A Popular Television Melodrama Boosts a Declining Culture

A recent Singapore television Chinese melodrama series, with English subtitles, has created an uproar locally and its viewership far exceeded any of the previous shows staged by the station. So hugely popular was this 34-episode programme that its concluding finale had enthralled a multiracial audience of 1.67 million, representing one third of Singapore’s current population. This unprecedented feat even surpassed the number of local audience who were glued to the television screen on the night Singapore clinched a silver medal against the champion Chinese table tennis team in last year’s Beijing Summer Olympics.

What is the magical appeal of this television show, “The little Nyonya”? What is it all about and why had it taken this island republic by storm? It centered mainly on the rise and fall, and the intrigues, betrayals and tragic happenings, of two wealthy Chinese Peranakan families with ties in both Singapore and Malacca, with the third equally prominent family being depicted in a more edifying light. Set in the 1930s, it spans a period of 70 years. The Peranakan Chinese (meaning those born-locally) are a small group of Chinese in Malaysia and Singapore who are easily distinguishable from the other Chinese groups in these territories because they had long ago adopted a mixture of Chinese and Malay way of life and culture. Their male offsprings were English-educated and who were taught from young to emulate the well-bred Englishmen in order to have a head start in a colonial society. Their golden age was between the 1850s and 1930s. This is reflected in their sumptuous homes and lavish lifestyle and their identification with the colonial ruling class, which immediately set them apart from the rest of the local community. These Peranakans are collectively referred to as the Babas, which would include both men and women but the latter are more commonly called the Nyonya, in order to separate them from the mainstream China-born immigrants.

Despite its tiny population, the Peranakan’s impact on the two territories’ economic, social and political developments was enormous and far reaching. The glorious achievements of the Baba community can be seen from the numerous major streets and several public institutions , both in Singapore and Malaysia, named in their honour. The Tan Tock Seng Hospital and Gan Eng Send School in Singapore are permanent reminders of their ancestors’ benefactions. Be that as it may, their wealth and prestige suffered a severe setback during and after WWII. Except for a handful of notable exceptions, most of the Babas had become too impoverished to maintain their prewar extravagant mode of living. Since then, their community and rather unique brand of culture have declined significantly and seemingly irreversibly, so much so that their special identity and way of life are preserved only by very few hard core Peranakan families in both countries.

So infectiously successful was The little Nyonya that many Singaporeans would gladly curtail, or even forgo, their other evening activities when these shows were on. Even those who are not Chinese drama fans, including numerous non Chinese, had become addicted to it! After it ended its record-breaking run, many dissatisfied viewers wrote to the press, or vented their disappointments through the Internet, protesting against the unhappy ending resulting in the two principal characters, the hero Chen Xi and the heroine Yueniang, not finally becoming husband and wife after all their trials and tribulations, even though true love had existed all along between them. A media survey also showed that 93% of the participants felt strongly that there should have been a blissful reunion for the two long-suffering lovers. In order to calm these over zealous TV fans, the television station decided hurriedly to shoot a 5-minute sequel, with the two main characters explaining to viewers the compelling reasons why they could not have married each other and lived happily ever after. The script writer was summoned urgently to pen the appropriate script in the hope that the disgruntled fans will finally accept the realistic way the drama ended. This was accomplished in one night and the filming took place the very next day and duly aired on a prime time slot the following night. This can only happen in sentimental and dreamy Singapore!

There are several factors contributing to the resounding triumph of the Nyonya show. Both Its novel theme and approach were different from many of the other popular local television series which, quite predictably, would either attempt to capture the realities of life in Singapore’s HDB heartland (subsidised public housing estates), where the majority of the citizens reside, which the local TV audience can more readily appreciate and relate to, or take the form of not so subtle or witty slapdash comedies, with their off-colour language and sterile jokes which apparently appeal to many regular television viewers and make them laugh. These are obviously entertaining and fine up to a point, but when these are repeated over and over again the audience became jaded with these and the more discriminating among them will give them a miss. Thus, the Noynya came like a breadth of fresh air, with its reasonably good story line and competent cast, showcasing a local group whose distinctive way of life and cultural practices are so different from the rest of the community and of which they are not too familiar with. Viewers were also captivated by the grand Peranakan mansions and the occupants’ lavish lifestyle of a bygone era, replete with their splendid array of antiques and other valuable objects and exquisite cutlery and crockery which have become sought after collector items. Above all, they were fascinated by the delicious Nyonya cuisine so attractively and temptingly presented on the television screen for all to see.

The unprecedented success of this drama series immediately brought about a fever in things Peranakan, as it were, among Singaporeans. First to benefit from it were the established Nyonya food restaurants whose business turnovers immediately shot up by between 20% and 30%, followed by bakeries and hawker stalls specialising in Peranakan cakes and tidbits and other beneficiaries include the tailoring and shoe shops catering exclusively to customers interested in Nyonya attires, beaded sandals and other paraphernalia. More local residents now visit residential areas with concentrations of Peranakan-style houses, notably in Orchard Road’s Emerald Hill precinct, Joo Chiat and other parts of the Katong district. Even tour operators have cashed in on it by organising more conducted tours, both for foreign and domestic tourists, to view these interesting and historical landmarks. They were built mainly between 1900 and 1930s, with their harmonious combination of both Asian and Western architectural features. For those keen to gain a better insight into the traditional Peranakan way of life, more visitors now go to the Peranakan Museum, many for the first time. Finally, The first batch of 5000 DVDs of The little Nyonya were sold out within hours of its initial release and the demand for these continues unabated.

The Nyonya drama has truly boosted the declining Peranakan culture. Will it be a catalyst to help restore it to its former glory, or is the current Peranakan syndrome a mere flash in the pan and will soon fade away? Only time will tell. The survival of this rather unique culture has long been debated by the Peranakans themselves, as well as by others with expert knowledge of it, without any consensus being reached among them. In this connection, it might be appropriate to mention that, more than a decade ago, I, who is neither a Baba nor an expert on its culture, wrote an article entitled “Can Baba Culture be Revived?”, which was published in Singapore’s Straits Times newspaper on 3rd August 1998, in which I quoted the opposing views of two experts, who are well-known Peranakan themselves. Mr Peter Wee, Vice President of Singapore’s Peranakan Association, was sanguine that “There has definitely been a revival since the ’70s as evidenced by the many books, plays, cultural shows and exhibitions on our culture, not to mention the growing popularity of the Nyonya cuisine …”. A counter view came from Mr Felix Chia, author of the Babas Revisited, that “To the question whether the Baba culture can be revived, I am tempted to liken its present state to that of a brain-dead patient. The chances of reviving such a patient are almost nil.” Incidentally, Mr wee was an adviser to the Nyonya production.

After my article appeared in the above national daily, I was glad that Mr Peter Wee approved of it and had included it in the archives of the Peranakan Association website. Subsequently, reference was made to it by several international academic researchers in their works on the Peranakan culture. I was pleasantly surprised, and somewhat flattered, when Singapore’s leading playwright, Ms Stella Kon, telephoned me to seek my permission to allow her to include my article in a book on Peranakan culture , which she will edit, in connection with the relaunch of her most successful Peranakan play, Emily of Emerald Hill, which has been staged here and in Malaysia on many occasions over the years. It had also made its appearance in several Asian and Western countries, including at the world-renowned Edinburgh Arts Festival, the first Singaporean playwright to achieve such a distinction. Ms Kon came from one of the most prominent Singapore Peranakan families of long standing, and her grandfather was the late Dr Lim Boon Keng, who was the founder of the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School and sometime President of China’s Xiamen University, whose founder and benefactor was none other than the venerable Mr Tan Kah Kee.

I would like to share with the readers of this blog my above newspaper article entitled “Can Baba culture be revived?”, which is reproduced in the post immediately following.

Lam Pin Foo
25.1.2009

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