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Emily - a Singaporean play?
Tuesday, March 26, 2013 | 2:26 PM | 0 comments
Emily of Emerald Hill was the winning play of the 1983 National Playwriting Competition. Based in old Singapore during the 50s, it is a touching play, highlighting the history of the strong matriarch of Emerald Hill. Even though it is set in Singapore, how Singaporean is Emily of Emerald Hill?

Peranakan Chinese are usually referred to as the descendants of late 15th - 16th century Chinese immigrants to the Indonesian archipelago and British Malaya (now Malaysia). Those Chinese immigrants intermarried with the local Malaya women. They retained most of their ethnic and religious origins but assimilated the language and culture of the Malays; then, mixing various elements from the country they lived in, created an unique culture of their own. Many Peranakan families moved to Singapore following its colonization. They were able to speak a variety of languages as traders and were an exclusive and elite society. Due to their loyalty to the British, their English education gave them an advantage over the other Chinese immigrants. The Peranakans were also often wealthier and held considerable power in political positions. Peranakans are by definition of mixed origin and cultural hybrids, they do not belong exclusively to a particular place but "home" is where they have settled (Singapore being one of the many). However, some had played an integral part in Singapore's history! Famous Peranakans in Singapore include 1st Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew (founder of Modern Singapore) and our current president, Tony Tan.

Emily was a typical Nyonya that Peranakans of any nationalities could easily relate to. As mentioned above, Peranakans are not unique to Singapore. The mixed usage of colloquial Malay and English in their speech is not of Singapore origin but of the Peranakans. Singlish (Singaporean English), however, was littered throughout the play and  strengthened the link of the play to Singapore. Situational cues such as "Orchard Road"and "Siglap" also helped to pinpoint Singapore as the setting. However, they were sparse and easily buried in the rich stories of Emily.

The play was conceived in Ipoh and written in Richmond by a writer born in Edinburgh. Yet, Kon's pink identity card made her eligible to participate in Singapore's playwriting competition and went on to win the top prize for 3 years consecutively. Though a "Singaporean" play, it was ironically first staged in Malaysia by a Malaysian director. It was not until 1985 that someone took up the challenge and presented it for the first time at the Singapore Drama Festival. International audiences were not daunted by the colloquial languages and responded warmly to the play. This only meant that the play contained universal elements that anyone could relate to! Once again, how is Emily of Emerald Hill a Singaporean play?

Emily of Emerald Hill Exhibition, Peranakan Museum 
"The play is revered as one of the Singapore's most-loved creations and it is easy to see why. Many elements are intrinsic parts of the Singapore identity - the search for true self, the celebration of our heritage, the fighting spirit to overcome odds through sheer perseverance and the gritting of teeth." - Kenneth Kwok, The Straits Times, 1999
Yet, many Singaporeans identify with the play and are able to empathize with Emily as they went through the ups and downs of her life. As Emily courses through her tumultuous life, she constantly puts on different facades as required by her status and the situation. Who is the real Emily? The poor, abandoned girl or the sociable and loud matriarch of Emerald Hill? The audience is left to wonder which is Emily's true identity. At the end of the play, Emily dies with neither family nor friends by her side. She is devoid of what makes up her identity - society. In that raw moment, the audience is able to capture her loneliness and how she has lived her life for others. We can easily identify with the need to search for one's true self. Post-colonialism has brought about the urgency of defining what makes one Singaporean. A national identity, a national language and a culture of our own. With independence, the citizens alike need to search for who it is that they are. It is an issue that is relevant till today - 48 years from the independence of Singapore. In this fast-paced society, are we living for ourselves or running on the hamster mill that is capitalism? The search for one's true self is tough and something that most Singaporeans can identify with, whether old or young.

"Kiasu" and "Kiasi" are two colloquial terms that cannot be separated from the Singapore culture. "Kiasu" is the fear of losing while "Kiasi" is the fear of dying. With these fears, Singaporeans have the dream of progressing upwards and onwards non-stop. No one wants to be left behind; no one wants to feel 'ridiculed' amongst friends. Though the rat race upwards is not unique to Singapore, it is something that Singaporeans are obsessed with. Coupled with Asian values of having to be the best, it is no wonder that Singaporeans are amongst the most stressed people in the world. We are able to relate with Emily's persevering spirit to reach the top. Like Emily, many of us do not start off at the top. We worked from the bottom, and climbed furiously to reach the top. Only with our fighting spirit were we able to overcome obstacles and attain something better. Similarly, Emily wanted only the best for herself and her family.

Emily of Emerald Hill may not be as Singaporean as I would like it to be, but nevertheless it captures the essence of the Singaporean way of life.

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