SHANGHAI dialect sitcoms used to flourish on local TV screens and influenced generations of people with their humor, sarcasm and originality. Many classics reside in the memory of local people, such as “Old Uncle,” “Shanghai Story” and “The Black Teahouse.”
However, in recent years there have been very few Shanghai dialect programs on radio or TV. They are fading because of the nationwide “Speak Mandarin” campaign and relevant regulation from the State Administration of Radio and Television to standardize the language on provincial satellite TV.
But the situation will change next month when a new original Shanghai dialect sitcom, “Haha Restaurant,” is set to debut. The 30-minute sitcom will be aired daily on the local Drama Channel at 6:30pm starting September 1.
Yao Yuan, producer of the sitcom, says Shanghai dialect programs still have a big market. The “Old Uncle” series, which has been rebroadcast for four years, retains high viewership.
“Such sitcoms appeal to both Shanghai natives and new Shanghainese,” Yao says. “Typical Shanghai culture and lifestyle presented in the shows are echoed by the natives, and they are also engaging to the new Shanghainese who want to learn the dialect to quickly merge into the life here.”
Yao adds that they are also inspired by the sitcom star Zhao Benshan, who has developed a series of entertainment products based on northern Chinese dialects and cultures. They hope that “Haha Restaurant” is just the beginning of a new collaboration.
“Shanghai used to be an important platform for southern theaters and cultures, but now the decline of local dialect also threatens the traditional local theater, such as Shanghai farce and Huju Opera,” he says.
The sitcom is about two brothers vying to be the heir to a restaurant that has gone through tough times but then emerged from it. They try all means to win the competition. Most scenes are set in the restaurant, and the show features a variety of funny stories.
Some of the year’s hottest trends and topics are also included in the plot, such as the huge popularity of the South Korean idol drama “My Love From the Star.”
Different from former Shanghai dialect sitcoms that were more like televised episodes of Shanghai farce, the new production makes much more use of different camera angles and stunts.
Xu Ziyan, a retired Chinese teacher in her 60s, says it’s urgent for today’s children to learn the language of their hometown.
“Though my granddaughter understands some Shanghainese, she can’t pronounce correctly or speak some simple words,” Xu says. “The sitcom will be a chance for her to learn about the dialect and the diversity of Chinese culture.”
Xu and her friends mention an array of TV shows and comedies in Shanghainese, including “Stories by Ah Qing” and “Three Happy Brothers.” But these shows cater mostly to middle-aged and elderly people. They hope that the new sitcom can bring new vitality to this genre and attract a younger audience.
Children and teenagers of today have little chance to practice Shanghai dialect since Mandarin is required in schools and kindergartens. Many local kids don’t speak the dialect even at home. Many parents don’t think it’s a big deal because more time can be saved for the children to learn English and other subjects.
The situation has put many Shanghai dialect TV and radio programs under the threat of losing audience.
“Ah Fugen,” a trademark Shanghai dialect radio news talk show launched in 1961, has decreased its airing frequency from daily to once a week. The program has influenced generations of local people for its casual and easygoing style.
According to a recent online survey on Weibo where 1,300 people responded, two-thirds of the city’s residents think it is necessary to preserve Shanghai dialect. Many netizens expressed their nostalgia toward some quality Shanghai dialect sitcoms and shows that they consider to be cherished memories.
Nearly 30 percent of the interviewees think it is important for children to practice the dialect and learn about Shanghai culture. Only few local interviewees think Shanghai dialect is not necessary. They say that Mandarin and English are more commonly used in their daily life, and there is no need to learn the dialect.
There are many efforts in the city to protect and revive the dialect, including setting up clubs, publishing a Shanghai dialect dictionary, hosting Shanghainese pop concerts and using dialect at transport terminals.
Experts note that Mandarin and Shanghai dialect are not contradictory and Mandarin should not be promoted at the cost of losing regional cultures. Professor Zhong Fulan of East China Normal University says Shanghai dialect has its unique cultural value and charm.
The Shanghai Mass Art Center recently organized a Shanghai dialect summer camp for local kids to learn and practice the language. Ge Mingming, veteran radio producer and a Shanghai dialect professional, is the camp’s coach.
On the first day of the camp, Ge found that very few local kids can use the dialect even to make a brief self-introduction.
“Most kids are so used to thinking in Mandarin,” Ge says. “They lack a good environment for practice.”
He then combined the dialect with distinctive Shanghai culture and scenes, teaching children sing well-known Shanghainese ballads and play longtang (lane) games. They were also taught how to pronounce Shanghai snacks and foods.
A program of the ongoing Shanghai Citizens Art Festival, the annual Shanghai dialect contest, is also under way to preserve and promote the fast-fading dialect. Finals will be held in November.
The light-hearted contest is open to everyone, including expats and new learners. So far it has attracted several hundred people living in the city. They have brought their stage performances of Huju Opera, Shanghai dialect songs, Shanghai farce and storytelling.
Other Shanghai dialect programs on local TV
“Say Something Tonight”
Entertainment Channel, Mondays-Fridays, 10pm
The 30-minute talk show is presented by the post-80s generation crosstalk performer Jin Yan, who comments on news events and social phenomenon from a creative perspective. Jin’s humor and distinctive hosting style has won him a big fan base.
“Stories by Ah Qing”
Entertainment Channel, Mondays-Fridays, 7:15pm
Comedy star Ah Qing (Chen Guoqing) tells dramatic stories taking place in the city. The stories are based on real-life events and are put onto the screen in the form of a mini drama.
“New Old Uncle”
Entertainment Channel, daily, 6:30pm
The televised mediation program helps local citizens solve problems of interpersonal relationship and family issues. Veterans such as Bai Wanqing and Huang Feijue are invited to help mediate domestic conflicts publicly.
“Three Happy Brothers”
Entertainment Channel, daily, 6pm
The hilarious talk show gathers local comedy stars Ji Yibiao, Shu Yue and Pan Qianwei to talk about interesting social events. Elements of talk show, mime and sketch are incorporated into the program.
For more information about or register for the Shanghai dialect contest, visit www.cnfolk.org.