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Glory Days

Directed by Hong Kong filmmaker Wong Kar-wai, acclaimed TV show Blossoms Shanghai portrays Gatsby-esque vignettes from the 90s that have stirred a nationwide nostalgia for China’s economic heyday

By Yi Ziyi , Gu Xin Updated Apr.1

A still from TV show Blossoms Shanghai

Jazz and blues seep from the softly lit bars. The latest pop hits from Hong Kong swell through the bustling restaurants as neon lights contend for customers on the streets.  

A few blocks away, quiet alleys are drenched in pale streetlight, where men in bespoke suits chat about newly listed stocks.  

These are just some of the artfully depicted scenes from Blossoms Shanghai, a 30-episode drama that has taken the country by storm with honest portrayals of people’s lives in its namesake metropolis during the 1990s.  

It is the first TV series from Wong Kar-wai, the Shanghai-born director whose distinct cinematography in films such as Chungking Express (1994) and In the Mood for Love (2000) helped put Hong Kong cinema on the map and seat him among China’s greatest contemporary filmmakers.  

Based on the award-winning novel of the same name by Jin Yucheng, the show follows A Bao (Hu Ge), a young man who makes his fortune in foreign trade and stocks. Beyond his rags to riches story, Wong focuses on A Bao’s web of complex relationships with three women: Ling Zi (Ma Yili), owner of the Night Tokyo bistro, Miss Wang (Tifanny Tang), a clerk at a foreign trade enterprise, and Lili (Xin Zhilei), owner of the grand Zhizhen Garden restaurant. Throughout the series, their lives are juxtaposed with the drastic changes occurring in Shanghai as China’s economy began to soar.  

Premiering on December 27, 2023, the series was an instant hit, stirring up nostalgia for the China of the 90s, a time when fortunes were made overnight and the collective hope that anyone could achieve anything was alive and kicking.  

Shanghai Memories 
“When it comes to [the title] Blossoms Shanghai, certain images pop into my mind: clusters of little flower buds blooming in gorgeous waves, or little lights twinkling like stars on the trees – one dims while the other shines,” author Jin told newspaper Wenhui Daily.  

Though centered on A Bao and his love interests, the main character of the series is the city itself, along with its residents, from waiters and grocers to drivers and businesspeople. Just like the twinkling lights Jin describes, these people strived to shine amid China’s social and economic reforms of the early 1990s.  

Born in Shanghai in 1958, Wong Karwai moved with his parents to Hong Kong at the age of 5, while his older brother and sister stayed in Shanghai with relatives. The filmmaker harbors a strong connection with Shanghai. “Personally, I can see stories of my brother, sister and family in the novel,” Wong said in a video interview posted by the show’s official Weibo account on December 27, 2023.  

“On the surface, it’s a story about [basic human needs], but essentially it’s about changes in society and the times,” Wong said.  

Wong likened the novel to one of China’s most famous paintings, Along the River During the Qingming Festival. Painted by Zhang Zeduan in 1085, the long scroll painting provides a detailed panorama of daily scenes along the banks of the Bian River during the Song Dynasty (960-1127) in what is today’s Kaifeng, Henan Province.  

Wong bought the novel’s screen rights in 2014 and launched his project in 2017. Known for lengthy productions, Wong and his team spent six years on the series. Shooting started in 2020 and took three years to finish.  

The novel stands out for its dialogue, written completely in Shanghai dialect. To faithfully showcase the regional color of Shanghai, most of the show’s dialogue is delivered in Shanghainese.  

Not only does Wong speak fluent Shanghainese, but so does his leading cast, all born and raised in Shanghai. The exception is Xin Zhilei, who hails from northeastern China’s Heilongjiang Province and portrays Lili, also a northern Chinese.  

The show is broadcast in two versions: original Shanghainese and dubbed in Putonghua. To recreate the aura of 1990s Shanghai, the production team took out an ad in the city’s Xinmin Evening News asking for donations of vintage items to use as set props. Shanghai’s citizens responded in droves.  

They received boxes of everything from cassettes and teacups to brick Motorola phones, an old piano and even a car. Lead actor Hu Ge (A Bao) donated his mother’s cherished Flying Man brand sewing machine.  

Sound and Silence
Viewers have described Blossoms Shanghai as a “noisy” show, as its characters are always talking. Often, the chatter occurs during dinner parties. Whether in the multi-story Zhizhen Garden restaurant or the low-key Night Tokyo bistro, characters rattle on constantly. 
“Chinese people love to talk during dinner parties. Lots of vivid conversations, drama and scenes happen during dinner parties that fade to silence when dinner is over,” Jin Yucheng told NewsChina.  

Jin called dinner parties “forums for interesting conversation.” He mused that if a writer recorded conversations in a restaurant for three hours a night and compiled them into a novel, it would be a masterpiece.  

“Literature records the details of life. The Golden Lotus (a satirical Chinese novel from the early 17th century), for instance, records how people of the time interacted, ate, slept, chatted and quarreled. Without this book, we wouldn’t know the vivid lives of people in the late Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). That’s the very function of literature,” Jin said. 

Jin called Blossoms Shanghai a “novel of cacophony.” He has characters freely speak their minds, which they do. A lot. Wong Kar-wai stays faithful to this feature of the novel. In many scenes, the rapid-fire dialogue is delivered over food, snacks and drinks.  

Jin seldom writes what characters are thinking or about the larger socioeconomic context, believing that the “minute details of daily life of ordinary people are what create modern history.”  

In contrast to all the conversing, the Shanghainese word buxiang (literally meaning “silence”) appears more than 1,000 times in the novel.  

But Wong feels this translation falls short. “It’s more like ‘leaving blank space.’ Anything I don’t want to say or I can’t say, I keep silent. It’s a creative approach – I only say what I want to say, what I can say and what I can say well. Buxiang is embedded in the code of Jin Yucheng’s writing, and also the very code of my adaptation,” Wong said.  

However, the TV series fills in other blanks left in Jin’s novel. For example, Wong explores A Bao’s ascent to the upper class, detailing his business dealings and, more importantly, stock trades. The drama of Shanghai’s stock market in the 90s inspired many previous bestselling novels, such as Men and Women in the Stock Market (1999) and Joys and Sorrows in the Stock Market (2000) by Ying Jianzhong.  

In Wong’s adaptation, music drives the narrative. The pop-heavy soundtrack of 80s and 90s hits not only offer insight into the characters but also stoke the nostalgia that has been crucial to the show’s success.  

Their licensing fees, however, were not gotten for a song. According to industry insiders, the show’s 57 pop tracks cost an estimated 10 million yuan (US$1.4m).  

To portray the complicated relationship between A Bao and Night Tokyo bistro’s manager Ling Zi, the show cues in “Suddenly a Love Story,” the theme from Japanese TV show Tokyo Love Story (1991), which was hugely popular in East Asia. The unfulfilled romance in the Japanese drama mirrors the relationship of A Bao and Ling Zi.  

Other tracks, such as “My Future is not a Dream” from Taiwanese singer Tom Chang and “Glorious Days” from Hong Kong band Beyond, lyrically epitomize the dreams, ideals and possibilities of 90s China. In particular, the Hokkien folk song “To Win You Have to Fight” (Ai Piah Cia Eh Ya) was a favorite among young entrepreneurs at the time.  

“The soundtrack Wong Kar-wai chose for Blossoms Shanghai is quite diverse, ranging from classical and rock to pop, folk opera and revolutionary songs. He also chose music from different regions of the world,” music critic Peng Peng told NewsChina, “Tracks from across the world converge in a TV show to provide a sonic portrait of 90s Shanghai, a fertile land where the latest trends, thoughts and cultures all rocked together.”  

The lobby of the Fairmont Peace Hotel, Shanghai (Photos by VCG)

A stand selling pork ribs and rice cakes on the Huanghe Road since the road becomes a hot tourist visiting spot after the TV show, January 14, 2024 (Photos by VCG)

A night view over The Bund area in Shanghai, January 28, 2024 (Photos by VCG)

Visitors take photos in front of the posters outside the Fairmont Peace Hotel, January 13, 2024(Photos by VCG)

Taishengyuan restaurant in Huanghe Road, the prototype of Zhizhen Garden restaurant in Blossoms Shanghai, promotes Spring Festival set meals, January 13, 2024 (Photos by VCG)

We Love the 90s 
After the show premiered, tourism to Shanghai surged. Fans from around the country crowded featured locations for a glimpse of 90s Shanghai. Huanghe Road, which at the time was teeming with bustling restaurants, has become one of the city’s most popular tourist destinations.  

A Bao founded his firm at the Fairmont Peace Hotel’s “No.72 English Suite.” Seeking to cash in on the show’s popularity, the hotel renamed the room the “Blossoms Shanghai Suite” and raised its price from 15,930 yuan (US$2,223) to 16,800 yuan (US$2,346) per night. During the Spring Festival holiday, its rate peaked at 22,888 yuan (US$3,194).  

Meanwhile, traditional dishes such as pork ribs and rice cakes, sweet Dingsheng rice cakes and braised chicken feet have been hot sellers for tourists seeking a taste of Shanghai.  

Blossoms Shanghai is rated 8.5/10 on Douban, China’s leading media review website, where critics and casual viewers acclaimed its stunning visual aesthetics, cinematic quality and non-linear narrative.  

More importantly, the show sparked nostalgia for a booming Shanghai, a city positioned as an international business and cultural hub since the late 1800s.  

“The show talks about men and women, food, streets, the city and its people. It also depicts the times. Just like its title, the series shows a time of blossoming prosperity when people sought to keep up with the times, even if they may couldn’t match the fast pace,” film critic Sai Ren told NewsChina.  

“It has provided a splendid group portrait of people in the prime of the reform and opening-up policy. The show takes me back to the old days when people were full of hope for a bright future and when society had lots of room for people to change their destinies,” Douban user Stomache commented.  

“As the most economically advanced and pro-business city in the Chinese mainland at the time, Shanghai witnessed the rise of many millionaires like A Bao and the fall of many unfortunate souls,” Douban user Fuermoya commented, “In the surging tides of the times, countless stories of joy and sorrow can be told.” 

Jin Yucheng, author of the novel Blossoms Shanghai (Photo by VCG)