Shanghainese-American Bromance – Seeing Shanghai from a new perspective

As anyone who has been following Cultural Keys for a while knows, we are a very Beijing-centric company. That isn’t to say we don’t like other cities, but we certainly know more about Beijing than anywhere else!

But what of other cities, perhaps ones that might have a history of tiffs with our beloved Beijing? Shanghai, for example. We decided it was time to explore a bit further afield, and were lucky enough to come across just the person to help us understand our southern cousins a bit better.

Read on to find out what we learnt about Beijing’s southern sister, Shanghai!

It will come as a surprise to no one that right now, the world is a little divided. Maybe to a greater or lesser degree, but the fact is, there is still too much ‘them and us’ in the world. Whether that’s between nations, races or regions, it’s still an all-too-common problem.

Beijing and Shanghai could certainly be said to share a love-hate relationship. Citizens of one often don’t exactly speak highly of the other, with disparaging remarks often shared over mahjong tables or bowls of spicy noodles.

But if misunderstanding and assumption is one cause of this societal ill, what is the solution? Well enquiry and experience of course! “I’m not going to Shanghai to find out what those southerners are like!” I hear you (maybe) shouting. Well luckily, a couple of guys have already done that for you.

Leo Fang and George Christopher have been friends for 10 years. They originally met in Shanghai and lived together in the city for several months (after American George had spent most of his China life in Beijing). Their friendship led to them writing, filming and editing ‘Shanghainese-American Bromance‘ (SAB), a three-part look at Shanghai from the outside in where they both play caricatures of themselves. Leo takes George around the city,  in the hopes of showing George’s character what the city is really about.

The show was released on Youtube and BiliBili (a Chinese video platform) last year. We were fortunate enough to have a chat with George about his thoughts on the Beijing-Shanghai divide, what creating the the show meant to him and his definitive answer to the question of which city is better!

Hi George.  Thanks for taking the time to be interviewed! Please tell us a little bit more about yourself.

Thanks for the opportunity! Well, I am an American, primarily working as an actor, and have been going back and forth between the US and China for 12 years.  I’ve lived in China for 7 of those years.  In the last 5 years I have worked extensively in Chinese TV and film.

Great job on making the show. What was your inspiration for doing so?

I had just finished the lead role in the TV series Red Star over China, which was totally exhausting, and my good friend Leo, a Shanghainese guy, had just returned from completing his MBA in the US.  He and I started developing a show centered around our friendship.  Originally it was inspired by James Corden’s Carpool Karaoke, but we realized that this format wouldn’t work with us because, well, we aren’t celebrities!

After several months of trial and error—with regards to writing, shooting and re-shooting—eventually the general story for Shanghainese-American Bromance took shape.

Since its release, how have people’s reactions been? Has there been any negative feedback?

The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive.  I was expecting some anti-foreigner comments but there hasn’t been one.  People all seem to enjoy it.  They mostly say it is “funny”, “really well shot” and “interesting.”

In your experience, both filming the show and living in both Shanghai and Beijing, what do you think are the biggest differences between the two cities?

The people.  And that’s what the story is about.  Shanghainese people don’t have the same direct, outgoing personalities that are more common in Beijingers.  They are much more reserved.  They also speak a language that is quite different from Mandarin, whereas Beijinghua (the dialect in Beijing) is very closely related to Mandarin. 

Shanghai is also arguably more international than Beijing, and, in my opinion, easier to live in as a foreigner.  Beijing, on the other hand, embodies aspects of traditional Chinese culture much more than Shanghai does.  Of course, this has everything to do with the respective histories of these two cities, which are very, very different.

In the scene on the Bund, people didn’t want to interact with you. Is that really a common Shanghai characteristic?

Well, the Shanghainese people did interact with me, but to a point.  We were obviously kind of weird, dressed in pajamas and holding go-pros.  I think Shanghainese people are used to foreigners filming and doing weird things, so they aren’t as interested/curious as Chinese from other places may be. 

But yes, as I said, generally they are more reserved and stand-offish than northerners.  Indeed, on the Bund the people who were the most interested in interacting with us were waidiren or non-Shanghainese.

…my ingrained prejudice towards them was founded on a few superficial interactions that I had had with Shanghainese people…

You’ve lived in China a long time, and are fluent in Chinese, but did you learn a lot of new things about China while making this show?

I learned a ton about Shanghai.  Besides the people we met through shooting, Leo told me a lot about Shanghai in the ’80s and ’90s which explains some of the reasons for people’s behavior.  How in those days people were all crammed together in tiny little houses with no privacy.   This was before Shanghai became the bustling metropolis that it would eventually grow into in the 2000s.  He told me how hard Shanghainese people have to work, both then and now, to survive in this rapidly growing city. 

This also made me realize that my ingrained prejudice towards them was founded on a few superficial interactions that I had had with Shanghainese people, as well as me just conforming to what everyone else says about Shanghainese people.  After I understood them more deeply that prejudice kind of slowly disappeared from my mind, which was awesome, because that is also what the show is about.

SAB is obviously a comedy, but what do you hope people will take away from the show?

As I said, the show really is about regional or group prejudice, and how it arises from a combination of limited contact with the group in question as well as conforming to generally held views of the people in question.  That’s the deeper message wrapped up in this goofy comedy and centered around the genuine friendship between Leo and me.  

So yeah, the hope is that if people watch it to the end they will think about what groups they may have prejudice towards and consider whether or not they have actually had a significant amount of personal contact with those people, and ultimately to discover that prejudice is just an ego/self-serving perspective that really has little basis in reality.  Ultimately that it doesn’t really serve anyone at all.

I think that all negative stereotypes exist because they give a sense of validation to the person who possesses them…. It makes one feel a) superior to the group/people in question and b) gives them a sense that they “know” who these people are.

What was the biggest challenge you faced in the filming of the show?

Shooting wasn’t really a problem.  We had to add a lot because we found half-way through that the story was a little thin.  But the real challenge was editing.  I spent a LONG time editing, and really had to learn some editing skills to complete the task.  I edited the project on and off for about 2 years.  During that time, many scenes were thrown out, re-arranged, cut down, and such. 

We also added the confessionals/narration to give a clearer structure to the story.  It took a lot of back and forth between Leo and I—it was a true collaboration.   All thanks to WeChat, because most of these back and forths happened while I was in the US and he was in China.  I couldn’t have done it without him.  We discussed every creative decision throughout the long process.

In an age of pervasive technology, access to information and easy travel, why do you think negative stereotypes and cultural misunderstandings still exist?

I think that all negative stereotypes exist because they give a sense of validation to the person who possesses them.  This is the only reason they persist—it’s because of the sort of twisted, emotional satisfaction that a person derives from their particular prejudices.  It makes one feel a) superior to the group/people in question and b) gives them a sense that they “know” who these people are, which is also emotionally satisfying.

Travel and information alone isn’t enough to break down stereotypes and prejudice because they are so gratifying to the ego that a person can travel and look up information with the aim of justifying and strengthening their prejudices.

One way to challenge them and break them down is to open oneself up to interacting and communicating with people from the group in question and on a personal level.  When you do, I believe you always find the common humanity that we all share.  And when you see someone as the same as you, it’s difficult to justify being prejudiced towards them. 

You used a lot of Shanghainese in the show. What are a couple of key (family friendly!) words you can teach us?

If you speak Mandarin Chinese, you should be fine. But in any case, throwing in a few words like these should help win people over!

Nong Ho  (Ni hao) – Hello       
Sha Ya (Xie ya) – Thank you
Chang Dio (Qiang diao)  – Style               
Shanghaining – Shanghainese person
Doh Sao Tsao Piao  (Duo shao chao piao)  – How much does it cost?

Final question: which do you love more, Beijing or Shanghai?

Honestly, I like both.  Shanghai is more comfortable to live in.  Less traffic, a little less crowded, better urban planning, and a little cleaner.

But I still prefer the culture of Beijing and the way of the people because it is more familiar to me (more like the way people are in Chicago where I’m from).  Also, I have a better linguistic connection to Beijingers since I speak Mandarin (ED: big grin from George!)  If I spoke fluent Shanghainese, things might be different!

Thanks so much to George for taking the time to talk with us. Above is the first episode of Shanghainese-American Bromance. The show can be seen in its entirety on Youtube, or at BiliBili at the link here

What do you think of the show? Did you learn something new about Shanghai? Do you think it’s a good way for people to learn more about places and people they have little experience of? Would you like to see more shows like this about different places in China? Let us know in the comments below, or on Facebook or Twitter. We always love hearing from you!

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