Hong Kong company to invest in the culture business in the Mainland. Under Chan's watch, CIM set up cable TV joint ventures, newspapers, resurrected Sanlian Life Weekly, started a record company, and published economics text books and children's books.

In 1994, he moved to Taiwan and set up Super TV, one of the first privately-owned satellite stations on the island. Super TV was eventually sold to Sony Pictures. In 1997, Chan moved back to the Mainland, helped found an Internet company, launched a number of magazines and produced over 200 hours of TV drama series.

Everything you have just read is what Chan calls his 'so-called career'. Writing is what he most enjoys. To conclude then, a list of his published books:

- Bohemian China (essays, Oxford 2003)
- Hong Kong's Unfinished Experiment (essays, Compass Books, 2001)
- Notes on a Hybrid City (essays, Youth Literary Book Store, 2000)
- Nothing Happened (novel, Youth Literary Book Store, 1999)
- Story of a President (novel, Crown, 1996)
- The Tanning of Hong Kong (essays, Publication Holding, 1986)
- Marxism and Literary Criticism (treatise, self-published 1982)

Story and photos by Jeremy Goldkorn after an interview in Mandarin and English.

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