Shanghai has long been an outstanding stage for novelists to get their inspiration. Fan Hua, or Blossoms Shanghai, a novel written by Jin Yucheng in the Shanghai dialect, was widely regarded as the most important masterpiece in contemporary Shanghai literature. At the end of 2023, the TV series Blossoms Shanghai, adapted from Jin Yucheng’s novel and produced by the Shanghainese Hong Kong producer, Wong Kar Wai, with leading actor Hu Ge and actresses Ma Yili, Tang Yan, and Xin Zhilei, became the greatest hit in the Chinese TV series market. The TV series focused on the rising age of Shanghai when the market was prospering and social status rapidly changing. As the original novel and TV series all have vast viewpoints and complex storylines, I will not put emphasis on commenting on the plot. Rather, as a native citizen, I would like to reveal the fascinating Shanghainese culture hidden in this masterpiece by walking through places and waking up memories. 

Our journey will start with something intangible, yet essential. When you are on a public bus, you will hear the Shanghainese broadcast after the broadcast in Mandarin and English. Blossoms Shanghai (2023) is a TV series performed in Shanghainese, which is extremely rare in recent years, and most of its actors are native Shanghai residents. There’s a dubbed Mandarin version for non-local Chinese audiences, but most of the lines are spoken in Shanghainese originally. At the beginning of this century, the promotion of Mandarin made communication between people from different regions smoother, but it had a strong impact on the dialects of the Wu-speaking area. Very few children born in this century speak Shanghainese as their mother tongue. Among today’s Shanghai teenagers, very few are proficient in Shanghainese. The Shanghainese TV series Blossoms Shanghai successfully “resurrected” the declining Shanghainese culture and increased people’s awareness of inheriting Shanghainese. Yet, compared to 30 or 40 years ago, the modern Shanghainese had already lost part of its special pronunciation like sharp and round pronunciation. As language is a developing thing, focusing on inheriting it may have more influence on sticking to the “most accurate pronunciation”.

The next station of our journey is to the center of Shanghai, People’s Square. The majority of the story happened at Huanghe Road’s greatest restaurant, Zhizhenyuan. During the early 1990s, when the first group of Shanghai’s population had already enjoyed the benefits of reform and opening up, these new money lived a life of extreme luxury. Huanghe Road in Shanghai People’s Square has become the center of luxury dining, with various luxury restaurants clustered there. After more commercial centers were built, Huanghe Road eventually lost its monopoly power in the high-end restaurant industry. By the time Blossoms Shanghai was aired, nine out of ten of the high-end restaurants on Huanghe Road were closed. The recession of Huanghe Road was a slice of the changing of economic power in Shanghai. As the city develops and expands, People’s Square is no longer the only economic center. As the need for business conquest decreased, grand restaurants no longer gathered together as in the early 1990s, the background of Blossoms Shanghai

The nowadays Taishengyuan Restaurant, the prototype of Zhizhenyuan (Jingyi Ma for On Magnolia Square)

Another important place in the story, Jingxian Road, where the Yedongjing (Night Tokyo) and other small restaurants were located, has been a popular place for customers to this day. These small restaurants put their emphasis on family and friends gatherings, with moderate prices and stable products, so they are favored by normal citizens. Jingxian Road is an angle to peek into the daily life of normal Shanghainese citizens, where people enjoy a sense of comfort within their reach and do not ask for an over-luxurious life. Located in the former Luwan district, surrounded by garden houses, theaters, and beautiful plane trees, Jingxian Road is not an upper-class community as its nearby surroundings. It’s a glimpse of the life of normal people’s lives, revolving around the unchanged narrow streets and old neighbors. Of course, as an innovative city, the old scenes are given a new life by young people. This small restaurant illustrates a scene from Blossoms Shanghai to attract customers. 

A small restaurant on Jingxian Road (Jingyi Ma for On Magnolia Square)

A taste of Shanghai in this TV series is an essential part of this city’s cultural life. The old store, Xiandelai (Tasty food), takes pride in its Pork Chops Rice Cake, which was the favorite food of Miss Wang. This is a kind of small dish invented by Ningbo immigrants, with their hometown food rice cake combined with the favorite of Shanghainese, fried Pork Chops, flavored by sour and sweet sauces. This dish is a very common street food in Shanghai and is a good choice for friends or lovers to eat together. As shown in Blossoms Shanghai, Miss Wang and A’Bao shared a dish and chatted over their business, a cozy and heartwarming scene, giving the Shanghainese audience a sense of home. When you walk through the bakeries on Wanping Road, you can still see a cake the same as thirty years ago. Sounds shocking? The restaurant owner on Jinxian Road, Lingzi’s birthday cake, and the Kaisiling cream cake, tailored to the Shanghainese residents’ appetite, are Shanghainese citizens’ choices for birthdays until today. Saltwater popsicles, made from as simple as salt, sugar, and water, are also a part of many residents’ childhood memories. 

A Kaisiling cream cake. Astonishingly, it looks almost the same in 30 years. You can still buy one today. (Photo from Blossoms Shanghai.)

Blossoms Shanghai becomes more than a TV series and a novel; it becomes a celebration of the city’s cultural life. It reminds us that, amid the ever-changing landscape, the heartbeat of Shanghai lies in its ability to embrace the old while welcoming the new, creating a rich tapestry of memories that transcends time.