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Weaving Poetry, Beauty and Meaning

Huang Juxiang

Huang Juxiang (lit. fragrance of yellow chrysanthemums), Yamamoto Yueniang’s Peranakan mother and look-alike

Enveloped in a mesmerizing atmosphere with a light touch of folk magic, Southeast Asian drama The Little Nyonya traces the story of its fairylike, Japanese-Peranakan heroine Yamamoto Yueniang from the 1930s to the present day. Its origins, however, began much earlier. Since the 10th century, millions of people from the southern coasts of China had been migrating to the Malay Archipelago, most of them seeking economic opportunities and better living conditions. However, these migrants were largely male as travel restrictions, financial constraints and lack of feminine independence in the patriarchal Chinese society discouraged women from joining the men for a long time. As a result, many early male migrants married local women and their offspring came to be known as Peranakan, a Malay and Indonesian word for locally born people of mixed Malay and foreign ancestry, or Baba-Nyonya. A term with Persian and Hindi-Urdu roots, baba refers to a male Peranakan Chinese (there are also Peranakans of Indian and Portuguese descent), whereas nyonya, a combination of a Chinese dialect word for young lady (nyo) and a Javanese word for madame or concubine (nyai), is the female equivalent.

Eventually, the Baba-Nyonyas’ commercial prowess, English proficiency and familiarity with local customs spurred their rise in socioeconomic status in Malacca, Penang and Singapore, all three of which were shooting locations for the drama and, together with Labuan, constituted the former British colony known as the Straits Settlements. Lifestyle-wise, Baba-Nyonyas similarly blended Malay, Chinese and Western influences to form their own colorful culture. Although modernization has diluted many traditions, there have been attempts to revive the culture.

Kuih

Nyonya kuih – bite-sized snacks usually made from rice or glutinous rice

Produced by a Singaporean broadcaster and aired in Southeast Asia, South Korea, Hong Kong and China, The Little Nyonya presents traditional Baba-Nyonya architecture, interior design, cuisine and fashion in opulent detail, even as it recounts the numerous hair-raising situations Yueniang and her deaf-mute nyonya mother’s spiteful and covetous relatives and family friends put them in. At the same time, it frames their intricate and labor-intensive beadwork and culinary arts as windows into the souls of the women involved. Those who lack dedication or sincerity inadvertently reveal their true nature through substandard work, whereas Yueniang manages to fashion heavenly delicacies out of shoddy materials and produce breathtaking embroidery even in wretched circumstances by virtue of the same tenacity and nonconformist streak that later helps her lead her clumsy but loyal maid, a butcher who kills a tiger to win her hand, the neighborhood fool and other riffraff to build a bird’s nest enterprise. The Malay literary performances enjoyed by the Baba-Nyonyas, too, it pictures, can be expressions of filial piety and devotion. Below are some lyrics of a song Yueniang supposedly sings for three days and nights to return an elder on the verge of death to consciousness:

Kalau ada sumur diladang
Boleh kita bertampang mandi
Kalau ada umur yang panjang
Bolehlah kita berjumpa lagi
Dondang sayang
Kalau ada umur yang panjang
Bolehlah kita berjumpa lagi
Bolehlah kita berjumpa lagi
Dondang sayang

Translation by The Litttle Nyonya production team:

If there’s a well by the fields
May I use the well water to bath
If our lives are long enough
May we meet again
Oh melody of love
If our lives are long enough
May we meet again
May we meet again
Oh melody of love

But more than “melody of love,” dondang sayang is also the name of a genre of Malay songs typically sung with musical accompaniment by two or more people exchanging Malay poems called pantun. Composers or singers performing impromptu would repeat lines of the pantun and add fillers like the phrase “dondang sayang” itself.

Furniture and clothes

Baba-Nyonya furniture and the sarong kebaya (worn by the three women in colorful costumes), a traditional Malay outfit which nyonya version comprises of a translucent, embroidered blouse paired with a wraparound skirt

The first four lines of the above lyrics are a variant of a well-known pantun. They exemplify the typical structure of the poetic form: alternating rhyming lines (i.e. abab rhyme scheme), a couplet describing a natural or day-to-day phenomenon, and a couplet carrying the message of the poem. There is debate over whether the first couplet foreshadows the meaning of the second. What is perhaps far less disputable, though, is that pantun succinctly conveys emotions or advice and the traditional ones collectively relate the vibrancy of Malay folk-life. The musicality of the Malay language, with its recurring sounds and repetitive structures, arguably enhances the beauty of pantun from time to time.  Some more lyrics sung by Yueniang, in a somber duet with the elder’s great-grandson Chen Xi, are as follows:

Gathering stacks of firewood
Be sure that it is sufficient
Gathering stacks of firewood
Sir, please sit for I am here
Oh melody of love
Like the full moon
Glowing brightly
Sir, please sit for I am here
Oh melody of love
Like the full moon
Glowing brightly

Ten chestnuts together in a bunch
With one drifting off to the east
Ten chestnuts together in a bunch
With both hands held up to heaven
Oh melody of love
May the lord bless you
With good fortune and longevity

On the other hand, the show’s feminist theme and tragic love lines shine a spotlight on some ugly reality behind the elaborate Baba-Nyonya arts. Until more modern times, nyonyas had no more autonomy than female counterparts in China—education was considered a non-essential for them and they were largely confined to their houses, where, the drama suggests, the demanding meal preparation process and needlework consumed much of their time unless there was domestic help. Apparently, the elder has been fond of pantun songs and storytelling because illiterate women like her cannot appreciate such works from books. The only dream allowed for girls was to get married, preferably to a reputable family and certainly not to just anyone of their choice. Yet for all the virtues and culinary and embroidery skills a nyonya possesses, the loss of chastity, even if against her will, could cost her this dream, which is what happens to one cousin of Yueniang who carries a torch for Chen Xi and tries in vain to help them elope. However deep their own mutual love runs, the prospect of marrying into Chen Xi’s warm but strict household has actually devastated Yueniang for, among other reasons, it would mean transferring herself from one ornate cage to another, quite unlike the life she eventually builds with her underdog friends above.

Slippers

Nyonya beaded slippers

This kind of less than flattering side to artistic beauty is probably present in numerous cultures. Architectural marvels have been the death beds of underpaid and undernourished construction workers toiling under exacting conditions. The luxurious gardens of Europe were markers of cultural sophistication for the rich, but possibly also symbols of unattainable dreams for those on the other side of the wealth gap. And Japanese classic The Tale of Genji has at its center a romantic hero who makes unwelcome advances to women. As with the case of nyonyas, the unsettling phenomena were sometimes products of their times and not isolated to the particular culture. Nonetheless, if history is not to be repeated, it has to be kept in remembrance.

It can be easy to neglect or ignore these dark issues in heritage displays. This may stem from a wish to uphold cultural pride and a pressure to pack the most glamorous details in a concise format to leave a lasting, favorable impression on today’s attention-deficit-disordered viewers. Yet it can be argued that the unsightly are a critical aspect of aesthetics appreciation. Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel once declared that the opposite of beauty is not ugliness, but indifference. In highlighting and denouncing ugliness, a cultural group gives a clearer view of standards of beauty it currently cares about and upholds. These standards probably better define modern members of the group than cultural beauty passed down by their forebears—even though the latter is precious in its own right—and thus can be promoted as a more relevant source of cultural pride. They may not exude glamour either, but if the question is about attracting attention, surely we would note that today’s viewers are also hungry for truths and bored by Disneyfied representations.

Porcelain ware

Baba-Nyonya porcelain

At this juncture, some may protest at the supposed awkwardness of conflating artistic beauty and moral beauty. This may be valid criticism in the context of pure art and literary reviews. Culture and heritage, though, are subjects that evoke strong anthropological themes. As such, there is justification to consider the aesthetics of human behavior in relation to the art or literature. Insofar as heritage creation is an ongoing process, in which there is also potential for the present generation’s appraisal of their own heritage to become the intangible heritage of future generations, we can even say that the aesthetics of behavior demonstrated through approaches toward heritage displays can augment or detract from the cultural beauty future generations inherit.

Overall, there are at least three things The Little Nyonya can inspire in the drama watcher. The first is an intoxicating love for a culture many do not even know exists. The second is an appreciation for a headstrong heroine who prefers to forge her own destiny and succeed on her own terms rather than become a passive Cinderella. The third is none other than new paradigms in storytelling, even with familiar plot elements: a romantic ending need not be the only happy ending possible for a pair of romantic leads. Love and dreams do not always work in harmony. The “right” person can be a minor side character. The good may still experience pain and suffering after the events, while the wicked may not be forever hated. No culture or life is perfect. Even so, amidst the imperfections, there can be meaning and satisfaction. In the same vein, we can celebrate legacies and traditions without unreflectively adhering to conventional modes of cultural storytelling. These heart-stirring and refreshing takeaways from the drama make the sporadic mistakes in execution (e.g. a foot remaining bandaged eight years after the injury) and a noble sacrifice plotline that seems irrational to more practical-minded viewers tolerable.

Angela

Angela, a modern descendant of Juxiang and Yueniang who never expects to uncover a traumatic family secret during her visit to their Malacca home

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9 thoughts on “Weaving Poetry, Beauty and Meaning

  1. Together with War and Beauty, The Little Nyonya topped a poll on this site.
    The A-Philosopher's Chair Poll
    Note that, because of the limited sample size and surprising demographics of Asian drama blog readers, the results are not necessarily indicative of any drama’s relative quality or popularity.

    A thank you anyway to the poll participants and the following bloggers for supporting the poll:
    Kenny Kenny
    Cindy Knoke Cindy Knoke
    Liz Liz
    Mitta Mitta
    A Splash of Inspiration A Splash of Inspiration
    nogynyan nogynyan

    Mitta Mitta wrote:
    “Gotta give the country I was born and raised in a shout out 😊”

    The admin replied:
    “Yay! You can take someone out of a country but you can’t take the country out of someone.”

    Special thanks also to the following bloggers for their expression of support in the lead-up to this post:
    CapriquariusMei CapriquariusMei
    colorpencil2014 colorpencil2014
    theotheri theotheri
    abyssbrain abyssbrain
    Tasty Eats Ronit Penso Tasty Eats Ronit Penso
    AESANTOS AESANTOS
    Kay Kay
    Cindy Knoke Cindy Knoke
    Mitta Mitta
    Lady Nyo Lady Nyo
    apqaria apqaria

    theotheri theotheri wrote:
    “Your posts are inevitably worth waiting for. I’ll wait!”

    CapriquariusMei CapriquariusMei wrote:
    – “I definitely wait for your return! ^^ Hm…now really curious with 30+ episode series are you devoting your time towards to. =P”
    – “Oh, that sounds interesting already! ^^ I need to see more pretty things to refresh my poor eyesight these days.
    Nope, don’t have any contemplative C-drama to recommend at the moment. In fact, I don’t really have time to ponder upon great plots & ideas (though that’s why I’m all the more grateful for your analytical blog of ideas & imagination ^^) currently because it’s the last day of the month and that means a lot of horrible number-crunching tasks. @_____@ Instead, just been moving back to the more light-hearted dramas these days & surprisingly, no c-drama on my plate at the moment. ^^”
    Well, it is nice to venture into ideas from an outsider’s perspective. ^^ Hahaha…never expected you to be a “high-maintenance/anti-social” type. XD Of course, just joking ~ =P Anyways, I kinda understand because I, myself, tend to be the kind who can’t tolerate a lack of common sense in the workplace very well. Unfortunately, I have met quite a few individuals who were so lacking in the common sense department to the point that I have to keep reminding myself “to play nice” every so often in my previous workplaces. =/”
    – “Well, I needed a breather anyhow. XD”
    (Replies by the Perry Park-loving admin have not been included for this part! A very minor change has also been made for fancy boat construction purposes. =P Rest assured that the original version has been stored in a safe vault. :D)

    [Update – Another production set in Malaysia will be featured next week. It will, however, be unrelated to the poll.]

  2. Okay, will obediently listen to you and shut my eyes off from the second half of this article since I’m going to put this on my to-watch list. XD The description might not sound so refreshing as it seems the kind of themes that I was often exposed during my film studies course, but the beautiful pictures really pull me in (or maybe, you’re just that good at choosing pictures).

    • I tend to choose the prettier scenes. =P The lighting in the studio set isn’t as fabulous as the kind used in these pictures, but the people and costumes are just as, if not more, beautiful. There’s also this Japanese photographer, whose romantic story with Yueniang’s deaf-mute mother I wish I could have devoted some space to. To me, they are the real OTP of the story. And Yueniang’s hilarious butcher friend, her silly and slightly narcissistic maid, Yueniang’s evil shadow Xiujuan (an interestingly complicated character), all the unexpected friendships Yueniang makes, Juxiang’s very devoted and straight-talking admirer, Juxiang’s unwavering choice of love, the exquisite lyrics of the OSTs … … there’s so much to cover. A lot of the drama’s appeal probably lies in the chemistry of how all the things come together, which is hard to capture in words … That’s why I can’t write a pure drama blog! T___T If you do watch it one day, please write a better review on my behalf!!

      • Lol that sounds more adventurous then your initial brief description of the drama. XD Haha…I like how this is not a purely drama blog though and that you’re always bringing in so many different perspective into it. ^^ Haha…perhaps one day I’ll try, but I’m definitely not the best for this job. XD

  3. dramalandloverj says:

    The Little Nyonya was such a good drama! Loved it so much while I was watching it years back 🙂 The theme song was nice too. It still remains as a memorable Singaporean drama. But I didn’t think it would garner attention outside of the country as well. Thank you for your insight! Glad to know that more people will get to know about this drama through this post ^^

    • Thank you for dropping by! 😀 That song has a rather beautiful fusion of gamelan music and guitar acoustics. It really deserves an entire post for itself. The entire show has a unique feel that I can’t seem to find in any other drama too. The same goes for My Love From the Star, although the idea of popular actress meets handsome alien makes it sound rather cheesy and shallow.

      • dramalandloverj says:

        Your description of the song is spot-on! Awww now I feel like re-watching it ❤ It is indeed a special production 🙂 Yes, the concept in My Love From the Star is interesting in itself; I think it's because it involves an element of fantasy. Have you seen Signal? The idea (which may be unrealistic) used to tell the story is gripping, though it can be confusing sometimes.

      • I’m still in a love-hate relationship with Six Flying Dragons! There’s also Cheese in the Trap on the plate. Signal‘s premise sounds similar to the 2004 Hong Kong drama To Get Unstuck in Time‘s. It probably has better cinematography and directing, but I don’t feel like revisiting the same concept. >.< Maybe some blogger will convince me otherwise… =P

      • dramalandloverj says:

        I can’t say much about SFD and CITT since I’m not watching them currently, but I’ve heard good things about them! I’ll put these 2 dramas on my to-watch list for now. Oh yes, it does; I guess so since it’s been 12 years. Ah I watch it because I like thrillers ^^ I’m also watching Remember and One More Happy Ending~

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