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Antares catches Pearlly Chua’s 88th incarnation as Emily Gan

By the time the current run of Emily of Emerald Hill finishes at the Actors Studio, Bangsar, Pearlly Chua would have made theater history by playing a single rôle 100 times over the past 12 years.

For sheer dedication and stamina alone, Ms Chua deserves a standing ovation and as many bouquets as she can cart home in her car. And Music Theatre gets a big pat on the back for presenting the event with such unpretentious panache (I was fortunate to have caught Emily on opening night when the audience was treated to a tantalizing assortment of nyonya delicacies; it was a truly gratifying and tasteful touch).


Stella Kon wrote ‘Emily’ in 1983

Playwright Stella Kon is understandably delighted and touched by Pearlly Chua and director Chin San Sooi’s powerful belief in and unwavering devotion to her classic monologue, written in 1983 and first performed in 1986 with Chin directing Leow Puay Tin as Emily. Kon has reportedly sanctioned Chin and Chua to perform Emily wherever and whenever they are invited to do so. This is perhaps as close to achieving a “definitive” portrayal as anyone can possibly get. After Chua’s 100th performance, the rôle will forever be intermingled with her essence. Emily Gan, in effect, would have obtained permanent residence in the world of the living through the untiring efforts of Chin and Chua.

We are indeed blessed to be able to return from time to time to this beautifully embroidered tale of a complex and intriguing personality and gather what undestanding we can from this rich lode of human lore. Each revisit, to be sure, will be rewarded with fresh discoveries about ourselves.

Emily Gan controls her domain by telephone

To date I’ve seen Emily a total of five times: twice with the immensely talented Leow Puay Tin, twice with the slightly less accomplished but perhaps more authentic Pearlly Chua, and once with the vivacious Ivan Heng who played Emily in drag to wildly hilarious effect and added a kinky twist to the text. The only incarnation of Emily I missed was when Margaret Chan played the part in Singapore.

Stella Kon’s consummately crafted monologue has certainly withstood the test of time. Indeed, with each new encounter, my admiration for the artistic integrity of her text has increased. Not only does it serve as an important documentation of a vanishing subculture in a bygone era, the universality of Kon’s portrait of a very engaging human personality has won the hearts and minds of audiences wherever it has been staged. In short, Emily of Emerald Hill ranks among the most inspired and dramatically satisfying monologues I have yet to come across.

Pearlly Chua as herself

Doing Emily is no mean feat. Running at close to 100 minutes and encompassing Emily’s poignant story from childhood to dotage as dowager of a fading tradition, the rôle is a supreme test of any actor’s stage presence, physical stamina, and storytelling prowess. But the monologue flows so smoothly one’s attention doesn’t wander for even a moment. Humor, pathos, and a profound psychological insight into human behavior are masterfully blended – not unlike Emily Gan’s mouthwatering nyonya specialty, babi buah keluak, which is so addictive it tastes just like opium.

Chin San Sooi, director

Back in the late 1980s I was greatly impressed by the dramatic nuances that Leow Puay Tin succeeded in bringing to her incarnation as Emily Gan. One must credit Leow with having initially given life to this forceful character. For a while, I could see no other Emily – just as, for many, Johnny Weissmuller will always be Tarzan. However, in the course of the last 12 years, Pearlly Chua has grown in confidence, skill and maturity both as an actress and as Emily Gan. Through her remarkable persistence and ceaseless effort she has inherited Emily’s mantle.

If you’ve caught an earlier version of Emily, you probably won’t regret a return bout, such is the timeless appeal of the tale. And if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of an introduction, don’t hesitate to witness theater history in the making. Word is out that Pearlly Chua has already been asked to do a 101st performance. Long live Emily!

11 October 2002

A Truly Ballsy Emily of Emerald Hill


Ivan Heng as Emily Gan in a 2011 restaging of Stella Kon’s classic monologue

I’d forgotten what it was about families and society in general that made me rebel as a teenager. Stella Kon’s classic study of a Nyonya matriarch in postwar Singapore – the highly acclaimed Emily of Emerald Hill – brought it all home to me. For hours, no, for days after seeing Emily for the third time (each time with a different Emily), I was awash in an ocean of memories and long-forgotten feelings. Such is the power and scope of Stella Kon’s 1983 masterpiece that it holds up admirably to repeated scrutiny, regardless of who’s playing Emily Gan. In this particular instance, it was a remarkably talented bloke named Ivan Heng – but more about Ivan later.


Doing Emily in drag… twice!

The subject matter of the monologue is complex indeed – and far too rich for any short essay or review to do it justice. Doctoral dissertations can be (or ought to be) written about Emily of Emerald Hill. But in the final analysis, it’s all about life… and control issues… and thwarted love, deformed by ambition.

As a dramatic text, Emily of Emerald Hill deserves the highest accolades. Rarely does a playwright hit on such a mother lode of inspiration and succeed in crafting it into such an unforgettable theater experience.

The first Emily Gan I saw was played to perfection by Leow Puay Tin. Her transcendental performance permanently imprinted the aesthetic pleasure of witnessing an excellent monologue brilliantly realized for the stage. For me, Emily Gan will always look like Leow Puay Tin – just as the Professor Higgins I know bears a striking resemblance to Rex Harrison.

True, I never saw Margaret Chan’s interpretation of Emily Gan – and thus must beg her pardon for my unreasonable bias. However, I caught the revival of Emily starring Pearlly Chua – whose meticulous portrayal was impressive, but a touch too soap operatic for my taste.

So how did Ivan Heng fare as the latest incarnation of Emily Gan? First of all, anyone who saw Ivan in Ovidia Yu’s Woman in a Tree on a Hill or in his autobiographical Journey West is probably an ardent fan of this ebullient theatrical prodigy from Singapore. Ivan Heng is incredibly talented and always watchable – even when he’s having a little fun at his own and the audience’s expense. In other words, Ivan’s pretty damn good even when he’s plain showing off.


Ivan Heng with a model of his new Emily of Emerald Hill set

With Krishen Jit as dramaturgical catalyst and sounding board, Ivan created a savvy and sophisticated Emily Gan. Or, as an astute reviewer put it, Ivan’s Emily had balls. His flamboyance got almost burlesque at moments, but the strength of Stella Kon’s text grounded the action in the human dimension at all times.

The jazzy and staccato lighting by Mac Chan was adventurous and actually worked very well – except at moments when the audience was blinded by the irritatingly intrusive glare of a “chandelier” in the Gan mansion and the house lights would come on, compelling audience participation (that’s a little too in-your-face if you ask me). An elaborate art deco set by Raja Maliq appeared quite redundant after a while. It was extremely tasteful nevertheless, never mind the visual incongruity of the giant framed screens upon which colors and images occasionally played. That’s Krishen Jit’s signature motif, the wayang kulit screen.


Emily of Emerald Hill reloaded

For any accomplished actress (or actor), playing Emily Gan is the equivalent of a solo Channel crossing for a championship swimmer. Ivan Heng, I’m happy to report, made it to the opposite shore (he couldn’t possibly have failed, such is his reserve of sheer prowess). but whenever I hear the name “Emily Gan” I can’t help but see someone who looks like Leow Puay Tin. It’s hard to improve on perfection. I only hope Puay Tin will do Emily one more time – and let herself be filmed for posterity.

15 October 1999

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