Emilies of Emerald Hill

EMILY OF EMERALD HILL is a classic drama that traces the life, loves, travails (and recipes) of an overbearing Singaporean Nyonya trapped in her gilded cage. The one-woman monologue written by Stella Kon has been so regularly performed in Penang that it is practically a rite of passage. Show us a Penangite who has not caught a glimpse of Emily and her beaded slippers and we’ll show you an honest politician.

The latest installation of Emily was staged in conjunction with the month-long George Town Festival in July this year and was directed by award-winning film director Saw Teong Hin with not one but three leading ladies – Pearlly Chua, Leow Puay Tin and Neo Swee Lin, playing different stages of Emily’s life. The dinner performances took place at Penang’s historic Town Hall with a stunning set designed by Liew Kung Yu. Guests were treated to Peranakan appetizers in the foyer before being invited to dinner by Emily.

In the first act, we are introduced to the orphan Emily who is married off to a rich, widowed Baba at the tender age of 14. Like a phoenix rising, Emily quickly becomes the favourite daughter-in-law, a treasured wife, and the doting mother of three children. Much of the play revolves around Emily’s relationship with her eldest son Richard, who is set to pursue his law education in England. However, her love is tested when Richard announces his change of heart, and his decision to become a jockey instead. Emily sets off to London to advise Richard on the path she has carefully laid out for him and her interference leads to a moving scene when a telegram sent to Emerald Hill informs Emily of Richard’s suicide.

The emotions at this point are so intense that a few guests were spotted dabbing away the tears. Aft er Emily’s famous sweet corn ice cream is served, the second act kicks off with emotions running high on betrayal, loss, redemption, remorse, pride and most importantly, love. The climax is Emily’s husband’s betrayal of their marriage and his subsequent death which leaves Emily the riches of Emerald Hill. As time passes, Emerald Hill becomes an empty shell, leaving the aged Nyonya refl ecting upon key moments in her life.

Fittingly, Saw closed the night with the three actresses on stage, drifting away to a melancholy rendition of “Oh, Danny Boy”.

Backstage at Emerald Hill

What provided the inspiration to reinterpret Emily for the George Town Festival?
DIRECTOR SAO TEONG HIN: I felt that it was the most appropriate show really, as it show-cases the distinctive culture of the Peranakans. Joe ( Joe Sidek, the organising chairman of the George Town Festival) contacted me to do something for the festival, and I jumped at the opportunity. It had been on my mind quite a while to do Emily of Emerald Hill, and with this Festival, the time was just right.

What were the challenges of using three actresses to portray Emily?
I have actually watched all of them act and it stirred me to unite them on a single stage. It really brought about an energy that was different from the other productions that used one actress. Editing the script to accommodate the three different actresses was difficult but definitely worth it!

“We complemented each other perfectly, and relied strongly on each other’s energy to continue the scenes,” explained Pearlly Chua. Having portrayed Emily hundreds of times never prepared her to “share” the character with two other actresses. “I constantly had to be aware of the energy and depth of character from the previous actress, interpret it during my scene, and translate the energy to the next actress. It may sound hard, but the experience was certainly worthwhile as compared to doing the monologue myself.”

Do you have any plans to turn Emily of Emerald Hill into a movie?
STH: At the moment no, but I’m not going to dismiss the possibility of doing so. It all depends on Joe.

How different was directing theatre for you?
: This was actually my first attempt at theatre and unlike directing a film, there is no room for flaws on stage. It’s a tribute to the professionalism of the actresses that we were able to pull this production off .

What’s next for the Emilies?

While Pearlly Chua will continue to slip on her kebaya for future monologues, this project was a one-off for Leow Puay Tin. “I only decided to take part after receiving a call from Saw, and have no intention of continuing it,” said Leow, now a lecturer in performing arts at Sunway College.

For Neo Swee Lin, being Emily again was an engaging experience. Although her performance refl ected the old Emily – motherly and constantly deep in thought – I could not help but feel that her portrayal was the night’s strongest performance. “I always play older characters, but I still feel young at heart,” joked Neo when asked about portraying Emily in her twilight years. Neo was the “youngest” Emily to take to the stage, as she started playing Emily as recently as 1996.

Ben Wismen’s love affair with theatre started when he was introduced to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s productions at the age of 10. He hopes to see the romance of Martina Rozells brought to the stage one day.

Related Articles

Sep 2016

Say “Yes” to Vaccines, for Your Children’s Sake

To vaccinate or not to vaccinate – that shouldn't even be a question.

Feb 2012

Developing the hill is an uphill climb

The upgrading of Penang Hill moves slowly and cautiously for good reason.

Aug 2016

Zooming in on Bugs

Three photographer friends dedicate themselves to capturing life in the undergrowth.