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Women in the Peranakan Family
Friday, March 29, 2013 | 6:42 PM | 0 comments
"One is not born, but, rather, becomes a woman" - Simone de Beauvoir (1973)
Emily of Emerald Hill chronicles the struggles Emily had gone through to become the matriarch of the household. From abandoned daughter to young bride and then head of the household, Emily's identity is shaped by the society's expectations of her. "Performing" her roles, Emily has to act appropriately and evolve from role to role. 

Feminism is a strong theme that echoes within the play. A one-woman monologue, it allows the usually suppressed female voice to take control and be heard from the stage. Emily embodies the loud and easy-going matriarch of the family who takes care of everything. She is easily able to change from one persona to another to suit the situation as can be seen from her various phone calls in the first act. 

The Peranakan culture would appear to seem that the male is usually in power of his household and it would be easy to call them a patriarchal culture. However, while the males are out working to support the family, it is the females that preside the household. A hidden matriarchy, the Nyonya wives rule the household with an iron fist, managing and directing the day to day activities of the household and also controlling the funds in the family. As can be seen from the play, Emily rules Emerald Hill. She is in charge of holding grand events to planning even the daily meals. Everyone in the household looks to her to solve any problems, even her sisters-in-law who once despised her. This shows the strong rules that bound the Peranakan household. 

Emily has had to perform her roles as a daughter, a wife and a matriarch of the household. They are roles that society places upon her; not abiding will only lead to wagging tongues and disapproving looks. A Nyonya is not born but learnt. Emily was born poor and lacked the proper upbringing. However, she soon rose to the top and ruled over the rest. 

Harking back to the past, where males played female roles in the Wayang Peranakan, as Baba Peranakan society frowned upon the very thought of Nyonyas appearing on stage, Ivan Heng plays the strong and domineering matriarch in a 2001 stage production. It is also ironic that a male plays the only role in a play of a woman's struggle in a man's world. 

a trailer for the 2011 production

By breaking traditional stereotypes, Heng as Emily forces the audience to look again at what it takes to be Emily. Heng does not attempt to poke fun of the female mannerisms or costumes, but tries to replicate it accurately.  This draws attention to the performative nature of the role as a female. Heng aims to reproduce Emily of Emerald Hill every 10 years to better reflect the changing society. 

These themes are also echoed in other literary works relevant to the Peranakan culture, such as A Bit of Earth by Suchen Christine Lim. Therefore, I believe that the issues are timeless and that it will remain relevant until equality of the sexes is achieved. 

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