Back in January 1995, every weeknight at 8:05 sharp, the Shanghainese-language TV show “Sinful Debt” would flicker on to television screens across the city. One of the show’s young directors, Liang Shan, later told me how much he enjoyed taking his bike out at that hour, when almost no one would be on the streets. Passing tailors and barbershops, he would catch snatches of the theme song filtering out from open windows. He says it was one of his happiest times as an artist.
That sort of collective experience is rare today, partly because audiences now have far more choices. But there’s another reason, too. China’s television industry simply doesn’t make shows like “Sinful Debt” anymore, as programs grounded in local life and realism have largely disappeared from the airwaves. This is particularly noticeable when it comes to Shanghai, a long-favorite setting for producers.
Adapted from a Ye Xin novel, “Sinful Debt” tells the story of several young people, born of relationships between “sent-down” youths from Shanghai and residents of the remote southwestern province of Yunnan. After the Cultural Revolution ended, these sent-down youths returned to the city, leaving their kids behind. Years later, their children, now teenagers, team up to find their biological parents. The show cast local actors, and their spoken Shanghainese accurately reflects their characters’ age and class backgrounds, as well as the linguistic heritage of their ancestral hometowns. These subtle differences in pronunciation would have been enough to clue savvy local audiences into the characters’ thinking and motivations.
A screenshot from the TV show “Sinful Debt” showing its young protagonists arriving in Shanghai. From SMG电视剧 on Youtube
Liang was an admirer of Italian neorealism, another cinematic movement characterized by its use of dialect. “We were imitating the best documentaries filmed in Shanghai at the time,” he told me. “We wanted to get rid of the stilted accents that (many other) TV shows had.”
In addition to its fidelity of language, “Sinful Debt” went to great pains to faithfully document Shanghai as it was in the 1990s. Although its storylines were dramatized, they nonetheless reflected the lived experiences of a generation of Shanghainese, many of whom were indeed sent down to the countryside for “re-education” in the 1960s and 1970s, an experience that changed their lives forever. When the show aired, that generation was just entering middle age: Some had seized the opportunities presented by the reform era to go into business; others had been cast into the sea by round after round of layoffs at China’s state-owned enterprises.
“Sinful Debt” wasn’t the only show from this period that sought to present an authentic view of urban life. Zhang Hong and Fu Min, the married couple behind one of China’s earliest coming-of-age dramas, “The Flowering Season of 16,” spent nearly nine months interviewing experts, teachers, and over a hundred secondary school students before they shot a single roll of film. The resulting show, unlike many of today’s idol dramas, focused on a number of real social issues facing contemporary Shanghainese, like the going-abroad craze, competition over scarce housing, and corporate corruption.
A poster for “The Flowering Season of 16.” From Douban
Like Liang and others working in Shanghai television at the time, Zhang and Fu valued authenticity above all else. A news report from 1989 quoted the pair as saying: “Our foremost objective is authenticity. At the same time, we also hope that this show can highlight distinctive regional and cultural characteristics, with a rich dose of Shanghai style.” Other TV shows from the era, like “Ernü Qing Chang,” also reflected everyday problems ranging from the city’s strained medical resources to mounting elder care costs.
All this stands in stark contrast with many modern television dramas, which depict a Shanghai that bears little relation to the city we live in. Rather, this fictional Shanghai exists solely as a symbol, a collection of landmarks meant to be instantly recognizable throughout China and the world, but nothing more.
To be fair, Shanghai plays that role well. The city’s famous Western-style Embankment House, erected in the 1920s by the businessman and real estate tycoon Victor Sassoon, has recently been repurposed as the shooting location for shows like “The First Half of My Life” and “Nothing but Thirty.” Meanwhile, the opening to the 2016 hit “Ode to Joy” features a sweeping shot of the Huangpu River and the financial district’s skyscrapers.
The shot is meant to evoke the motivation and dreams driving the show’s five white-collar female protagonists, just as a “Nothing but Thirty” character’s willingness to spend half her salary renting an apartment in the Embankment House symbolizes her own ambitions for upward mobility.
These images deepen the mythology of Shanghai as a site of prosperity, wealth, and success: a city of bosses, or at least upwardly mobile professionals. The Shanghai featured in many recent TV shows is not the city as locals know it, but as people from elsewhere imagine it to be. Zhao Youliang, a Shanghai-born actor, publicly expressed frustration with such depictions all the way back in 2014. “Even the living spaces are fake, as if every family in Shanghai lives in a villa,” he was quoted as saying in an interview.
Mao Jian, a prominent critic and professor at Shanghai’s East China Normal University, told me that many production teams treat Shanghai like they do costumes, makeup, and props. “There’s a variety of Shanghai symbols on TV nowadays, but the city seems blander and more homogeneous,” she said. “It has become a backdrop, and its streets have nothing to do with the characters’ growth.”
A still frame from the 2020 drama “Nothing but Thirty.” From Douban
This shift may have been inevitable. In the current national market, television producers have much less incentive to tell local stories, and few of the idols that producers rely on to drive ratings are actually from the city. Meanwhile, the new, fantasy Shanghai does cater to people’s psychological needs. Under enormous pressure at work and at home, Chinese have turned to TV shows as a source of comfort, and a romanticized Shanghai offers a more enjoyable viewing experience than the complicated, stratified Shanghai locals know so well. Romanticization doesn’t preclude all realism, either: Shows like “Ode to Joy” and “Nothing but Thirty” still touch upon important topics like education, romance, and housing. Only, Mao argues, these are an afterthought, bits of realism grafted on to fantasy stories, rather than the kind of “hard realism” capable of addressing societal contradictions.
If Shanghai has largely given up on realism, there’s still an appetite for the kind of stories Liang, Zhang, and Fu once told. Take “Minning Town,” for example. Produced in honor of China’s poverty-alleviation campaign, the show’s tale of village building in Northwest China became an unexpected hit when it aired earlier this year. In particular, audiences lauded its authentic depictions of poverty and bureaucracy, as well as the producers’ decision to have characters speak in the local language.
If Shanghai wants to revive its own tradition of cinematic realism, then those are the kinds of stories producers need to tell. As Huang Shuqin, the lead director of “Sinful Debt,” once said, the real Shanghai isn’t just made up of the gorgeous things the city shows to the world, but what goes on “behind the wall.” It is up to creators to break down that wall and bring the real Shanghai back to our screens.
This piece is based on an article published by SHerLife on WeChat. It has been edited for length and clarity, and republished with permission. The original can be found here.
Translator: Katherine Tse; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Visual elements from Douban and Ingram Image/People Visual, re-edited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)