‘The Little Nyonya’ turns 10: A tribute to Singapore TV’s beacon of hope

I seldom write articles about the media from my own country Singapore, because it simply isn’t very good.

The nation’s free-to-air television channels are monopolized by the media network MediaCorp, a conglomerate indirectly owned by the country’s government, so censorship and restrictions on their TV dramas are aplenty. Majority of Singaporean youths don’t even watch local TV shows, myself included. We find the writing unoriginal and stifled by red tape, although I did tune in ten years ago to a particular show that I must pay tribute today: The Little Nyonya.

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The Little Nyonya is a Peranakan-themed period drama written by MediaCorp screenwriter Ang Eng Tee, who conceived it for their Chinese-language channel’s 45th anniversary blockbuster production.

It follows the story of Yamamoto Yueniang, a feisty Japanese-Peranakan servant living under the mistreatment of the Huangs, a wealthy Peranakan family that doesn’t acknowledge her as a rightful granddaughter.

When Yueniang encounters Chen Xi, the charismatic son to a magnate’s empire, their relationship gradually blossoms into a star-crossed romance. Chen Xi is eyed by the Huangs as a ticket to a partnership with his father’s business, and plot to bethrothe one of their daughters to him. This includes the demure medical graduate, Yuzhu, who happens to be Yueniang’s only friend, which ignites a tragic love triangle.

MediaCorp nearly didn’t pick this script for their channel, believing its theme was a mismatch for its Chinese-speaking audience (Peranakans are a community that predominantly speak Malay.) It was absolutely unprecedented how popular the show turned out.

When The Little Nyonya concluded its airing in January 2009, its ratings were astronomical. One-third of the country’s entire population tuned in to its final episode (1.67 million), the largest viewership in Singapore in 15 years.

Following the airing, the drama was released as a box set; the only MediaCorp production from 2008 to be launched on DVD. A reunion special and bonus mini-episode were produced post-show for ravenous viewers. During a promotional campaign, hordes of fans eager to meet the cast inadvertently caused floor tiles to crack at the hosting mall. And the show was dubbed in English, Thai, Cantonese and Bahasa Indonesia, then aired in ten other countries, including an Asian channel in the US.

The Little Nyonya notched nearly a dozen nominations at the nation’s Star Awards a year later in 2009 (although hilariously, the award show is run by MediaCorp themselves, so they’re really just handing out trophies to their own employees.)

Even more hilariously, the ceremony was delayed from December 2008 to April 2009 to accommodate the TV show, which wouldn’t have made the original eligibility period for nomination because it aired through the tail-end of 2008.

Regardless, the show scooped up a record-breaking 11 awards, including Best Drama Serial, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress and even two Best Supporting Actress wins, because they handed out a surprise second trophy.

But why was The Little Nyonya such a gargantuan, nationwide hit ten years ago?

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To start, it was MediaCorp’s most expensive show to produce at the time, thanks in large part to the elaborate costumes, sets, props (and even cuisine) pooled together to create an convincing Peranakan universe. Peranakan museums in Singapore and Malaysia also collaborated with the production.

Majority of the story takes place in post-World War II Malacca, and much of the filming took place in traditional Malaysia at locations that authentically preserved their architecture. By contrast, most of MediaCorp’s productions take place in modern Singapore, which has urbanized its densely populated island into a metropolis.

The success of The Little Nyonya spawned similar period productions (Together in 2010 and The Journey from 2013 to 2015), but none have been half the hit The Little Nyonya was ten years ago.

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The show’s story, however, was what truly captivated audiences through its six-week run from November 2008 to January 2009.

Like most Asian soap operas, The Little Nyonya was full of sinister plotting, treachery and political melodrama: the Huangs are an unscrupulous, merciless family hell bent on oppressing their servant girl. But on top of that, the show is entertaining, endearing and even humorous. A butcher’s devotion to his dying mother borders on brainwashed; one of the show’s most hilarious subplots.

Above all, The Little Nyonya juxtaposes two compelling ideologies that you wouldn’t always expect to come together: the traditional virtue of filial piety and the progressive ideology of feminism.

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The show pushes the Confucian value of ancestral worship throughout the show, a teaching that Yueniang adhere to and uphold by honoring her ancestors and heritage. Today, Peranakan culture is on the verge of extinction. The Little Nyonya reignited interest in their history when it aired on TV.

In the middle of the show, Chen Xi’s family organizes an elaborate matchmaking competition to select a wife for their heir. Chen Xi sneaks Yueniang in as a secret competitor behind the Huangs’ back, but midway, the Nyonya becomes acquainted with a liberal woman and ultimately decides not to become a pawn in their archaic pageant. Bear in mind the show was filmed in the late 2000s, before feminism became a bandwagon Western media movement.

Under the watchful eye of the Singapore government, MediaCorp shows have been perennially made to be somewhat constructive for society. But the show’s central lessons are neither forced nor disingenuous; every time I finished a rewatch of The Little Nyonya on DVD, I took away with me the importance of valuing culture and family.

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I can go on praising the show forever, but you’d be surprised to find out that many viewers were actually unhappy with the show’s ending when it first aired on January 5, 2009. The two-hour finale that glued a third of the nation to the TV screen that night left people raging and upset, because the star-crossed couple did not end up together.

It’s truly funny, because that fact was actually already revealed midway through the show. The story is presented as in flashbacks by an aged Yueniang in modern day recounting her past (think Titanic‘s old Rose). On one episode, Yueniang tells her granddaughter that she did not end up with Chenxi.

Most viewers must have forgotten, because they were surprised and incensed when the last episode’s airing confirmed the two characters did not live happily ever after.

In response to the viewers’ vitriol, the production team rushed back to Malacca (where many integral scenes had been shot) to film additional footage. Meanwhile, MediaCorp announced an extra episode that would air one week later. They marketed it as The Final Chapter; somehow some believed it was an alternate, happy ending.

This bonus mini-episode, which lasts three minutes, extends the finale’s breakup scene on an abandoned railway. It shows Yueniang, who had run off devastatingly in the original scene, subsequently walking back to Chen Xi for an amicable, peacemaking chat. The short scene then concludes with the characters breaking the fourth wall to thank audiences for their record-breaking support of the show.

Viewers remained equally disappointed since the extra footage really didn’t change anything. I found it unnecessary because I wasn’t dissatisfied to begin with. Endings where the loving couple don’t end up together (aka Titanic, aka best film ever) are the most impactful. Although I will say the extra footage was hilarious because Chen Xi’s hair became visibly longer and Yueniang’s outfit suddenly sprouted polka dots.

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Regardless of ending, the humongous cast did a brilliant job playing the well-fleshed characters throughout this very turbulent story.

Jeanette Aw, one of Singapore’s rising actresses at the time, actually plays two characters in the film. She portrays Yueniang’s reserved, mute mother Huang Juxiang for the first eight episodes, then switches to her spunky daughter thereafter. Playing Chen Xi is Aw’s frequent co-star Qi Yuwu; they together previously played a couple twice on TV. They are my favorite onscreen pair because their chemistry is indisputable.

Joanne Peh’s portrayal of the ill-fated Yuzhu, who spirals down the path of schizophrenia after being forced to marry her rapist, is one of the show’s most heart-wrenching performances. Although Aw was touted to win at the 2009 award show, Peh surprised audiences when she was announced winner of that year’s Best Actress category.

San Yow plays the comical butcher Liu Yidao, while Ng Hui plays Amah, a servant loyal to Yueniang and her grandmother Wang Tianlan, who is portrayed by Xiang Yun. Both Ng and Xiang would win a Star Award for their roles. Pierre Png, an actual Peranakan actor, plays Chen Xi’s drunkard uncle Cheng Sheng, and was nominated for Best Actor alongside Qi.

Must-mentions also include Pan Lingling as Yuzhu’s ruthless aunt Xiufeng, Darren Lim as her useless husband Jincheng, Andie Chen as their moronic son Tianbao, and Eelyn Kok as their insufferable daughter Zhenzhu. Together they made a truly loathsome family for television.

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There hasn’t been a Singapore-produced show in the past ten years that has sparked a frenzy of such enthusiasm the way The Little Nyonya did. My nation’s population simply isn’t impressed by the works of our own; we spend most of our media consumption on American, British, Hong Kong and Korean productions. But The Little Nyonya is testimony that the country’s film and TV industry is capable of delivering greatness, even if it hasn’t reoccurred in a decade.

I am proud of everything The Little Nyonya has achieved both creatively and commercially, and it keeps me just a tiny bit optimistic that there is untapped potential for my country’s media future.

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