by Sherry Siebel
(From Day & Night - 28/12/98)
I had been hankering to see Emily of Emerald Hill for years. And then, by complete coincidence and with perfect serendipity, I found myself walking along Singapore's Emerald Hill Road a day before I was meant to finally see the play at Old China Cafe in good old Jln Balai Polis in KL's Chinatown. Director Chin San Sooi had told me that the original Nyonya mansion that Singaporean playwright Stella Kon had chosen to fictitiously house her grand dame Emily Gan has since been demolished, but looking in covetous awe at the gloriously preserved terrace shop houses that currently line this beautiful road leading to Orchard Road, with strenuously fanciful imagination involving the mental air-brushing of looming skyscrapers, the antebellum world of Emerald Hill according to Emily slowly coalesced in my mind. And when the next evening I walked through the swinging doors of Old China Cafe, the atmospheric pre-war ex-Selangor Laundry Association building with its dark, musty interior, marble-topped tables, cobwebs nestling by the ceiling and rows of vintage portraits gazing benignly down from the walls, my anticipatory joy was complete. I was ready to relish Pearlly Chua in all her superlatively Nyonya flamboyance, bitchiness and pain.
Whilst enjoying a Nyonya feast of kueh pai tee, ayam pongteh, lemak nenas and bubur cha-cha, I could see Pearlly preparing herself for her demanding 1 hour 45 minute role. Standing before an antique dressing table, she bunned up her hair, clouds of hairspray rising over a screen paned with mottled green glass; then she stared at herself for a few moments, a tall, svelte woman in a fitting peach-coloured sarung kebaya, mouth hardening in concentration. By the time we were seated before the dais which would become the intensely emotional focus of a shopful of transfixed co-conspirators, and the swallows were shrilly making their twilight presence known from the eaves outside, Pearlly was waiting to put us through the wringer.
It is easy to see how and why Emily of Emerald Hill has acquired its cult status and phalanx of fans, some of whom often go up to San Sooi to tell of their multiple viewings. The most fully realised and complex character seen in the histories of Malaysian and Singaporean drama, Emily and her life tell a very basic truth which belies the utter frailty of the human condition: the need for love, and in its absence, a trait peculiar to women - the irrepressible desire to control everything and everybody. Her incorrigible need to smother her family with over-protection, cunning cajolery and iron-fisted control, manifested from her abandonment by her mother upon the death of her father and the revelation thrust upon her after her arranged marriage at the age of 14 years, that "a woman is nothing in this world that men have made, except in the role that men demand of her", drove away the very thing she wanted most. Yet the strength and industriousness of spirit with which she continued her shrinking life, after her husband committed adultery and her son committed suicide, reveals the indomitable bedrock entombed in her, puddled as it was in sorrow, which gives hope to the observer until one is confronted and saddened by her pathetically blissful senility at the end of her lonely life.
But there is joy too. Emily is a character which can be interpreted in countless ways. Her first incarnation in 1984 by Leow Puay Tin in Seremban was described as "hard-edged" whereas Singaporean Margaret Chan's Emily (also seen at the 1996 Edinburgh Fringe Festival) was reported as being "mirthful". But Pearlly Chua, of Peranakan descent herself, seems to have more or less claimed Emily for herself with what was her 49th performance as the virago matriarch par excellence. "Colouring" Emily with her deliberately farcical forced gaiety which could in an instant turn into real warmth, which in turn transformed into drippingly caustic sarcasm, Pearlly displayed these many facets with a precision that left the audience in no doubt as to her real emotions. Often cringing at her blatant fawning and shameless currying of favour, yet simultaneously laughing at her crafty manipulations - you should have seen her insisting on kneeling before her otherwise "modern" father-in-law at New Year, thereby forcing similar obeisance by lesser relatives - one was caught up as in a dream with her chameleon ability to excite delight and inebriation of emotion.
Her wonderful Nyonya patois, liberally sprinkled with lovely expressions like gasak, cekik darah and cheh!, thrilled us, as did her voluble facial expressions and gesticulations. Then when she read the telegram bearing news of her eldest and favourite son's suicide, her desolation filled the room and I remember feeling absolutely gutted. Expert induction of suspension of disbelief was complete: Emily existed, Emily was real. Pearlly had earlier intimated that this newest resurrection of Emily would be "ruthless". I find that what was most ruthless about her Emily was the way she managed to upset us so much! The less masochistic would argue that she prolonged this agonising scene, tears standing tremulously in her eyes, but being the sucker for pathos that I am, I thoroughly enjoyed her engineering of my emotions. And I would really like to try her piece de resistance dish, babi buah keluak.
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