'Millionaire' more than just a game

Many in Hong Kong look to TV show to get out of debt

— Postman Sin Kan-tong didn't miss a beat when asked what he would do with the money.

"I will use all of it to bet on horses," the 34-year-old Sin said as he appeared on ATV's Chinese-language version of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire."


AP Photo

Contestant Paul Yip, left, sits across from host Ken Chan during a filming of ATV's Chinese-language version of the television phenomenon "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" in Hong Kong. The new show has gained an enormous following with Hong Kong audiences.

Many people in Hong Kong love gambling, so the show was a natural here and has gained an enormous following.

But Hong Kong's hard times have tempered expectations.

"Amid the economic difficulties, it's a ray of hope among many despondent people," said Lau Siu-kai, a sociology professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

If you ask contestants what their top wish is, few would say a round-the-world ticket or a new car.

Most hope to strike it rich mainly so they can get out of the hole � paying off their losses from property purchases. Many here hold mortgages on apartments worth less than what they paid, putting them in a position of "negative equity."

Now that market bubbles have burst and property prices halved from the peaks they hit after Britain returned Hong Kong to China four years ago, many turn to TV game shows like "Millionaire," hoping to get out of debt by plowing through general knowledge books.

"Those who come for the quick money are the majority � about 80 to 90 percent," said Ken Chan, host of the hit show that has attracted several hundred thousand applications from would-be contestants.

"Most of them have negative assets � and they want to get the money for the mortgages," Chan said.

The show's allure among middle-class homeowners can't be denied, said Lau.

"With questions based on a broader scope of knowledge, it differs from game shows in the past filled with questions on show biz that appealed to lower-class people," Lau said. "Moreover, its prizes are substantial."

Top prize is 1 million Hong Kong dollars ($128,205) but so far nobody has won it. Two contestants have won 500,000 Hong Kong dollars ($64,103).

Some people, like Sin, don't bother studying for the show, hoping instead to get lucky with a few questions about things they already know. That approach didn't work for Sin � who walked away with no cash.

Aside from the money-obsessed crowd, a few people play for different reasons.

Paul Yip, another contestant, said he treated the game as "a public classroom." A 33-year-old chemistry teacher, he tried to deliver positive life principles � through witty conversations with the host.

One of Yip's messages: "Life is not all about money, but happiness."

"If the message is delivered, no matter how much I can get, the prize that I've got is worth more than a million dollars," he said.

Not that Yip is doing badly on the money front. He won 60,000 Hong Kong dollars ($7,692) and 250,000 ($32,051) in his two appearances.

The show averages 1.7 million viewers, or about one-fourth of the Hong Kong's 6.9 million people.


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