How Wong Kar-wai’s First TV Show Is Reblooming Shanghainese Culture

By: Kelly Luo
Thumbnail courtesy of "Blossoms Shanghai" on Weibo.

Between liquified neon and step-print frames, Cantonese director Wong Kar-wai has left a streak in cinematography history with his masterful approach to interlacing color, lighting, composition, and sound to depict exquisite kaleidoscopes of Asian landscapes. 

Blossoms Shanghai, which premiered on December 27, 2023, marks Wong’s dive into the small screen. The series, set in 1990s Shanghai, depicts self-made millionaire Bao-zong’s endeavors in the stock market as he navigates tycoon factions while weaving a network of his own. Aside from an anticipation for Wong’s aesthetics, the series’ other selling-point is its dialogue, spoken almost entirely in Shanghainese. 

This seemingly commercial risk was an instant success. Capturing the glamor and grit of Shanghai’s gilded ‘90s, Wong’s depiction has reframed and revitalized the nation’s interest in the city. Crowds bustling the trendy Anfu Road have now migrated to Huanghe Road, the main backdrop to the plot of the show. Alongside the show’s aid in blooming the city’s tourism economy, it has also helped the city to rediscover and destigmatize its voice. 

A Stigmatized Tone to the Newest Buzzword 

Though it is spoken by nearly 14 million people, Shanghainese now faces a steep decline in speakers. It is a part of Wu Chinese, one of the ten Chinese dialect groups, which has the lowest number of active users between the ages of six and 20. This is not a coincidence — dialects in China have seen an overall downward trend with the government’s increasing efforts to standardize the use of Mandarin Chinese while limiting the usage of local dialects. 

Additionally, people who can speak Shanghainese are hesitant to do so for fear of seeming exclusive and discriminatory towards others who may not understand it. Shanghai is one of the fastest developing cities, and 40% of its residents are immigrants from nearby areas. With common stereotypes describing the local Shanghainese as haughty and bourgeois, speaking the dialect may come with a discriminatory connotation. 

Blossoms Shanghai’s commercial success has led to the rekindling of this fading dialect and calls for its preservation. It has generated much buzz on platforms such as Weibo and XiaoHongShu as netizens rave about learning and using the dialect from the show. 

Shanghainese vs. an International City 

Linguist Ding Dimeng describes how using native dialects can charge the actors with the comfort to produce more emotionally powerful performances. The power of comfort amplifies the raw emotions conveyed to connect with the audience, even through a foreign vernacular. 

“The Mandarin version doesn’t quite have the same flavor,” said Duan – originally from the Shandong province – in an interview with AFP. This sentiment is echoed by most audiences, who prefer to watch the series in Shanghainese with subtitles despite the alternative Mandarin version. 

Image courtesy of Blossoms Shanghai on Weibo.

For the Shanghainese audience, Wong’s Shanghai is a nostalgic evocation of the city during its golden years. “We are losing our identity as Shanghainese, and it’s not just about the dialect,” said He Yi, an actor who played a small role in the show, in an interview with Bloomberg

And for many locals, Blossoms Shanghai breathes new life into the rekindling of their faded culture.  “Watching [the series] gave me such a sense of familiarity, and I felt very happy that us Shanghainese now had another TV show of our own,” said local Shanghainese Xie Niyun in an interview with AFP

Culture: An Extension of Entertainment 

With Shanghai’s rise as a first-tier city, efforts to perpetuate its global identity have paradoxically concluded in silencing its native dialect and culture

In 2009, the National Radio and Television Administration implemented a regulation that limited the likelihood of any dialects being projected on public platforms. According to the regulation, “the language used in television dramas (excluding regional opera) should primarily be in Mandarin. In general, the use of dialects and non-standard Mandarin should be avoided.” 

The active reinforcement of a hegemonic tongue through entertainment poses a larger impact than expected on preserving local cultures. As one of the few tutors teaching Shanghainese, Jason Wang hopes for more representation in films and music. In an interview with Mint Lounge, he draws a parallel between Blossoms Shanghai’s prominence in pop culture and Hong Kong’s booming cultural industry decades ago, pointing out that many started to “learn Cantonese because they loved Cantonese music so much.”

Image courtesy of Blossoms Shanghai on Weibo.

Though efforts to preserve the dialect have been made, such as implementing Shanghainese courses in 20 kindergartens in 2014, the overwhelming effectiveness of Blossom Shanghai in promoting a fading Shanghainese culture exemplifies the soft power pop culture carries.

Although Blossom Shanghai’s popularity is not spearheading a revitalization of dialects across the nation, it provides a sign of hope for future plans. In true fashion, Wong delivers a satisfactory yet ambiguous blow with the show’s finale on January 9, 2024. Perhaps just as the series’ name foretold, Shanghai’s fading local culture is blossoming again. 

Want to keep up with other recent releases? Read about Studio Ghibli’s The Boy and The Heron here!