Emily of Emerald Hill : That Singaporean Identity on Stage in Exhibition

Scenes of "Emily of Emerald Hill" 

Over 300 performances, staged across four continents, seven countries, 17 cities, 7 major festivals, an exclusive exhibition built around it, 60,000 have attended this exhibition, and what is this regarding?  This is regarding the play; ‘Emily of Emerald Hill’, quintessentially ‘That Singaporean identity on stage’ which forges ahead full steam.

The play was penned by playwright Stella Kon which won her the First Prize in the National Play-Writing Competition in 1983. It is a one-woman play, a monologue, about a Nonya matriarch Emily Gan, who resides in a mansion ‘Emerald Hill’ off Orchard Road, who dominates her family, or rather her evolution from a young bride to a strong willed matriarch. Her life can be read ‘as a cultural record of women of her generation, against a backdrop of Peranakan life ( of Babas and Nonyas ) and Singapore in the mid 20th century’. It stands as the most staged play in the history of Singapore.

Emily has a Peranakan heritage as the playwright herself is a Peranakan Chinese, a descendant from two famous Peranakan families  the Tan Tock Seng family and Lim Boon Keng family .The popularity could also be because people of any culture can identify and relate this as their own and the main character, Emily Gan, as their own grandmother or mother.

The play was first performed in Seremban and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia by Leow Puay Tin directed by Chin San Sooi in 1984. It premiered in Singapore in 1985 and was performed by Margaret Chan and directed by Max Le Bond. Since then it has been presented over 300 times, mainly by eight different performers, 7 women and 1 man ( Ivan Heng)  and also by many number of unknown students and amateurs. Pearlly Chua herself has performed over 166 times. It has been translated into Chinese and Japanese and broadcast over Radio Iceland.  A musical is in the making. What makes it endearing and authentic is switching of the tone of voice, that Singaporean voice. The play is in English with the liberal use of Baba Malay ( language of Peranakan community: Malay in form with Chinese Hokkien loan words).

For the first time in the history of Singapore a play, a performing art, has an exhibition of its own.   Emily is displayed at the Peranakan Museum.

A chat with the curator Jackie Yoong revealed…..

“The germination of the idea came when Stella Kon wanted to launch her latest collector’s edition of Emily at the Museum and when I approached Dr Pedro Maura, chief curator, with the request he suggested why not have an exhibition on the play if it is so famous. This set the ball rolling.”

The exhibition hosts costumes, props, photographs, scripts, marketing collaterals, video interviews of performers and also of the author Stella Kon. It is made even more genuine by a range of display of artefacts from trophies to kitchenware (from "Oberon", home of the author, a mansion in Emerald Hill Street which now no longer exists). How did you go about collecting all this….

“That was a challenging task, this being an intangible heritage to be made fulfilling to the public. Various artefacts were collected from 20 different partners, various relatives of Stella Kon, performers, performance companies, a few from the museum. For performance and professional information several artistes and directors were contacted and video footages of the interviews and interpretations of three prominent performers and directors were put up.”

“Various quotes including Peranakan words  from the play were displayed, together with both Peranakan and non Peranakan objects.   They evoke what comes to mind when the audience reads or watches Emily, objects of significance to Peranakan and regional cultures. “

“The marketing collaterals, programme details, posters, folders were collected from various groups as the play has a rich connection with the Singapore English language theatre. The archives of Stage Club (Singapore’s oldest English Language theatre company) as well as The Main Wayang and Gunong Sayang ( Peranakan Theatre companies) were very helpful  and shared their materials and information. It took us about 8 months to collate and complete.”

To my query, “I understand the play has been staged in India too and did they stick to the original script?” Jackie added, “That was performed in an Indian context. The play was renamed “Khatijabai of Karmali Terrace”: although the English script is exactly the same, the lead character is Indian and the parts of the script in Baba Malay was changed to Indian.”  This indicates the universal appeal of the play.

More than being just a compelling play, Emily of Emerald Hill continues to touch the Singaporean consciousness, standing loud as a Singaporean identity and lives on in the cultural memory of the nation.

The exhibition and related activities continue till February 17th.