Header image courtesy of Journey to the West (1996) (via Facebook)
TVB has always been well-known in Asia for its superb television productions, and long before the Korean Hallyu (한류; “Korean Wave”) submerged Asian nations in a sea of dramatic plots and handsome oppas (오빠; “older brother”), Hong Kong’s home-grown dramas were already the best-received both locally and in our neighbouring countries.
Many concur that TVB productions peaked around the 1990s and early 2000s, though there have been several before and after that received smashing success. Here are the top 10 classic Hong Kong drama series that almost every local knows and loves, and are well worth watching for a nostalgic trip down memory lane.
Often praised as “The Godfather of the East,” The Bund is consistently credited as the drama series that made the inimitable Chow Yun-fat a household name. Chow’s character Hui Man-keung makes his way up the slippery rungs of the triad circles through a whirlwind of family disputes, love triangles, backstabbing, and violent deaths.
The scene where—spoiler alert—Hui gets killed outside a restaurant at the end of the series is culturally considered one of the all-time greatest scenes in Hong Kong television. The Bund was so well received that it spawned two sequel dramas, two remakes, and a film adaptation. Its theme song of the same name is a well-loved Cantopop track originally performed by Frances Yip and was later used again in the film adaptation, sung by Andy Lau.
Looking back, this was definitely a nostalgic series with an all-star cast. The fantastic Tony Leung Chiu-wai and beautiful Maggie Cheung eventually went on to have award-winning careers, and Carina Lau and Sean Lau are both huge stars in their own right.
Tony Leung plays the character of Cheung Wai-kit, a high-school graduate who joins the Police Cadet Academy, which is based on the real-life Royal Hong Kong Police Cadet School. There, he meets four friends, who go through their training, struggles, conflicts, and intrigues together. As Cheung progresses in his career, he begins to neglect his girlfriend Tse Wing-chi (played by Maggie Cheung), who begins to find comfort in his former cadet schoolmate.
This series was popular enough to immediately be followed by two sequels, Police Cadet ‘85 and Police Cadet ‘88, showing the cadets’ eventual progression in the police ranks, both also starring Tony Leung. It’s interesting seeing these veteran actors back at the beginning of their careers so fresh and baby-faced, so fans of the cast should definitely check this out.
The Greed of Man stars an award-winning cast that includes veteran actors Adam Cheng Siu-chow and Damian Lau Chung-yan, as well as the award-winning Sean Lau Ching-wan. The story spans three decades from the 1970s to the 1990s in both Hong Kong and Taiwan, and addresses various social and financial phenomena of the times, with themes ranging from triad violence to corruption within the Hong Kong Stock Exchange.
Ting Hai (played by Adam Cheng) is a man who made his fortune through the catering and entertainment industries at first, then stock and property speculation. The Ting family became rich through speculation during the Black Monday stock market crisis in 1987 and also became involved with laundering money for drug lords. On some level, the entire Ting family is unethical and ruthless, and they are opposed by the Fongs, led by Fong Chun-sun (played by Damian Lau), a premiere stockbroker attempting to rid the stock market of corruption.
The scene where—spoiler alert—the entire Ting fortune is lost and Ting Hai forces his sons to jump off the top of the Hong Kong Stock Exchange building sent shockwaves throughout the viewerships, and is still remembered to this day. The Greed of Man is also noted for its peculiar effect on the global stock market; whenever a film or television series starring Adam Cheng is released, there seems to be a sudden drop in the stock market. This is widely known as the Ting Hai effect (also the Adam Cheng effect), and is a theory popular among stockbrokers to this day, so much so that the French bank Crédit Lyonnais even wrote a report about it!
A saga of staggering proportions that is quintessentially Hong Kong, there’s probably not a single local who hasn’t heard of A Kindred Spirit. This is one of Hong Kong’s longest-running drama series, monopolising television airtime from mid-1995 to the end of 1999, with a total of 1,128 episodes.
The plot centres around Lee Biu-bing (played by Danny Lau Dan), who runs a char siu business in Happy Valley, the drama surrounding his friends and family, and the many complicated relationships intertwining all the characters. Over the years of watching this series, hundreds of thousands of viewers grew emotionally attached to the characters and their journeys through love, jealousy, greed, affairs, loss, illness, and tear-jerking deaths, and its impact on Hong Kong pop culture in the 1990s was unprecedented.
Because of how well-established the characterisations were, some actors even found themselves being typecast for years after A Kindred Spirit, unable to break free from only being seen as the kind of character they played in this hit series.
Pretty much every Chinese person knows the legend of the Monkey King, a story that is part of Journey to the West, a sixteenth-century novel considered one of the four great classical works of Chinese literature. For the uninitiated, the story follows the Buddhist monk Tang Sanzang (also sometimes known as Tripitaka) on his mission to fetch a set of Buddhist scriptures from India. He encounters three supernatural beings—Sun Wukong, Zhu Bajie, and Sha Wujing—along the journey, who join the pilgrimage as his disciples to atone for their sins.
The success of TVB’s series of the same name lies mainly with Dicky Cheung, who plays the character of Sun Wukong, the Monkey King. Cheung infused his role with no small amount of charm and humour, which is why even though there have been too many television remakes of this classic tale to count, the 1996 TVB version is definitely the one that stands out.
Hong Kong’s answer to the American medical drama ER, Healing Hands is a series that focuses on the lives and loves of the doctors and nurses working at the fictional Yan Oi Hospital. The main characters are neurosurgeon Paul Ching (played by Lawrence Ng) and A&E doctor Henry Lai (played by Bowie Lam), who are best friends with massively differing personalities that sometimes clash professionally.
This series has been noted for its realism in depicting medical situations, and the Hong Kong Hospital Authority has actually loaned the production crew real hospital equipment and facilities for filming. It was so popular that two sequels, Healing Hands II and Healing Hands III, followed in 2000 and 2005, respectively.
This hundred-episode-long epic was well-known for being aired in two parts with a break in the middle, thereby stretching across the millennium. Starring Gallen Lo as the lead, At the Threshold of an Era documents the rise and fall of three entrepreneurs who are working towards the goal of developing a pollution-free town in Hong Kong.
Love and vengeance are strong themes throughout the series, as well as the struggles of balancing honour and success. This was the most expensive television series ever produced in Hong Kong up until then, totalling more than $100 million in production costs; it was only until The Gem of Life in 2008, almost a whole decade later, that this record was broken.
This comedic series was very well-loved and achieved explosive success during its run; in fact, its viewership rating was the highest ever recorded for a TVB drama, a record which was only broken five years later when the hit Korean series Jewel in the Palace (Dae Jang Geum) aired on Hong Kong television.
The plot revolves around solicitor Frances Mo (played by Carol Cheng) and her law career, as well as her struggles to avoid being labelled a spinster. Fans of the enemies to lovers trope will enjoy her turbulent relationship with her paralegal Yu Lok-tin (played by Dayo Wong). The Cantonese term “siu keung” (小強; “little strong”) was even popularised by this drama series, as this was the name that was given to Yu Lok-tin’s pet cockroach. To this day, Hongkongers still colloquially refer to cockroaches as “siu keung.”
With a total run-time of over a year, this is one of Hong Kong’s most well-loved period sitcoms. In fact, it was so popular that an additional 187 episodes were filmed after 150 were aired. The iconic Nancy Sit still sometimes sings the theme song for the series on large-scale televised events, which just speaks for the popularity of this show.
Set roughly in the late-fifteenth-century Ming dynasty, the plot follows the adventures of the nouveau riche Kam family as they navigate careers, relationships, and family politics. The Kams eventually get involved with the royal family because the princess runs away from an arranged marriage, hides out in disguise as the Kam family’s guest, and ends up falling in love with the eldest Kam son. A sequel was later made with the same cast and characters but set in modern-day Hong Kong.
Hongkongers do love a witty pun, and part of Virtues of Harmony’s appeal was in its hilarious use of wordplay in the names of places and characters. For example, the town they all live in is called 池力共鎮 (pronounced ci4 lik6 gung6 zan3), a homophone of the Cantonese term for MRI scanning; and the three Kam children are named Kam Nin (金年), Kam Yuet (金月), and Kam Yat (金日)—Cantonese homophones for this year, this month, and this day, respectively.
Starring Francis Ng, Joe Ma, Flora Chan, and Myolie Wu as the main characters, this drama is about the lives of pilots and cabin crew working for a fictional airline based off of Hong Kong’s own Cathay Pacific. Samuel and Vincent are engaged in a friendly rivalry to become the first Chinese captain, but things are further complicated when both of them develop feelings for their colleague Isabelle.
It sparked a surge of interest in aviation during its airing, as well as a flurry of people wanting to get their hands on a doll that the series made up called the Triangel—a small jester doll made of porcelain that can still be found in Venetian shops. This was also the series that saw the debut of TV stars Ron Ng, Bosco Wong, and Kenneth Ma, propelling them to popularity.