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Dabbling in dialect
By Xu Wei

Ever since the Speak Mandarin campaign was launched, Mandarin has been popularized throughout the city and its public venues. Shanghai dialect is rapidly fading despite various preservation efforts.

Most young people just want to speak Mandarin, which seems more cosmopolitan compared to the quaint and colorful dialect.

One of the latest, modest efforts to revive the dialect is "Wonderful Shanghai," a Shanghai dialect talk show podcast series that's free on computer, cellphone and iPad. It's videotaped for later viewing. The clips are available at http://sakurapanda.libsyn.com/ or http://www.8508.com/twis/profile/?uid=101285.

It has been produced since last August by three Shanghai natives - Tao Li, Duan Mufei and Wang Wei - all born in the 1980s. They use simple audio software and put it together in their leisure time.

They also have a microblog. Some episodes present dialect quizzes.

They have produced 26 audio and video episodes, each around one hour long. In a two-man talk show format, they go back and forth on issues such as funny matchmaking stories, astrology culture and how to avoid sexual harassment on the bus.

Sometimes they invite a friend or Internet figure to host a show.

Now they are producing a show every one or two weeks.

The young Shanghainese hope the new media platform will help young people get to know the vivid dialect as well as traditional Shanghai culture.

Dai Yunxian, a 31-year-old cafe owner, is a loyal fan of "Wonderful Shanghai" and after a long day she enjoys watching and listening to funny verbs and colorful expressions. The Shanghainese woman doesn't have much of a chance to chat in dialect with her customers.

"The show is impressive because it has many funny and true stories about young people," she says. "It makes the show accessible."

The audio/video has been viewed 40,000 times since August and the young producers are encouraged.

"As a Shanghai native, I am proud of our dialect," says Tao, a construction project manager. "But I am shocked and worried that my little niece can't even speak some simple words."

That got him thinking about creating a Shanghai dialect talk show for young people. The idea appealed to his friends Duan Mufei, a primary school teacher, and Wang Wei, a home decor designer.

With a voice recorder and simple cellphone device, Tao and Duan hosted some light-hearted episodes. Wang is in charge of editing and Internet promotion.

"Originality and fun are the basics of our program," Tao says. "Everything we talk about must be true stories and experiences, things that really happen to us and our friends."

They stay current on events and hot topics - from food scandals and celebrity gossip to job hunting tips.

After they decide on a topic, it usually takes several days to prepare.

"We want to talk from a new and interesting perspective, so we need a good plan and we do considerable research and interviewing," Tao says.

At first, the program was mostly for fun, but then the trio decided they had a responsibility to try to preserve the dialect. They also wanted to provide young people with some advice on growing up and dealing with life's problems and confusion.

In one episode, they discussed the buzzword "tall, rich and handsome" to describe the ideal Chinese man who has it all (the ideal woman is "white, rich and beautiful"). Tao and his team invited just such a man as a guest, and he told the audience not to envy him because most men like him started from scratch, with nothing.

In an episode about extramarital affairs, a big reason for the rising divorce rate in the post-80s generation, they discussed reasons for infidelity and urged young people to work on maintaining good communication and mutual understanding.

"We also learn a lot from producing the show," says Duan, Tao's co-host. "Responses from young people online also give us food for thought. It's an exciting and interactive process."

Duan expects marry soon and says discussing marriage in the show makes him more aware of the importance of being a considerate husband.

Wang, the editor and Internet promoter, says he used to be shy in personal contacts, but he has met more people via the show and is more outgoing.

After presenting audio clips for seven months, the show started to broadcast live in March. Visuals and especial effects have been added to make the show more interesting and energetic.

The program will also feature a nostalgia series about traditional Shanghai culture, food and snacks, landmarks, vanishing street names, and tales of old Shanghai.

There will be some interactive episodes and quizzes in Shanghainese.

Since Mandarin is required in schools, many children and teenagers don't have much chance to speak Shanghainese. And many come from outside Shanghai, so their families don't speak the dialect and there's no sense of cultural loss. Many people understand some dialect but can't pronounce it correctly.

There have been endless proposals on "saving" the dialect, including using it daily in schools, printing textbooks, setting up clubs, and identifying older speakers of genuine dialect (hard to find) and recording them.

Qian Cheng, deputy director of the Shanghai Farce Troupe, recently suggested that education authorities spare an hour a day to offer children interesting games in dialect, storytelling and ballad singing. The farce troupe uses a lot of dialect.

He suggests a textbook about grammar, pronunciation and the history and culture of the local dialect.

He and other dialect experts volunteer to teach at gasanhu (a Shanghai dialect expression meaning free talks) club, a Shanghai dialect club, launched last August by the Shanghai Language Work Committee. It's based in an old shikumen (stone-gated lane house) community on Nanjing Road W. and meets every Saturday afternoon from 1pm to 3pm. Activities include casual chatting, singing local folk songs and playing traditional children's games in the longtang or lanes.

It teaches basic words and sentences for daily conversation and "provides an authentic and rich cultural ambience of the city," says Wu Dan, an organizer of the club.

Those who are interested can call 6231-3632 for more information.

Besides, Shanghai Radio Station's story channel FM107.2 now presents a children's story-telling program (8pm from Monday to Friday), part of which teaches simple dialect words and dialogue. In summer it will host a children's dialect competition.

Singer-songwriter Wang Hao has composed 10 light-hearted songs with lyrics in Shanghai dialect; the songs are amusing and provide insight into Shanghai culture.

Some are nostalgic about Wang's own childhood memories in Shanghai and others address problems of the post-70s and 90s generations, including school, family, work pressure, living cost and stress.

Wang notes that Cantonese, which is spoken widely in Hong Kong, has been well preserved and spread nationwide and worldwide with pop songs. Shanghainese, by contrast, is not "alive" in the same way and is confined to a very small area. Few people in the music industry are trying to promote Shanghai dialect, Wang says.

"I will not give up trying to preserve the city's cultural roots," Wang says.

"It's sad to see dialect gradually vanishing from the lives of our children. Though many can't speak it well, they need to be encouraged since it's the language of our hometown."

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