Director's Chair

In 1984, a copy of Emily of Emerald Hill was handed to me by Ong Su-Ming in Ipoh. It had won the Singapore Drama writing competition but was pronounced as too difficult to stage as it was a monologue, which was too long and too demanding.

Now, after countless performances (21 by Leow Puay Tin, who originated the role, and 103 by Pearlly Chua) under my direction and other performances (one version in Mandarin), the play has attained cult status with an enthusiastic following. It far outstrips any other play in terms of number of performances and productions in the history of Malaysian and Singaporean theatre.

Why so?

It is economical, financially and practically, to stage: minimalist presentation, maximum impact. More significantly, within a brief span of 1 hour 50 minutes, the play gives a succint insight into Peranakan culture and a period in the history of Singapore and Malaysia. Also, the unfolding drama of Emily strikes a universal chord of an individual struggling against an adverse environment of social mores and tradition. Eventually, Emily, battle-scarred, is left all alone in an empty mansion with her experiences. The characterisation of the aged Emily is open ended: defeated, resigned, or victorious.

The total impact of the play is not a performance that one sees, but an experience that one encounters. On one occasion, a European lady came up to me after a performance to thank me for a wonderful experience. Her response, in a nut-shell, expresses the telling effect of the play.

Needless to say. the play is well written. The traditional story-teller combined with flashbacks and modern staging techniques pertinently heighten the ironic moments in the play. Always, there is a thoughtful steady detachment towards the character, who is depicted with warts and all.

There are so many delightful and moving moments in the play: the rip-roarious birthday party scene when Emily plays hostess, the New Year scene when the newly wed Emily orchestrates her move to establish her position as wife to the eldest son of the family, the amusing report card scene, the compelling justification scene, the final scene when Emily is old and alone and many more soundly written scenes.

One scene which I particularly like is the sewing of the patch-work quilt. It is a controlled piece of intricate rhythms revealing Emily subtly taking control of the family by insinuating her way into the confidence of her sisters-in-law, Mable and Molly, her husband and organising the life of her children. This lyrical passage demonstrates Stella's mastery in writing.

The character Emily, is a gem. As the play progresses, the many facets of her character are graudally unfolded. Seeing her is like thrillingly observing a rare diamond under a microscope.

It is a challenging role. The actress taking up the challenge to interprete the role will encounter a rich complex mental universe, which can only be savoured with humility.

In my association with the play from day one, it has had a chequered history. Its World Premiere in October 1984 was held at the Guthrie Chemera Sports Club, Seremban, which is situated amidst orchid plants and rubber trees, literally far from civilization. The club house was converted into a theatre with cables about a quarter of a mile long for electrical power to run the airconditioners and stage lighting. Also, it is the first major play of any kind to be staged in Tawau, Sabah in 1987. It was during one of the two performances there that gave me an insight into theatre. A Taiwanese lady, married to a Sabahan and who did not speak English, came up to me after the performance and insisted that she met Puay Tin. When she saw Puay Tin, she said, "Your person is so small; on stage your person was so big."

Her remark for me sums up the transforming power of the theatre.

I have been often asked, "Aren't you tired of doing Emily again?"

I've quoted John Keats for the answer,

"A thing of beauty is a joy forever; its loveliness
increases; it will never pass into nothingness..."

If I should have not directed other plays, I would not mind being associated with directing Emily of Emerald Hill only.

About Chin San Sooi

Chin San Sooi was at the School of Speech and Drama London under a British Council Scholarship in 1969-70.

He has been involved in Malaysian Theatre since the 1960's. He has directed many Shakespearean plays and local Broadway musicals among others, and written and directed numerous plays over the years - among the more notable have been Lady White, Morning in Might (A Musical), Yap Ah Loy - The Play, Reunion (A Musical), Kuala Lumpur Sentral(A Musical).

He directed Leow Puay Tin in Stella Kon's Emily of Emerald Hill in the 1980's - Puay Tin did 21 performances of Emily. In the 1990's he directed Pearlly Chua in Emily of Emerald Hill and Pearlly has done 103 performances of Emily!

In 1986, San Sooi was invited by the East-West Centre to direct Emily of Emerald Hill with Leow Puay Tin and in 1996 he directed Zhang Boils the Ocean for the Chinese Theatre Workshop at the Abrons Theatre and Chinese Taipei Theatre in New York.

San Sooi is a founder member of Five Arts Centre and continues to do theatre that speaks of Malaysian experience. He has recently written and directed Oh, Brickfields! - a musical.


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