Last night, in Adelaide, I watched the classic Singaporean play, Emily of Emerald Hill, written by Stella Kon. When actress Pearlly Chua, who plays Emily, walked onto the stage and addressed an invisible son, Richard, I had my doubts.

Emily of Emerald Hill is a monodrama. Emily is the matriarch of a wealthy Peranakan family in Singapore, and Emerald Hill is the family home, a lavish mansion surrounded by expansive lawns. But tonight, that opulence does not translate to the stage: a coat stand, two chairs, two tables, a telephone. Chua is the sole performer. Can she entertain us for two hours? It’s a lot to ask of one woman.

The play starts sometime after the Japanese Occupation of Singapore, but through Emily’s flashbacks, we traverse the span of her life: before she was even ten, till she is an old woman and traffic noises sound like the voices of people who once slept in those vast airy bedrooms on Emerald Hill.

Lady in Peranakan costume
Pearlly Chua as Emily

The play opens with Emily making arrangements for Richard’s birthday party, circa 1950. Richard is her eldest son, and he about to go to England to study. Emily is quick to announce this to all, and this in itself makes me dislike her. She represents all ambitious mothers who broadcast the successes of their children to the diminution of all less successful mothers and their less successful children.

Or perhaps I am jealous. You need two things to go to England to study: money and brains. It would seem that Emily has these two in abundance, through her husband and eldest son, such is the life of one who must live vicariously.

The telephone, that rightly takes centre stage, is a great device because it connects Emily to a whole range of people, cutting across culture and class. When Emily is not putting on a front, she speaks a charming mixture of Hokkien, Malay and English. Sometimes she slips off a beaded slipper and tucks one foot under her bottom. But when she orders Richard’s birthday cake from an English bakery, she caricatures Anglophilia in every carefully enunciated syllable.

To her staff within shouting distance – washer woman, cook, driver – Emily shows her matriarchal range and management nous. It is perfectly acceptable to speak a certain way to your driver, rudely, because, well, he is your driver. As I laugh, I realise I am starting to feel disconcerted; the lines start to sound familiar. It is an uncomfortable thing to be shown an honest picture of home when you least expect it.

Orange, Yellow and Pink lace tops
Traditional kebayas at a Peranakan Museum. Photo by knitnutmsia.

But then Emily gives her washer woman instructions: heavily starch Big Master’s pants and the children’s school uniforms, but only a little bit of starch for my own kebayas. If you do as you’re told, we will ‘get along very well’. Emily is not a wicked slavedriver, she is a cog in the machinery of Singaporean society in the 20th century. This requires skill because ‘these days good servants are so hard to get’. 

With her family, Emily entreats, cajoles, manipulates. The two she loves most make the most daring break for freedom. She offers her children money; she offers her husband respectability; but neither buys what she most desires: the uncomplicated love of someone who has nothing to gain from her pleasure or displeasure, a love that is not disguised indebtedness, but a spontaneous overflow of the heart.

Perhaps the only person outside the web of power, money and obligation is Bee Choo. So it is unsurprising that Emily is at her kindest in her interaction with Bee Choo. If you want to understand the Asian culture of saving face, not for one’s own sake, but for the sake of another, then watch Emily solve Bee Choo’s money troubles with finesse.

In the play, Emily occasionally cradles her children and her grandchildren to sleep. At these times, we see her at her most tender. She can give of herself in this way, even though this tenderness and protection was denied her as a child.

As Emily becomes an old woman, she speaks again to invisible people. By this time, I am so attuned to Chua’s performance that I understand that Richard is not in front of Emily, but that she wishes him to be. And so she drifts to sleep, that place where we are stripped of all the trappings of wealth and social obligation and duty, that place where we let our guard down, where our wishes surface and we rest in our dreams.

Road sign Emerald Hill in front of Peranakan shophouses
The play is set in Emerald Hill in Singapore, where the writer’s family comes from. Photo by Pink Mermaid

Emily of Emerald Hill is a play I recommend to all, especially to Malaysians and Singaporeans. It is not often that we see our story so well described and performed in Adelaide. The second and final performance is next Monday, 4 June, 2018.

May-Kuan Lim is a freelance writer based in Adelaide. She is currently publishing her novel, Refuge, as a serial online release. It is a collection of true stories about refugee resettlement in Australia. Subscribe for free to receive links to new instalments in your inbox.