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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.

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A Headful of Mountain Flowers

Poem embroidered on a silk handkerchief in 2004 Hong Kong TVB palace drama War and Beauty

The most boorish and mercenary character in Hong Kong drama War and Beauty is also its greatest romantic.

Eager to leave poverty behind and make a name for himself in the dog-eat-cat world of 19th-century Qing China, delivery agent Kong Wu has no qualms leaving a group of defenseless girls to the mercy of ruthless thugs so that he can complete his job. Yet when he discovers a silk handkerchief embroidered with a poem inside a second-hand battle garment possibly donated by the palace, he develops feelings for its creator even though he does not know her. Continue reading