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South China Morning Post attracts younger generations with cultural documentaries

By Qian Dai (Daisy)

South China Morning Post

Hong Kong

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Video content is heralded as the most preferred mode of storytelling right now, in large part due to its ability to convey subtle sensory qualities transporting viewers with vicarious experiences that cannot be easily replicated by non-video forms of storytelling.

These value propositions of the format are especially well-received within the distinctive demographics of Gen Z and Millennials. This is a cohort valuing individual expression, boundless access, truth, and equality — attributes that are proudly upheld, communicated, and embedded in Goldthread productions.

Goldthread, a four-year-old video publication, tells meaningful human-centric stories to a global audience on social media platforms in the form of short documentaries. We are a small team of 10 incubated by South China Morning Post based in Hong Kong. Our mission is to provide a window into the nuanced, thoughtful, and never-heard-before stories, as well as spark global conversations about Chinese culture and identity among the younger generation.

An example of how Chinese words are embedded in candy.
An example of how Chinese words are embedded in candy.

One of our flagship series Mean Street Gourmet explores signature dishes and personal stories behind food stalls in towns and remote villages across China. Its name is a cheeky play on the negative stereotype of Asian food being laden with MSG. The series’ mission is to counter that stereotype by showcasing the diversity, realness, and deliciousness of local food across various Chinese regions.

Instead of focusing on famous establishments already covered by mainstream media outlets, we strive to tell stories of small businesses mostly in rural China. They illustrate how much effort their owners make to keep the family business afloat and how the country’s frensied rush toward urbanisation often pushes smaller traditional enterprises to the background.

Dragon’s beard candy is a million-strand “candy floss” that melts in your mouth.
Dragon’s beard candy is a million-strand “candy floss” that melts in your mouth.

While it can be easy to assume that a publication whose audience is Gen Z is only interested in the latest fads, we have found is there is a deep desire among this video-centric generation to connect with their roots and cultural history. When stories are well-told and artistically crafted, even young adults enjoy a glimpse into history.

This truth was illuminated in our latest season, in which we spotlighted five traditional family-run candy making businesses using recipes and techniques passed down through generations. In each episode, we tell the life story, passion, and struggles of the candy maker who carries on the trade from past generations. Gentle, unobtrusive, and atmospheric camerawork exposes international viewers to confectionery styles they probably never heard of, taking them on a journey to the heart of rural China — places that are slowly vanishing.

Golden, crispy “sugar melons” are only made in winter.
Golden, crispy “sugar melons” are only made in winter.

In traditional Chinese society, candy is prised. Most of the candy we show is barely known outside the region in which it is made, but within that region, the candy has always played a central role at celebrations and daily life. Like the skill of making candy, the customs associated with the candy itself is under threat from modernisation.

The story

One episode, “Golden, Crispy ‘Sugar Melons’ Only Made in Winter,” is about a 71-year-old candy maker in a remote village in northern China. We bring the audience directly into the life of Chen Dianqi, a local farmer who, after the autumn harvest, becomes a “sugar melon” maker. These “sugar melons” are not fruit — they are melon-shaped, hollow candies made with millet and malt.

With glass-blower expertise, Chen has to make sure the golden-hued mixture is stretched perfectly and lovingly sculpted into plump, melon-shaped balls, which are left to cool in the freezing weather. Locals have been making this crunchy, pretty candy for more than 100 years and traditionally give them out as Chinese New Year gifts.

There is very little narration in our video. Instead, the camera takes us into the life of Dianqi during the coldest winter days. We see shots of beautiful grey mist and thick winter breaths. The viewer watches Dianqi and his elderly workmates as they painstakingly make these melons from scratch on an early morning before the sun rises. Each step imitates the same actions and motions of their parents and grandparents before them.

There is joy when we see the candy makers crack open the melons in the sun and chew on a familiar sweet treat that evokes memories of their childhood. Dianqi loves candy-making for a simple and relatable reason — “it keeps me warm in freezing winter.”

The production

The Mean Street Gourmet — Candy Season took six months in production for five episodes that were published over the course of five weeks. Filming each episode is a race against time that takes meticulous planning and months of pre-production.

The COVID-19 travel restrictions meant research and preparation had to be done remotely. Despite this and the language barriers — many of these candy makers could only speak the local dialects of their remote villages — our producers were able to forge a strong bond with all of them through hours and hours of phone communication.

The show has little narration and instead focuses on powerful visuals.
The show has little narration and instead focuses on powerful visuals.

The shoots were extremely difficult. For the episode “Golden, Crispy ‘Sugar Melons’ Only Made in Winter,” our crew travelled long hours to get to the village, located in a remote corner of China’s Shandong Province. The crew also had to film under frigid weather and pre-dawn conditions and maintain long work hours, as we wanted to follow the candy makers’ demanding work schedule starting from midnight and extending through the day.

There is a bittersweet aspect to each story — we do not know if the candy masters will have anybody to pass their trade on to. In one of the episodes, the subject comments frankly and ruefully that his son is unlikely to move back home from the city to carry the tradition on. “Maybe I can try to pass it onto some retirees,” he remarks wistfully at the end.

The result

The season outperformed all our benchmarks. It was viewed by 10 million people, adding over 50,000 subscribers across platforms since it was published at the end of 2021. The views continue to grow.

Human-centered stories help us establish a far deeper connection with our community of global Gen Z and Millennial viewers. Many of them are second- or third-generation Chinese immigrants actively seeking connections to their roots and cultural identity. They left comments saying they ate the candies as children and are now elated to discover the stories behind them.

Our younger readers are seeking beautiful stories that portray the nuanced, often overlooked histories that moulded their current traditions and values. Advanced reporting and storytelling techniques continuously evolve to reach new audiences, but these readers are still interested in traditional stories.

Goldthread aims to meet these interests through human-centric stories that highlight the collective narratives and customs that shaped the unique and growing identities of our readers today.

About Qian Dai (Daisy)

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