Experience Peranakan culture anew at Emily of Emerald Hill exhibition
Think iconic Singaporean plays and Emily of Emerald Hill will make the list.
The one-woman show, written by Stella Kon in 1982, featured the very relatable character Emily Gan, at the heart of it — the at-times overbearing mother/wife who is forced to confront difficult family issues with resilience, the emotional struggles of a woman in a patriarchal world.
The background to Emily’s musings and heart wrenching outpourings are of course, the Peranakan culture. And in a first for Singapore theatre, a play is the focus of a museum exhibition, fittingly, at the Peranakan Museum. Called Emily of Emerald Hill: Singaporean Identity on Stage, it is open until Feburary 17, 2013.
Actors who played Emily (L-R): Neo Swee Lin, Ivan Heng, Stella Kon, Pearlly Chua and Jalyn Han
“This single narrative provides us with an insight into the life of Peranakan Chinese in Singapore in the early 20th century and deals with issue of power and gender during that period that continues to resonate with people today,” says Maria Khoo Joseph, the museum’s assistant curator on why the play was chosen.
The playwright herself was Peranakan Chinese, and is a descendant from two famous Peranakan families – the Tan Tock Seng family and Lim Boon Keng family – making the play an even more authentic experience of a local culture Singaporeans still don’t know much about.
Some characters were even inspired by her ancestors, most notably, her grandmother as the blueprint for Emily, and her maternal great-grandfather Tan Boo Liat, who was the great-grandson of Tan Tock Seng and a co-founder of the Singapore Chinese Girls’ School, as the idea behind Emily’s father-in-law.
“The museum also worked with Ms Kon and other members of her family to help bring Emily to life in the galleries,” says Ms Joseph.
Original Peranakan furniture and costumes at the Emily of Emerald Hill exhibition
One part which will resonate with those who’ve watched the play is the installation of the Emerald Hill house. It uses original furniture from the house Ms Kon grew up in, called Oberon, and pieces from the Peranakan Museum’s permanent collection.
Also, intimate interviews with the three most famous actors who’ve put their own spin on Emily — Margaret Chan, Pearlly Chua and Ivan Heng — will be shown in the section “Performing Emily: The Many Faces of Emily Gan”, as they speak about how the play has affected them and their careers.
In a chat with herworldplus.com last year, Mr Heng sang its praises, calling it a “play for all time that cuts across all gender, race and nationality.”
Costumes, props, scripts and other memorabilia from various stagings will awaken the memories of theatre-goers.
Peranakan wedding garment at the exhibition
As for those who haven’t caught the play yet, Ms Joseph assures you’ll still be able to enjoy the exhibition.
Theatre buffs will appreciate the section which shows the history of Singapore English theatre from independence, with Emily of Emerald Hill being part of the steady flourish of local arts culture, while history and vintage-lovers will like the display of garments, kitchenware and personal items from real Peranakan homes.
There are also plenty of activities for visitors to gain an in-depth understanding of the play and Peranakan culture — a sure-to-be entertaining panel discussion on August 18, 11am, with Ivan Heng, Margaret Chan and Pearlly Chua where they will speak about their experiences portraying Emily.
The talk Peranakan Language and Theatre by National University of Singapore Professor Anne Pakir on September 5, 7pm, will touch on Baba Malay and Wayang Peranakan.
Lastly, don’t miss the conversation session with Stella Kon on October 4, 7pm, who will open up about writing the play, her life and more.
Emily of Emerald Hill: Singaporean Identity on Stage is at the Peranakan Museum from now to February 17, 2013; 1pm to 7pm on Mon, 9am to 7pm on Tues to Sun, 9am to 9pm on Fri. Admission is $6 for adults. Log on to www.peranakanmuseum.sg/exhibitions/eventdetail.asp?eventid=285 for more information.