Insights from Bloomberg, the South China Morning Post, and Samuel Bickett
‘Expats’ – a new Amazon mini-series set and filmed in Hong Kong – is not available for streaming in the city, leading to suggestions Hong Kong officials may have banned the show in line with Beijing’s broad crackdown on the arts.
The six-part show, directed by Chinese-born American filmmaker Lulu Wang, follows the lives of three American women living in Hong Kong in 2014, as they navigate a shared tragedy amid tense class dynamics and an increasingly fraught political landscape.
The Hong Kong authorities denied banning the show – which portrays the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement that saw the city roiled by protests in 2014 – saying local audiences were unable to watch ‘Expats’ because of Amazon’s restrictions.
Amazon Prime TV and Lulu Wang did not respond to Semafor’s requests for comment.
Authorities bent quarantine rules to allow a show now seen as bad for Hong Kong’s image
Hong Kong officials bent the city’s strict quarantine rules to allow Nicole Kidman and cast to film during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, to the outrage of locals who were unable to travel for months or years. But the resulting show does not portray Hong Kong in a wholly positive light, one lawmaker told the South China Morning Post, saying it put the Hong Kong government in an “awkward position”, while ‘Expats’ has received reviews calling it “bleak” and “boring”.
Another lawmaker, Dominic Lee Tsz-king, said authorities should have been told about the show’s portrayal of the Umbrella Movement – and considered whether it would be good for the city’s image – before granting the controversial exemptions to cast and crew. “From what I understand, it’s about how Hong Kong could be boring, and includes scenes of the illegal Occupy Central movement – these can’t be positive for Hong Kong,” he told the SCMP.
Director hits a nerve with comments that Cantonese is dying
The show’s director Lulu Wang sparked controversy after wading into a debate over the languages used in the city, where Cantonese is traditionally spoken but use of Mandarin has soared since its handover to China in 1997.
Wang drew fury on social media after posting on X that “Cantonese is a dying language”, saying she witnessed an “overwhelming amount of Mandarin” while filming the show. U.S. lawyer and Hong Kong activist Samuel Bickett responded: “Is everyone involved in promoting this show just playing the part of the clueless Expats characters they created?” Meanwhile, The Wire China journalist Aaron Mc Nicholas argued that official data shows the number of primary schools teaching Mandarin in Hong Kong has actually decreased.
Missing series raises questions over China-style censorship
While Hong Kong’s Commerce and Economic Development Bureau said the city’s censorship laws did not apply to streaming services, online platforms can still be targeted by the sweeping national security law that Beijing imposed on Hong Kong in 2020 and which punishes broad acts of dissent – leading some to wonder if China was behind the ‘Expats’ ban. An episode of The Simpsons containing a controversial scene at Tiananmen Square in Beijing – the site of the 1989 student protests in which hundreds are estimated to have died – was removed from Disney+ in 2021, raising fears of “mainland-style censorship”. And a film censorship law passed in Hong Kong in 2021 has pushed many artists, producers, and directors to slash material that could fall under China’s definition of endangering national security. Hong Kong director Kiwi Chow was forced to find new investors for her projects after initial sponsors pulled their funding over “political concerns”, Reuters reported.