Becoming Emily of Emerald Hill

Ivan Heng opens up about becoming Emily Gan – the role he has played more than any other in his career. Find out what it’s like for him to walk a mile in Emily’s kasut manek!

Everything’s Coming Up Roses
Ivan celebrates with the audience at the gala performance of Emily of Emerald Hill

WILD RICE was founded almost 20 years ago with its iconic production of Emily of Emerald Hill. What drew you to this play all those years ago?

WILD RICE has always prided itself on telling Singapore’s stories – of breathing life into our literature and making theatre that is about who we are and how we came to be. That’s what Stella Kon’s Emily of Emerald Hill does. It’s a classic of Singapore’s literary canon. Not only is it one of Singapore’s first English-language plays, it gives voice to an entire community of Straits-born Chinese, who – over the course of generations – have created their own customs, rituals and ways of life in Singapore. The play is an important document of the golden age of Singapore’s Peranakan community. More significantly, it still resonates with ideas and lessons for audiences today.

What do you love about playing the iconic role of Emily Gan?

The fact that I play Emily from the age of 14 to 84. For an actor, it’s both a challenge and a joy to play a character over the course of an entire lifetime. Following Emily over the years allows me to play her as she grows from a girl to a woman, as she takes on multiple roles in life: as a daughter, wife, mother and grandmother.

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Strike A Pose!
Ivan is wearing a bespoke kebaya embroidered with chrysanthemums, designed by Raymong Wong

Since 2000, you’ve played Emily over a hundred times. How has performing this role been different for you this time around?

Actors can’t help bringing something of themselves to every role they play. And what’s different this time around is that I’ve lived so much more life as myself, as Ivan. I’m 20 years older than when I first played Emily. I now find myself empathising more with Emily as she ages – playing this role again has made me think quite hard about how we treat the elderly in our families and in society. I also got married to my husband, Tony, since I last played Emily. This has informed my understanding of marriage both as an institution and as a pact between two individuals – a journey that involves commitment and compromise. As a result, I am unearthing nuances in Emily’s relationships with her husband and children that I didn’t before.

You’re the first – and still only – man to have played Emily. What have you learnt from donning Emily’s kebayas and walking in her kasut manek (Peranakan beaded slippers)?

One thing that became very clear to me is how we are still living very much in a man’s world. We always talk about Emily as a ‘matriarch’ – which implies that she’s powerful. But that’s still very much within the confines of her own home. The external world of men, of business and politics, is still denied to her. Stella Kon hit upon home truths when she has Emily say that “women are nothing in this world except for the roles that men demand of her”. And that still resonates today. The world is waking up to issues surrounding #MeToo and #TimesUp, and we are finally having the right conversations. But this underscores just how much it’s still a man’s world. Women are in the work force now, but not necessarily in positions of power. They still have to deal with inequality, sexual harassment and discrimination, just for being for who they are.

More personally, playing Emily has helped me better understand the Peranakan women in my own family – my mum, her sisters and sisters-in-law. I’ve come to understand that ruling the roost at home, in sometimes quite controlling and overbearing ways, is actually how some wives and mothers find fulfilment and power in a man’s world. It’s a way of ensuring they are ‘seen’.

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To Bead or Not To Bead
These exquisite kasut manek are one of eight pairs custom-made for Emily by Nyonya Heritage, Malacca

Speaking of kebayas and kasut manek, what has it been like for you to wear such beautifully designed couture in this production of Emily of Emerald Hill?

It’s been a genuine privilege to be dressed by some of the finest designers in Singapore. There’s nothing like wearing costumes and clothes that have been so exquisitely made and thought through by craftsmen like Lai Chan, Raymond Wong and Frederick Lee, who are at the very top of their field.

Lai Chan had never designed for the theatre until we did Emily of Emerald Hill together in 2000, so it’s wonderful to have him – the king of cheongsam makers – back to create a new one for Emily. Raymond has also sewn so much love and symbolism into Emily’s kebayas. In her later years, for example, Emily wears a kebaya embroidered with chrysanthemum flowers, which bloom in harsh weather and represent resilience, vitality and longevity.

Our new theatre at Funan is a perfect showcase for these gorgeous costumes. Frederick, who designed a stunning silver fox fur coat for Emily, visited the space and confessed to me that it really pushes and challenges him as a designer. There can be no cheating here – even the tiniest details like hemming matter, because our audiences can see every single detail for themselves!

Tell us about working with your director, Glen Goei, on this show again.

Glen first directed me as Emily for WILD RICE’s 2011 production of the play. Whilst based very much on the original production directed by the late, great Krishen Jit, we were also very inspired by our own life experiences as Peranakan men, as well as our mothers. That production was staged at the Esplanade Theatre, which seats close to 2,000 people. As you can imagine, we had to come up with lots of strategies to fill that huge space with Emily’s story.

Now, in our own theatre in Funan, I truly believe that Glen and I have created a production of Emily of Emerald Hill that’s unlike any you’ve seen before – or will see again. Our very unique and intimate theatre has given us the opportunity to really distill the play to find its true essence. We’ve boiled it down to the very purest form of theatre: a text, a performer and an audience. Performing this play in this space, with a thrust stage surrounded on three sides by audience members, means that everyone is actually in Emily’s mansion in Emerald Hill. When you see the show, you’re a guest in Emily’s living room!

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Close Call
Getting up close and personal with Emily in WILD RICE’s new theatre in Funan

This is your first time performing at WILD RICE’s own Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre. What has that experience been like?

I had watched Supervision, our ‘housewarming’ show, very closely, keenly observing Janice Koh, Patrick Teoh and Umi Kalthum Ismail as they performed. And I learned a lot – I realised that they were acting in 3D: performing with their entire beings, because there are audiences everywhere, surrounding them on all sides.

Even so, absolutely nothing could prepare me for what it actually felt like when I first stepped out onto the stage! You really feel that everyone is in the same room, sharing the same space and breathing the same oxygen. All eyes are on you as the performer, but you can also see every single face. I can hear everything – every sigh, sniffle and giggle. Every cough, every rustle of a sweet wrapper, every vibration of a mobile phone!

It’s been proven that the heartbeats of audience members begin to synchronise as they all watch a theatre performance, and I can almost sense that happening as the show goes on. It’s incredible. I’m really looking forward to directing WILD RICE’s holiday musical, Peter Pan in Serangoon Gardens, in this space!

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