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The Book Club

Stella Kon’s Emily Of Emerald Hill

1. Emily Of Emerald Hill. I first came into contact with the play when I was in secondary two (about six years ago) for my literature lessons; and it was my very first piece of Singaporean literature. It was quite an experience; given the fact that most of the works (novels and plays) I had been previously exposed to had been penned almost exclusively by Western authors. It is a pity, though, that I have not been able to attend a live screening of the play: I trust it would be quite an enjoyable show to enjoy.

2. Emily Gan. It has been mentioned in reviews and commentaries that Emily Gan is one of the most complex female human figure in the Singapore theatre; and probably even extends to the entire English literature genre. From monologue to monologue – especially when the scenes shift between the past and present – there is this constant dichotomy of the “oppressed” and the “oppressor’ with Emily’s character. The assortment of episodes presents her to be a victim of circumstances; or rather, through the dramatic monologue it seems as if she is constantly justifying her actions and decisions based on her experiences. Her arduous life-journey makes her think that in order to validate her existence, she needs to be valued and indispensible; though it makes her power-hungry and domineering.

3. Dramatic monologue. The entire play has Emily as a single speaker presenting her life story to the audience. It evolves as a challenge because while the monologues give an all-round, emotive view of Emily’s life, it is a supreme test of the actress’s stage presence, storytelling abilities and physical prowess or stamina. The whole range of demands – having to act as different ages in very different situations – nevertheless brings about a great deal of emotions: the audience is almost like a confidante, having a conversation with Emily.

4. The use of lighting. This would be remarkable to see in a theatre. Very subtly, Stella Kon makes use of the intensity of the lighting to expressively represent events and Emily’s inner emotions: there are bright lights during the grand functions and dinners, and contrastingly dim lights during moments of death, or when Emily is struggling with unexpected episodes or occurrences. The elements of time, disposition and space are expressed through lighting.

5. Tradition versus modernity. The entire play is an advance towards a more modern city, with Emily seen as a vanguard against such a progress (though the traditional outlook does not remain with her children and relatives). Emily constantly makes references to traditional Singaporean-Peranakan beliefs: such as how the first grandson is always favoured, and how a woman has to be submissive to her husband. Eventually though, she fails to stem the changes wrought by modernisation and urbanisation; she is left alone in Emerald Hill, and she is literally surrounded by all the tall apartments that surround the sold land around the estate.

6. Domination and power. As aforementioned, Emily’s tough past makes her subscribe to the belief that only indispensability would empower her to gain a steady foothold in the family. In the opening salvos Emily is already shown to be in-charge of the entire household, ordering servants and cooks all around and making sure everything is order. The quilts are a symbol of her domination and presence: “by now after so many years, I’ve made quilts for all the family. Every night, each one of them sleeps all wrapped up in my patchwork quilt”.

7. Family. The audience is often left wondering if there is genuine love, care and concern between the members of the Gan household; especially when domestic politics play a very noticeable and significant role. Emily and Susie maintain a very cordial relationship on the surface (with Emily caring for the superficial aspects such as food and clothing), though their conflict was evident when they were “using” Richard and Freddy to curry favour in front of their father-in-law. The two women are very caught up in their desires to make sure that their sons get the lion’s share of the will. These competitions and battles make Emerald Hill feel distant and cold; and Emily is only able to express her emotions and true feelings outside of the estate, with her friend Bee Choo.

8. Independence of her husband and children. Emily is very adept at using emotional blackmail to persuade Richard to do a variety of things: from not inviting one of his friends to going back to law school. Her blind insistence eventually costs Richard’s life; and it is a cruel irony that the very skill (horse-riding) she had encouraged him to pursue would be the skill that contributes to the suicide. Though it is not fair for her husband to have a mistress just because of Emily’s domineering attitudes, Emily does employ the same level of control over her other children. However, she is somewhat redeemed when she lowers her insistence and hard-handed attitude towards Doris, and balances her experience and love for her to develop a more balanced approach.

9. Failure and success. Quite straightforward: the Singapore model of success traditionally means a degree, and then engaging in a respectable profession such as medicine or law. Doing well in examinations competitively is a must, and engaging in anything frivolous and considering them as possible careers are not viable at all.

10. Class and social status. Emily is aware of the need to “code switch” in different circumstances, and she is able to do that with ease. From the traditional market to the modern supermarket, she has a special ability to harmonise the varying elements to get the best of both worlds.

About guanyinmiao

A man of knowledge lives by acting, not by thinking about acting. Carlos Castaneda.

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