Thirties Shanghai

New drama wins plaudits for focus on thirty-something women

Tong Yao-w

Tong Yao: the “new Zhang Ziyi”

Women are taking over Chinese television this summer. Sisters Who Make Waves, which debuted on Mango TV, the online streaming platform owned by Hunan Satellite TV, has taken top billing, with critics delighting in a format that embraces older women (see WiC500). But another drama about three women in their thirties has also been making waves. Nothing But 30, which is broadcast on Dragon Satellite TV and streams on Tencent Video, centres on the lives of three women in Shanghai as they navigate the different challenges they face in their relationships, families and careers.

Perhaps the most talked about character on the show is Gu Jia (played by actress Tong Yao). She is a stay-at-home mother and her husband is a wealthy chief executive of a fireworks production company. But the plot makes it clear that Gu, smart and savvy, is the real reason behind his success. She also won’t take no for an answer: when her son is rejected by one of the most coveted international schools in Shanghai, she befriends the wife of a school trustee in the hope of getting him a place.

Another character is Wang Manni (Jiang Shuying), an ambitious migrant worker. As a sales executive with a luxury fashion brand, she has to deal with office infighting, as well as discontent from her parents, who constantly nag her to return to her hometown and settle down.

The third woman on the show is Zhong Xiaoqin (Mao Xiaotong). She also works and is married too but she and her husband have little in common, with each living their own lives (she is a cat-lover and he is obsessed with fish). One day Zhong finds that she is pregnant. Her husband, who had a traumatic childhood, is adamant about not keeping the child. What will she do?

The female ensemble has generated a lot of buzz on social media, often from viewers who say the stories have tapped into the contemporary life of many women in China.

“The series has become hugely popular because it tackles a lot of cruel realities that women in their 30s encounter. For instance, how do you choose between family and career? Does a child’s education always have to be a move onward and upward? How do marriage and love coexist? Do we love fiercely or do we settle for a peaceful life? The plot really addresses these questions,” reasons Jiemian, a news portal.

“I have watched the show since the beginning and it has brought many emotions to me – that is, it is really hard to be a woman: we work hard every day and we don’t complain; when we don’t speak up we are bullied; and those of us who have a little bit of money have to watch out for other women who want to steal our husbands,” one viewer claimed.

Another gushed: “After watching the show, I suddenly felt that being 30 is not only about getting married, having children or having a career. Even if you are 30 and you are single and your career is not where you want it to be, so what?”

Zhang Xiaobo, the director, said age is less important in his view than attitude. “In my mind, 30 is just a number and the ‘so what’ is the real drama. In this contemporary drama I didn’t want to deliberately create too much anxiety or be overly sensational. But I wanted to portray reality and characters that are colourful, that could touch our audiences and prompt some introspection,” he told Jiemian.

The show has still faced criticism for its portrayal of some of Shanghai’s more crass consumerism. In one of the most widely circulated videos online, Gu is seen carrying a limited-edition Chanel shoulder bag to a social gathering where the rest of the wealthy wives show up with Hermès Birkin bags. Gu later discovers that she has been cropped out of the group photos that the housewives have posted on social media. So to impress them, she works her connections and tracks down a more vintage brand of Hermès bag so that she is accepted by the group at the next gathering.

As Gu’s husband asks incredulously, “What kind of bag is more expensive than a car?”

Still, the popularity of Nothing But 30 adds to the suggestion that audiences are becoming more discerning in their choice of female-led TV series. “Fans are no longer satisfied with female characters that are ‘simple, silly and sweet’ as portrayed in regular TV dramas. Instead, they want to see characters that are not only mature, but also financially and emotionally independent,” concluded Yiyu Guancha, a news site specialising in the entertainment industry.

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