Big Little Nyonya

The current Singaporean drama series The Little Nyonya has received an awesome reception from both sides of the Causeway. We speak to its two main stars, Jeanette Aw and Qi Yuwu.

PLAYING two Straits-born Chinese ladies was the perfect way for Singaporean actress Jeanette Aw to reconnect with her heritage.

“I’m Peranakan myself, so it was a good way to get back to my roots and to truly feel the culture and traditions come alive before me,” says the 30-year-old star via e-mail.

Yueniang (Jeanette Aw; centre) teaching her best friend Huang Yuzhu (Joanne Peh) how to cook while Ah Tao (Huang Hui), her loyalmaid, looks on. The Little Nyonya took pains to depict the Peranakan culture as authentically as possible. – Photos courtesy of Ntv7

Aw is the lead actress in the hit Singaporean drama The Little Nyonya, currently on Ntv7. Since it started airing on the channel on Oct 26, the series has registered high ratings. The first episode itself drew an impressive 570,000 viewers, despite the fact that The Little Nyonya had premiered on Malaysian television on Astro in March.

The drama, which spans 70 years and begins in 1930s Singapore, follows the life of Yueniang, a Peranakan woman who has to endure the schemes of her capricious relatives. Aw plays Yueniang and her mute mother Juxiang.

The 34-episode series debuted with a mighty splash in the island republic last November. According to Singapore’s, the show was MediaCorp Channel 8’s highest rated series in 15 years. Its two-hour finale on Jan 5 snagged 1,672,000 viewers.

The series has been praised for its acting, detailed attention to the Peranakan culture and for its lavish costumes and sets. (Aw bought over some of her costumes. “I think they serve as wonderful memories,” she says.) Some of the scenes were even shot in Penang and Malacca.

In order to be a convincing Nyonya, Aw researched extensively for her role; she visited the Peranakan Museum in Singapore, read books, spoke to Peranakan women and even went to a university for more references. Aw and the other actors also took cooking and etiquette classes as well as sewing and beading lessons. They had to learn to eat with their bare hands too. All so that the actresses could carry themselves authentically as Peranakan women.

“We were also taught how to wear the sarong kebaya in the correct way,” she reveals.

This is the first time that Aw, who began acting in 2001, had to play double characters in a show. Though both roles are rather different – one is demure, the other is outspoken, she says – the two have similar goals in their pursuit of happiness.

“They are bonded as mother and daughter, having the same belief that they should fight for their own happiness. They have the same kind of courage and fire within them and it was a challenge making this spirit in them manifest in two different ways,” she explains.

However, as The Little Nyonya soared in popularity, Aw had to contend with gossip spread through tabloids, blogs and forums about her being a divorcee (not true), and how she got a male co-star sacked for being “too frisky” during a love scene (again, untrue). According to an article in Singapore’s The Straits Times, some speculated that the role of mute Juxiang was written for her in order to cover up her bad Mandarin.

“Naturally, comments like these would sting a little initially,” says Aw, who took Mandarin classes at the National University of Singapore (NUS) for six months to polish up her speech. Aw has also told The Straits Times: “Some people say I try too hard to pronounce every word. Some say I’m not very clear. I’m confused.”

Fortunately, she doesn’t have to fight these petty battles alone; the production team, the directors and fans were all behind her. (There’s an active Jeanette Aw fan club – called “Jeanius” to rhyme with “genius” - in Singapore.)

“My fans have been my biggest source of encouragement,” she says.

Aw was doing her final year of theatre studies at the NUS when she started attending auditions. “One audition happened to be for the then Media Works (a Singaporean TV station).”

Ironically, she didn’t want to be a television actress. “I wanted to be a stage actress. But I guess life is amazing in this sense,” she says.

In fact, if not for her foray into acting, she would’ve become a ballet teacher as dancing is her “first love”.

“I love dance, and I even had dreams of becoming a professional dancer,” she says.

But except for the occasional gossip, Singaporean actors lead a “blessed” existence, says Aw.

“We have relative freedom to express ourselves and we don’t get stalked by paparazzi. We do lose a certain extent of our privacy, which is inevitable, but that’s something we need to accept for being in the media,” she says.

Aw’s next drama series is New Beginnings in which she plays a funeral director. On Nov 12, she received an Outstanding Young Alumni Award from the NUS, where she graduated in 2003 with a major in theatre studies and a minor in psychology.

> Catch ‘The Little Nyonya’ on weekdays, 6pm, over Ntv7.

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