Amazon’s 'Expats' TV series puts Hong Kong government in ‘awkward position’, features ‘glamorised’ lifestyle


A new television series starring Nicole Kidman about expats in Hong Kong has put the government in an awkward position and does not portray the city in a positive way, according to lawmakers, while some members of the community it portrays say the way the show depicts their lives is unrealistic.

The first two episodes of the six-part Expats, released on Friday, were not available to local audiences, despite its “worldwide” release, but could be accessed using a virtual private network.

Created by Chinese-born American filmmaker Lulu Wang based on a 2016 novel, the Amazon series centres on protagonist “Margaret” played by Kidman who has moved to Hong Kong with her husband and family in 2014.

The mother of three becomes crushed by guilt and pain after her youngest son, cared for by Korean-American “Mercy” and portrayed by Ji-young Yoo, disappears while they are shopping at a Mong Kok market.

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Nicole Kidman and Brian Tee in Expats. The six-part series has not been made available to Hong Kong audiences. Photo: Prime Video

The trailer includes shots of the “umbrella movement”, a large-scale show of civil disobedience, while the first episode features a scene of protesters chanting “I want universal suffrage” in Cantonese.

Wang also wrote on social media platform X, formerly known as Twitter, on Sunday that “Cantonese is a dying language which is why it’s important to speak it, hear it, defend it”. She said she heard an “overwhelming” amount of Mandarin in announcements in the MTR and other public places.

Tenky Tin Kai-man, the chairman of the Federation of Hong Kong Filmmakers, said the decision not to make the series available locally could be an attempt to safeguard the local crew members involved as some had said the drama included “sensitive” content.

“If foreign investors or production companies are not clear on Hong Kong’s rules and regulations, it is understandable that they would choose a risk-averse direction to avoid potential troubles or issues,” Tin said.

The filming of Expats sparked outrage in the city in August 2021 as co-producer Kidman was permitted to skip the mandatory lengthy quarantine that was imposed on arrivals as part of efforts to control the Covid-19 pandemic.

Authorities justified the decision at the time by saying she was granted permission to carry out “designated professional work ... that contributes to the essential functioning and growth of Hong Kong’s economy”.

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Lawmaker Doreen Kong Yuk-foon said the series put the government in an awkward position because the exemption did not lead to a result that showed the city in an entirely positive light.

“The government should have treated everyone equally according to the strict quarantine requirements at that time, regardless of arrivals’ identities,” Kong said.

“The production team coming to film in Hong Kong did not breach any laws. The government also provided assistance and convenience, for Kidman in particular. If there had been better understanding beforehand, today’s reaction would not have put the government in an awkward position.”

Fellow lawmaker Dominic Lee Tsz-king said the unavailability of the show in Hong Kong was a decision made by the streaming platform and was unrelated to the government. But he argued authorities should have been notified about the content of the show at the time of filming given the exemptions granted.

“Hong Kong is a free society,” he said. “If anyone’s here to film or to play anything, as long as they comply with Hong Kong’s laws, that shouldn’t be a problem and there is no need for the authorities to monitor.

“The crux of the issue is the exemptions granted by the government. It should at least know whether what was being filmed would be good for Hong Kong’s image. 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.”

Nicole Kidman in Expats. One lawmaker says the decision not to show the series locally was made by the streaming platform and was unrelated to the government. Photo: Prime Video

The Culture, Sports and Tourism Bureau said the Film Services Office of Create Hong Kong set up by the government had provided outdoor filming assistance to the production in 2021, which lasted for over a year and involved a crew of more than 200 people.

“The filming primarily focused on street scenes depicting the daily activities of the main characters, their families and friends,” a bureau spokesman said. “This filming opportunity also provided a chance for local teams to participate in international film and television productions.”

David Liang, who was born in Luxembourg and came to Hong Kong 18 months ago, said he identified with the character Mercy.

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The 26-year-old said their similar age and Asian heritage were the main reasons she resonated with him.

“Similarly to her, my parents also have high expectations in terms of what they want me to do with my life and how I should handle things, where I should be in my life at a certain age,” said Liang, who works as an English tutor.

At one point Mercy says that she realised she could not live in the same home as her mother and needed to leave. Similarly, Liang said his move to Hong Kong was “an escape from being in the same country with his parents”.

Nicole Kidman in Expats. The Film Services Office of Create Hong Kong set up by the government had provided outdoor filming assistance to the production in 2021. Photo: Prime Video

But he found that Mercy’s flat, while dilapidated, was unrealistically large given she was a freelancer working odd jobs. He said the people he had met in Hong Kong were not as judgemental and condescending as what the show might suggest.

American Julia*, a 37-year-old who works in the education sector and moved to Hong Kong when she was a child, watched the show with her husband the day it came out. She said she could not identify with the characters in the show and felt some scenes were unrealistic.

“I have taken my toddler to Mong Kok and Sham Shui Po and all the markets like that. He could not get lost like that,” she said. “I don’t know if that’s painting Hong Kong in the right light. That kind of bothered me.”

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She also said the series reflected a part of expat life but did not represent all in the community and some depictions of their lifestyle were over the top.

“People have junk or boat parties in Hong Kong, but very few would have a boat like that,” she said, referring to the three-storey yacht with a small pool on the top deck. “It’s glamorised.

“There’s a part of me like, do I care? Do I want to finish the series? Am I that bothered? Because it’s clearly not somebody who I identify with.”

But Liang said: “I want to finish the series now. It has an interesting storyline and I’m a fan of the director Lulu Wang.”

*Name changed at interviewee’s request

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