Between Shanghai and Hong Kong: Blossoms Shanghai as a tale of two cities

Academic Ying Zhu observes that in Blossoms Shanghai directed by Wong Kar-wai, Shanghai is vivid, vibrant and evocative of both the glamour of a colonial Hong Kong and the hustle and bustle of a gilded-age Shanghai. The TV drama speaks of the historical relationship between the two cities, and when the bright lights have dimmed, the ruins of the spectacle and the broken dreams. If geopolitical reshuffling in recent years has diminished Hong Kong’s lustre as a first-tier global city and the link between China and the rest of the world, what does the future have in store for Shanghai?
A publicity poster for Blossoms Shanghai starring Hu Ge. (Internet)
A publicity poster for Blossoms Shanghai starring Hu Ge. (Internet)

Blossoms Shanghai (《繁花》), the 30-episode TV drama, captures in a prosaic fashion life in the fast lane of A Bao, a dashing Shanghai man with a can-do spirit who accumulates dazzling wealth during Shanghai’s boom times. Market speculation and import-export manipulation were shortcuts to getting rich, and Bao is dexterous at both. Blossoms Shanghai captures a moment of Shanghai in golden glory and a state of euphoria.

The impressionistic and stylised images of Shanghai in Blossoms Shanghai attests to the director Wong Kar-wai’s abiding yearning for Shanghai, the city of his birth. Blossoms Shanghai also carries a torch for Hong Kong, with the drama bearing imprints of Wong’s adoptive city, from his generous appropriation of Hong Kong pop for soundtracks to his actual plot linking Hong Kong to Shanghai of the 1990s. The Shanghai in Wong’s cinematic imagination is vivid, vibrant and evocative of both the glamour of a colonial Hong Kong and the hustle and bustle of a gilded-age Shanghai. 

Hong Kong became the envy of Shanghai by the 1980s, and a model for economic growth when “getting rich is glorious” became the motto for China under Deng Xiaoping. 

Learning from the Pearl of the Orient

The historical inter-city relationship between Hong Kong and Shanghai has been commented upon by many. Leo Ou-fan, for one, sees Hong Kong and Shanghai as mirror images of and thus reference points for each other. As Michelle Huang reminds us, both fishing-village-turned-port cities with colonial footprints, Hong Kong was known as the Pearl of the Orient while Shanghai the Paris of the East.

More cosmopolitan than Hong Kong during the first half of the 20th century, the Paris of the East once dwarfed the Pearl of the Orient. As the old glory of Shanghai faded amidst China’s multitude of political campaigns during Mao’s era, Hong Kong blossomed, with its rise benefiting from the inflow of talents and resources from Shanghai. Hong Kong became the envy of Shanghai by the 1980s, and a model for economic growth when “getting rich is glorious” became the motto for China under Deng Xiaoping. 

People visit a promenade next to Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, China on 18 January 2024. (Dale de la Rey/AFP)
People visit a promenade next to Victoria Harbour in Hong Kong, China, on 18 January 2024. (Dale de la Rey/AFP)

Blossoms Shanghai dutifully reminds us of the role Hong Kong played in Shanghai’s revival, which led to the roaring prosperity of Shanghai in the early 1990s. The drive to get rich in the 1990s Shanghai mirrors what the historian Frank Welsh calls the “single-minded dedication to money-making” of Hong Kong in the 1960s, which eventually transformed Hong Kong from a poor fishing village to an economic powerhouse.

Wong’s TV drama might have inadvertently rehabilitated the reputation of Shanghai’s "petite bourgeoisie" traditionally associated with being snobbish and mercenary, characteristics not infrequently linked to Hong Kong. The final episode of the show gives us a glimpse of Shanghai’s new CBD, which shares a glittering skyline similar to Hong Kong’s. 

Registering simultaneously colonial nostalgia and forward imagination, Blossoms Shanghai celebrates the Hong Kong-Shanghai nexus. Part of the TV drama is set in Shanghai’s storied Peace Hotel, the 1920s art deco building on the Bund. Built by the Sassoon family and initially named Cathay Hotel, the iconic building was one of the first skyscrapers in Asia, a symbol of “Shanghai modern”. Cathay featured a floor of rooms called “national suites”, with varying decorations simulating different nation-states.

In the first episode, Bao is groomed by one mysterious Uncle with old-world sophistication and apparent deep ties to a Republican era Shanghai. Uncle teaches Bao the art of performing success by dressing well and living large. The British suite at Peace Hotel is the chosen dwelling for acting rich and powerful. The link to colonial Hong Kong does not go unnoticed.  

Bao is intimate with but remains unattached to any of the three leading ladies whose life trajectories intertwine with his. Ballads of love and loss by the Hong Kong pop star Jacky Cheung encapsulate the pain and the heartache. 

Auditory lessons

The presence of Hong Kong can be further glimpsed through Wong’s effective utilisation of Hong Kong pops of the 1990s. From Tom Chang’s My Future Is Not a Dream to Beyond’s Glorious Years, 90s Cantonese and Mandarin pop ballads via Hong Kong fills the drama’s soundtrack, serving as poignant commentaries on or revelations about at times inscrutable characters and often ambivalent relationships.

Bao is intimate with but remains unattached to any of the three leading ladies whose life trajectories intertwine with his. Ballads of love and loss by the Hong Kong pop star Jacky Cheung encapsulate the pain and the heartache. 

The photo taken on 7 January 2024 shows people visiting Peace Hotel, a historic location that features in the Chinese television series "Blossoms Shanghai" directed by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, in Shanghai, China. (AFP)
The photo taken on 7 January 2024 shows people visiting Peace Hotel, a historic location that features in the Chinese television series "Blossoms Shanghai" directed by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, in Shanghai, China. (AFP)

Loyalty and friendship are two other major themes that lean on Hong Kong pop, or songs made popular in China via Hong Kong, to elucidate. Characters fight and bicker but remain intensely loyal to each other. The soulful song Looking Back Again by the Taiwanese singer Chiang Yu-Heng fades in when two women who have been through thick and thin part ways. They lightly wave goodbye across the street from each other. One gestures to offer financial support; the other gestures no. Little is said between them but the song takes over. The same song appears at various times throughout the show to accompany multiple scenes of departure and parting, bringing the emotion to its crescendo.

More sad and sorrow than sweet and romantic, these “theme songs” or audio motifs, add shades and layers to the unspoken feelings and suppressed emotions. We hear no diegetic sound as characters remain speechless, leaving the seductively moody non-diegetic sound to “speak volumes”. In Mandarin and Cantonese, the songs sung by Hong Kong pop singers, or by Taiwan singers but made popular in China via Hong Kong in the 1990s, affectively convey Wong’s story of Shanghai.

Beauty becomes the story in Wong’s films. But beauty is fleeting. And the tide of change always sweeps.

Flips and parallels

Jin Yuchen, the author of the original novel actually made the connection between Shanghai and Hong Kong in his preface, which referenced Wong’s 1990 film, Days of Being Wild. Jin reminisced about how the ending of Days of Being Wild, despite being set in Hong Kong, reminded him of Shanghai: “Suddenly everything flipped. Those 30 seconds had the flavour of Shanghai.”

The ending Jin referred to sees a slick young man played by Tony Leung comb his hair and straighten his suit in a small attic-like room, shot via Wong’s trademark of tight frames. Small apartments and attics as well as narrow corridors and stairways are the fixtures of dense urban scape in both Hong Kong and Shanghai, making settings in two cities in Wong’s framing interchangeable. 

The photo taken on 7 January 2024 shows a woman posing for photos next to a poster of Chinese television series "Blossoms Shanghai" directed by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, in Shanghai, China. (AFP)
The photo taken on 7 January 2024 shows a woman posing for photos next to a poster of Chinese television series "Blossoms Shanghai" directed by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, in Shanghai, China. (AFP)

But Wong’s Shanghai is an abstraction, a city devoid of real traces of concrete political and economic reality and history. Historical events are mentioned only in passing, serving as backdrop to his story of individuals swimming in the tide of change that led to the revival of Shanghai’s old animal spirit.

Wong’s camera lingers lovingly and leisurely on his gorgeous-looking characters who are adorned with snug outfits of high fashion and mesmerising colours. Beauty becomes the story in Wong’s films. But beauty is fleeting. And the tide of change always sweeps. As his characters disperse, depart, and move on, lights dim in Wong’s once glitzy Shanghai. What one sees at the end of the show are the ruins of the spectacle and the broken dreams.

Conjoined at its roots, Hong Kong and Shanghai have served as each other’s mirror past. Would the pair mirror each other in their future trajectories?

When all good things come to an end

There is an old Chinese saying that “all banquets must come to an end”, which applies literarily and figuratively in Blossoms Shanghai as the major settings of the show are private dining rooms and clubs where deals are made and relationships revolve or dissolve.

Underneath the facade of business intrigue, Blossoms Shanghai is at its heart a story of unfulfilled ambitions and unconsummated relationships. At the end of the show, Bao loses everything but preserves his integrity and his loyalty to friends. He is prepared to start anew, if given an opportunity.

The final episode of the show has Bao stop by Hong Kong in 1997 to witness the Hong Kong handover. It was Hong Kong that offered a vision of what a globalised Shanghai looked like in the 1990s. Conjoined at its roots, Hong Kong and Shanghai have served as each other’s mirror past. Would the pair mirror each other in their future trajectories? As the show ends, Bao returns to his hometown in anticipation of a new round of business ventures, and perhaps a new boom time.  

The photo taken on 7 January 2024 shows people visiting Huanghe Road, a historic location that features in the Chinese television series "Blossoms Shanghai" directed by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, in Shanghai, China. (AFP)
The photo taken on 7 January 2024 shows people visiting Huanghe Road, a historic location that features in the Chinese television series Blossoms Shanghai directed by Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai, in Shanghai, China. (AFP)

The geopolitical reshuffling in recent years has diminished Hong Kong’s lustre as a first-tier global city and the link between China and the rest of the world. What does the future have in store for Shanghai? Once the glamour fades, what is left is the reminder that we are all on borrowed time. Blossoms Shanghai is a meditation on loss, missed opportunities, fond memories, the passage of time and the ravages of history. 

Twenty-five years ago, Wong’s film, In the Mood for Love, which features a Shanghai expat community in Hong Kong, included three title cards that read: “It is a restless moment... That era has passed. Nothing that belonged to it exists any more... He remembers those vanished years as though looking through a dusty window pane. The past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.” This captures well the sentiment of Blossoms Shanghai. 

Blossoms Shanghai is a tale of the rise and fall of a twin city conjured up by a filmmaker whose attempt to recapture the magic of his childhood has brought perpetual displacement and everlasting sorrow. The result is Shanghai and Hong Kong in a fanciful freeze-frame. 

Related: Wong Kar-wai's Blossoms Shanghai stirs up nostalgia for Shanghai of the 1990s | Shikumen houses: The first classrooms for the people of Shanghai | TV series Blossoms Shanghai fuelling city's consumption boom: Will it last?