Emily of Emerald Hill - the 200th show

The incomparable Pearlly Chua is best known as the actress who effectively portrayed Emily Gan, the key character in Emily of Emerald Hill, a play written by Singapore playwright, Stella Kon in 1982.

My event programme for Emily of Emerald Hill
I had read reviews and saw news snippets about this monologue drama where the entire performance hinged on the talent and versatility of the actress. And for a long time I wanted to watch Pearlly Chua perform this dramatic role but the opportunity never came.

Around mid-July, Sulaiman Yahya invited me to the staging of this play in Kuala Lumpur with Pearlly Chua in the role, to celebrate her 200th performance on Oct 15.

Wow! To watch Pearlly Chua reprising her role for the 200th show? It was indeed a significant milestone and I wanted to be part of it.

Emily of Emerald Hill, a play by Stella Kon
At that time, I did not know where or what time it was being staged (he did not give details yet!) but I assured Sulaiman that I will be there. And I was.

When I received the relevant info, I was amused that the show was being staged at The Play Haus, a theatrette located within the Pearl Shopping Gallery. Pearlly at the Pearl… how uncanny was that?

Sulaiman said the show should start at 8pm but prior to it, guests were welcome to refreshments of coffee and tea with an assortment of Nynoya kueh. It thought it was so charming and appropriate!

At about 6.30pm on Oct 15, I received a phone message from him saying, “I’m already here…” I was just glad I was on my way to join him to celebrate the 200th performance by Pearlly Chua!

Sulaiman [Left to Right] Peggy, Madihah and Sara Amelia
While Sulaiman is personally acquainted with Pearlly, my connection is how she shares a similar name as my middle sister, Pearly, spelled with one less ‘l’.

She lives in Negeri Sembilan but Pearlly was born in Singapore and grew up in Kulai, Johor, where her father worked in the Malaysian Civil Service. This is her Johor link!

When I arrived at the Play Haus, a small crowd of Emily fans had gathered in the adjacent café, mingling and savouring a range of popular kueh prepared in Peranakan recipes.

Some ladies were elegantly dressed in Nyonya kebaya and I soon spotted Sulaiman, enjoying the refreshments with his other guests, Madihah and Sara Amelia, his fellow hobby mates in Team Treximo, a running group.

This was the start of a most entertaining and engaging evening.

When the play was first staged with Pearlly Chua in the role as Emily, it was directed by the venerable Chin San Sooi. Their collaboration took the play to Singapore, Canada, China and Australia.

Sulaiman with Chin San Sooi and Peggy
It was therefore, deeply significant that San Sooi was once again, Director as well as Producer for her 200th show!

Over the years they have performed the play repeatedly but each show still engaged the audience in a most profound way.

When Sulaiman introduced me to San Sooi, saying that I’m from Johor, I somehow echoed his sentiment that, “The world needs to see the play,” when I asked him to consider bringing Emily of Emerald Hill to Johor Baru.

I believe the time is ripe for the staging of such a show for the theatre-performing arts audience in JB. For far too long, we have been going abroad or crossing the causeway to enjoy a good show and it’s about time for the good shows to come to JB!

Pearlly Chua taking her bow at the end of the show
Then it was time for the show. When San Sooi had made a brief introduction to the play, he also acknowledged the presence of the play’s former producers who had come from as far as Australia to grace Pearlly Chua 200th performance.

As the hall lights dimmed and the stage lit up, I sat enthralled by the play, set in the living room of a traditional Peranakan home, where the actress engaged the audience with her storytelling, moving around the stage and stretching our imagination with the use of only a few props.

It was the era of landline telephones (with a circular dial!) in a wealthy household where they were served by maids, a driver and a gardener.

Pearlly Chua and Chin San Sooi with the audience at
the 200th staging of Emily of Emerald Hill on Oct 15
Emily mesmerized us with her stories where we learnt, among other things, that she was a 14-year old bride married to a man twice her age, her bullying in-laws, a wayward husband and her love for her children.

At the close of Part One, I managed to swallow rising tears but I distinctly heard sniffing nearby, in an audience quite overcome with the emotions that Emily evoked in us.

In a chat with San Sooi during the 15-minute intermission, I learnt that Part Two of the play was even, and I quote: “meatier” and eagerly anticipated the scenes that were about to unfold.

A quick we-fie with Pearlly Chua after the show
While Part One closed on a serious note, the audience was probably unrepared for the change of tone in the opening scene of Part Two.

Emily, then the family matriarch, was at the market and when she stepped off the stage to ‘talk’ to the market vendors, her enthusiastic yells caught the audience by surprise and we responded with roars of laughter!

Such was the ethos and pathos woven into a tale on the life of a Peranakan woman in that era, beautifully written by Stella Kon and so classically portrayed by Pearlly Chua.

Emily was just one lead character who introduced various other personalities to us in her monologue and held the audience captive from the very start to the very end of the entire play.

Thanks Sulaiman, for inviting me to the 200th show!
She showed us various facets of true life – mirrored in our own lives – and left us pondering about her attitude, behavior and decisions – whether right or wrong – and its consequences, through a woman in a traditional Peranakan family, in a bygone era.

As the lights dimmed on a fading Emily, the audience gave Pearlly a standing ovation with loud claps and whistles as she humbly took her bows. Someone passed her a microphone to speak and I observed how she was suddenly speechless, choked up with tears of joy.

It was a few moments before she composed herself enough to say a few words of warm appreciation and then the cheering continued.

While its part of the actors’ profession to immerse themselves in their roles, I found it difficult to separate the actress Pearlly from her role as Emily!

With the resounding success of the 200th show, now it’s time to think about her 201st show and beyond.

And with the right partnerships in Johor, maybe, just maybe they will give some serious thought to bringing Malaysia’s longest-running play to JB someday soon. I certainly hope so. Because as San Sooi said, “The world needs to see the play.”

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