‘Delicious Romance,’ with its women- and LGBTQ-driven stories, is a surprise hit in China

Society & Culture

Not your typically shallow Chinese romance drama.

In the past few years, Chinese producers and directors have increasingly focused on women-centric narratives in dramas, miniseries, and movies in a bid to appeal to a growing female audience. This trend has even popularized the term “She Era” (她时代 tā shídài), which first appeared in Chinese publications in the mid-2000s before recently being invoked in the context of TV productions targeting women. Many of those attempts, however — shows such as Nothing But Thirty (三十而已 sānshí éryǐ) and Twenty Your Life On (二十不惑 èrshí bùhuò) — have failed to meet audience expectations.

Delicious Romance (爱很美味 ài hěn měi wèi), released last November (and available to stream on YouTube), represents an exception. The 20-part series directed by Taiwanese Lesle Chen (陈正道 Chén Zhèngdào) and Chao-Jen Hsu (许肇任 Xǔ Zhàorèn) scored 8.1 out of 10 on Douban, a Chinese version of IMDb. Given that Douban’s user base is known for being highly critical of mainland productions, and the generally low ratings of romantic dramas on the platform, it is worth asking: what makes Delicious Romance different?

The show revolves around the lives of three women in their early 30s and the challenges they face while navigating work and relationships in urban China. Xia Meng, played by Naomi Wang (王菊 Wáng Jú), is a successful executive in a media company, but her career often gets in the way of her relationship with Wang Xuchong (played by Yáng Bóxiāo 杨博潇). Because a successful woman is often perceived as threatening, this tension leads to the couple splitting up. Xia Meng then falls for a sanguine yet simple-minded personal trainer, Lu Bing (Zhāng Fān 张帆), but she is reluctant to disclose her profession to him, afraid that her success will scare him off. Wang Ju was the first lead to be casted, and the fact that she is slightly curvier than the average Chinese actress plays well into her character, who struggles with food disorders and body-image concerns.

The second lead, Fang Xin (played by singer/actress Baby Zhang [张含韵 Zhāng Hányùn]), is more of a traditional beauty. Delicate, pale, and sweet-tempered, she easily draws the attention of men. Her divorce from the unfaithful and stalker-ish Ma Zhenyu (Shì Ān 是安) reveals the Kafkaesque legal battles that women have to go through when trying to leave unhappy marriages. Interestingly, Fang Xin’s beauty is not depicted as benefiting her. Instead, she encounters workplace harassment and hostility from female colleagues. The script also acknowledges the privileges of being pretty in Chinese society.

The third main character, Liu Jing (Lǐ Chún 李纯), still lives with her traditionally-minded parents and is proudly single. The show, though, is called Delicious Romance for a reason, and soon she finds herself caught up in a love triangle with handsome single father Jiang Shanmu (Zhōu Chéngào 周澄奥) and even more handsome and rich Song Chao (Liú Dōngqìn 刘冬沁). The dilemma between being filial to her parents or staying true to herself is also reflected in her career, as she struggles to obtain her helicopter mother’s support when deciding whether to give up a stable career in IT and open her own restaurant.

One more element has earned Delicious Romance praise: its inclusion of LGBTQ+ characters.

Considering the direction of Chinese censorship in recent months, finding the right way to depict marginalized groups is a Herculean task many directors simply choose to avoid. Instead, Lesle Chen and Chao-Jen Hsu not only include a homosexual character, but also feature two drag queen performances. Mr. Huang (Fàn Wěi 范玮), a softly-spoken middle-aged man, meets Fang Xin while they are both finalizing their divorces. After a couple of ambiguous encounters, we come to know Mr. Huang has no interest in romantically pursuing Fang Xin. Instead, he discloses details about his divorce and hints at a marriage of convenience — a rarely raised topic in mainland productions, yet one that is a much-needed representation of those who don’t fit in the heteronormative mold of mainstream society. This reminded me of Taiwanese-American director Ang Lee’s bittersweet portrayal of marriages of convenience in The Wedding Banquet (1993). (Delicious Romance also seems to pay homage to the same director’s 1994 masterpiece Eat Drink Man Woman in the way food is depicted as a powerful — and very Chinese — way of expressing love.)

The amount of patriotic content about fighting against COVID-19 gets slightly overwhelming toward the end, and the final episodes are cornier than necessary, but overall, Delicious Romance is able to steer clear of the pitfalls of typical Chinese romance dramas that are detached from reality and unworthy of critical attention. The series not only portrays female experiences in a multifaceted and relatable way, but also manages to depict underrepresented queer narratives. While a second season has yet to be confirmed, we should all be hopeful that Delicious Romance can pave the way for more — and better — “She Era” content.