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October 23, 2011

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Dialect radio needs new voices

A famous Shanghai-dialect radio talk show is looking for a few good men and women to be groomed as apprentices to aging anchors, breathe new life into the program and carry on the colorful but fading dialect. Xu Wei reports.

Jane Qian holds a master's degree in finance from a UK university and works in a finance company, but she would much rather be a radio anchor chatting with a cohost in Shanghainese about the news, the high cost of housing and the latest scandal.

"As a Shanghai native, I think it's a shame I don't have many chances to speak Shanghainese with my clients and colleagues at work," Qian said after making the cut on October 7 in the first elimination round of a competition to find potential radio hosts with personality, poise and good Shanghainese.

The finals for the popular show "Ah Fugen" (Shanghainese nickname for farmer, also the word for male radio host) will be held on October 30. Judges and audience will choose several winners among 10 finalists, based on their fluency, quality of dialect, fast-thinking and versatility. Winners will be trained by the Shanghai Radio Station and invited to be guest hosts from time to time.

"Although Mandarin has been popularized, I will always love my hometown language," Qian says.

Qian is one of around 800 locals seeking to become the next generation of broadcasters in Shanghainese, a vivid 700-year-old dialect with many curious expressions.

More than 60 percent of applicants are post-1980s-generation college students and professionals. Many have majored in broadcasting and "hosting."

Ever since 1961, "Ah Fugen" has become a trademark radio talk show with an easy-going style. The previous three generations of anchors are well known for their dialect and style.

The popular hour-long news talk show is aired at noon every Saturday and Sunday on FM97.2.

Despite many efforts to promote it, Shanghai dialect is fading and efforts to find speakers of "pure" and authentic dialect for archival purposes have so far failed. That doesn't mean there aren't a lot of speakers of "good" Shanghainese, a dialect with many variations within the city of migrants.

The male anchor (Ah Fugen) of the talk show was originally cast as a wise old farmer while the female anchor (Xiaomei) was a curious and outgoing young intellectual in the countryside. In the past the main topics were about improving agricultural production and new agricultural science and technology.

With rapid urbanization in the 1980s, Ah Fugen and Xiaomei became city types. The show shifted its focus to everyday city life; cohosts chatted about daily news, offered tips on relieving stress, and provided information about entertainment and travel.

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of the program this year, the station is looking for the next generation of anchors. Ye Jin, the current Ah Fugen, and cohost Xiao Ling (Xiaomei) will both retire within five years and the radio station wants dialect speakers in the pipeline.

The two are the only professional Shanghainese radio anchors of the Shanghai East Radio which mostly broadcasts in Mandarin. One FM station does a little broadcasting in dialect.

Ye says that his biggest wish before retirement is to see a batch of young anchors who can speak beautiful Shanghainese.

"I am shocked that many local children and university students can't even speak simple words of Shanghainese, let alone authentic dialect," he says. "Some parents and teachers are pragmatic and utilitarian. They would rather children spend any extra time learning more English than Shanghai dialect."

Fortunately at the first elimination round, many of the contestants are office workers.

"Though I can't speak Shanghainese as well as the older people, it's still part of my life," says Zhao Jiening. "I don't expect an award from the contest. Taking part is just my way to help preserve the language."

"Losing Shanghainese would be a big loss of Shanghai culture," says eight-year-old Li Jiaqi, the youngest contestant. He says he entered the competition to practice his Shanghainese because he doesn't have many opportunities.

Although he doesn't know many Chinese characters, he fluently read a short news story about wedding trends in Shanghai.

"When I was in kindergarten, my teachers called me 'little Shanghainese' because I loved to learn and speak Shanghai dialect," Li says. "But now my classmates and I are now strictly banned from speaking Shanghainese at school. We can only speak Mandarin. Talking with my parents is the only way."

The contest has turned out to be extremely popular among young people and there's a lot of online discussion about dialect, says Zhang Minquan, an official of Shanghai East Radio.

"Shanghai dialect has so many vivid and funny verbs reflecting the city's culture, customs, and ups and downs over the centuries," says Zhang. "However, many young people today cannot communicate correctly. There's an urgent need to revive the dialect."

He says many young people pronounce chusheng zheng (birth certificate) as brute certificate, and xuesheng zheng (student certificate) as monkey certificate.

"Shanghai dialect has a unique sense of humor," Zhang adds. "It loses that humor when it's translated into Mandarin - it's just not the same."

He calls radio broadcasting in a studio a relatively "lonely" career compared with TV hosting in which the host himself or herself becomes a celebrity.

Since the government launched a nationwide "Speak Mandarin" campaign in the early 1990s, there have been very few Shanghai dialect programs on radio or TV.

Another dialect radio show is 30-minute "Funny Wang Xiaomao," a comedy broadcast from Monday through Saturday at 6pm on FM97.2.

Since its debut in 1987, the show about a warm-hearted local man has been a source of jokes; many people grew up listening to his stories. Ge Mingming, the show's director and creator, says a Shanghainese radio program makes a big impact on dialect speakers.

"Our program used to focus on social ethics and neighborhood relationships, but now we add topical subjects such as cyber love and the stock market," he says.

"Before the nationwide popularization of Mandarin, every migrant had to learn dialect to survive," he says. "But now many Shanghai people consider it impolite to speak dialect to a stranger and they prefer to start in Mandarin."

There are only a few TV shows in Shanghainese, including comedies "Stories by Ah Qing" and "Three Happy Brothers," both on the Entertainment Channel. Viewers are mostly middle-aged and elderly; producers are worried about the future as the target audience passes away.

The decline of Shanghai dialect also threatens traditional local theater, such as Shanghai farce and Huju Opera. Local opera troupes must first spend a lot of time teaching students standard Shanghai dialect before they pick up performance art.

Shanghai stand-up comedian Zhou Libo, whose sold-out shows are mostly in Shanghainese, has generated considerable enthusiasm for local dialect.

Language expert Qian Nairong specializes in Shanghai dialect and in 2007 published a comprehensive dictionary and a kind of Shanghainese computer input method with pinyin for Shanghai-dialect characters.

This has helped to standardize dialect and enabled many speakers to write in dialect. Qian says Mandarin should not be promoted at the cost of losing regional dialects and Mandarin and Shanghai dialect are not contradictory.

Young local singers Wang Hao and Chen Yixin have recently released new albums in dialect.

Some primary schools and kindergartens have introduced non-mandatory courses to teach dialect as well as Shanghai history, culture and folklore.

Advocates urge the government to use dialect in public venues, such as transport terminals, as well as the 114 hotline.

Sociologist Gu Xiaoming from Fudan University calls Shanghai dialect a vigorous "hybrid" of the terms and slang from neighboring areas as well as English.

"The language will continue to evolve and change with many new verbs and grammar among the young generation," Professor Gu says. "Preservation of Shanghai dialect needs not to be done in an deliberate way; it can be accomplished through promoting Huju Opera and Shanghai farce."

Shanghai East Radio is also considering launching more Shanghainese news programs and starting training centers for young people to learn authentic pronunciation and vocabulary.


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