Impact of Emily
Between June 2012 and February 2013, The Peranakan Museum mounted an exhibition titled: Emily of Emerald Hill: Singaporean Identity on Stage. The exhibition included artifacts, lent by Stella’s family, which came from the old house Oberon; material relating to the performances, such as Ivan Heng’s ball-gown, and a special performance of the play by Margaret Chan. Public interest in the exhibition was high, and attendance figures of about 100,000 were the highest in the museum’s history.
The title of the exhibition is significant. When the play first appeared in 1982, it stunned audiences with its representation of a character whom they could recognize and identify with as one of their own – not merely the niche Peranakan identity, but the larger Malaysian/Sinagporean identity. They experienced, in the words of Adam Fould, “the thrill which members of (a community) feel when they first find their world fully reflected back at them. It can be an elating moment, ratifying your experience, newly legitimizing your life. That sensation, it seems to me is the essence of identity … that involuntary and often happy sense of recognition is the thing itself.” The play became well-loved in Singapore and Malaysia.
In spite of its traditional themes, Emily seemed in the 1980s as somewhat avant-garde. It is an extreme example of the craft of theatre, with one versatile actor using many different theatre styles to draw the audience into the act of creative imagination to see a world within a “wooden O.” Audiences were mesmerised by the encounter and a series of actors and directors has taken up Emily's challenge..
In later years Emily's universal relevance was appreciated. Ivan Heng extended boundaries, as a male actor playing the dynamic matriarch. Q Theatre in Mumbai, recognizing how the play maps on to their own post-colonial experience, has successfully adapted it (with permission) into Khatija-bai of Kembali Terrace. . The work has been translated into Japanese, Chinese and Icelandic, and a French translation is currently being undertaken.
A generation of young Singapore artists was electrified on Emily's first appearance. Students in architecture and sociology took Emily as the jumping-off point for their academic theses. The character of Emily was referenced in Theodore Li’s poem Emily of Emerald Hill, in Haresh Sharma’s play Off Centre, and Jonathan Lim’s On This Emerald Hill.
Mr Glen Goei, a well-known director and producer, says that seeing Emily crystallised his decision to return to Singapore from London, to work in theatre here. Many other theatre practitioners have said that their career choices were influenced by this sense of new possibilities, that was sparked by the play. Emily appeared at a seminal moment when people were wondering whether our country could ever find a unique voice of its own. Emily gave them an exemplar, and confidence that it could be done, at a level that would stand international comparison. The play changed people’s lives, far outside the theatre.