Close to four decades ago, Stella Kon wrote one of the most iconic plays in Singapore theatre history. She chats with us about creating Emily of Emerald Hill, what the play means to her, and her life-long love of the theatre.
Since the 1970s, Stella Kon has built an illustrious career as a writer. Drawing inspiration from Singapore’s history and heritage, Stella has written plays, novels, short stories and musicals that explore issues of home and identity.
Of Stella’s remarkable canon of work, Emily of Emerald Hill is perhaps closest to her heart. Emily Gan, the title character, is a formidable nyonya matriarch based on Stella’s own grandmother. Stella spent some of her formative years in her family’s mansion in Emerald Hill, Singapore’s old Peranakan heartland.
Following its KL premiere in 1984, Emily of Emerald Hill has become Singapore’s best-known and most-performed English-language play. Outside of Singapore and Malaysia, it has been performed in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Perth, Auckland, New York, Hamburg, Munich, Hawaii, Edinburgh, Hong Kong, Beijing and the UK. The play has also been broadcast over Radio Iceland, and translated into Mandarin, Japanese, French and Kannada.
2019 marks the 35th anniversary of Emily of Emerald Hill. Ahead of WILD RICE’s upcoming production of this classic play at its new theatre in Funan, Stella opens up about all things Emily and more.
What first inspired you to write Emily of Emerald Hill?
I had already received first prize in the Singapore Playwriting Competition twice – for my plays, The Bridge and Trial. But neither play got produced. The given reason from producers was that the casts were too big. Perhaps they also found the scripts unmanageable and too avant garde.
I was living in Ipoh then. My friend, Ong Su-Ming, suggested that I should write a one-person play – we had seen examples from British Council touring productions, among others. She suggested her illustrious grandmother as a subject, and I said that I had a formidable grandmother of my own. That was how it began.
Take us back to your process of writing Emily of Emerald Hill.
I wrote this play over a period of three months, on an early-model no-name computer made in Singapore. I think it had just 32K RAM! As the script itself is like a patchwork quilt of scenes, I printed the separate sections on a dot-matrix printer, punched the pages and kept them in a ring-binder so that I could shuffle them and change their order as necessary.
A bevy of Emilys at the Peranakan Museum's 'Emily of Emerald Hill: Singaporean Identity on Stage' exhibition in 2013 | (L-R) Neo Swee Lin, Ivan Heng, Stella Kon, Pearlly Chua, Jalyn Han
What was your biggest challenge in writing the play?
My biggest technical problem in writing was figuring out how to integrate the passages where Emily is acting out a scene with other people into her ordinary narration. I had not seen this done before in other plays, and it felt as though I was exploring new ground.
There were logistical challenges too! During the revision period, I moved from Ipoh to London. When I needed to print the final version, I had to borrow my nephew’s printer, and plug my computer into his television set to use the TV as a monitor. It was a cumbersome process! I mailed the completed manuscript to my husband in Ipoh. He took it to the photocopy shop to make three copies, one of which he mailed to the Ministry of Culture in Singapore to submit Emily for the play-writing competition.
What was it like for you to watch Emily of Emerald Hill for the first time?
I was living in Britain when the play was first performed in Malaysia. I didn’t get to see the play until two years later. I was living in Edinburgh at the time. My mother phoned and told me that Emily was coming to Edinburgh. I couldn’t believe it at first! True enough, Margaret Chan had been invited to perform Emily at the Edinburgh Festival. So that was when I first saw it. Margaret came to Edinburgh with a crew of five from Singapore. For the set, they had been planning to bring in a rosewood chair inlaid with mother-of-pearl. But it got held up in Customs. So they came to the house I was renting in Edinburgh, and borrowed an antique-looking chair and other pieces to dress the set!
Over the years, Emily of Emerald Hill has been staged all over the world. What has struck you about the responses the play has received in different countries and from different audiences?
The audience at the Commonwealth Arts Festival in the UK was the ideal audience for Emily. They were well-informed in the arts scene; they were international; they welcomed encountering aspects of a new culture, including phrases of Baba patois.
I’ve also heard from people in India who identified with aspects of the colonial experience that we share with them. Caucasians and Jewish people have said of Emily, “Just like my mother!” In China, people have been fascinated with its portrayal of old feudal customs and values.
Ivan Heng as Emily Gan
Ivan Heng will be reprising the title role in Emily of Emerald Hill for WILD RICE’s Grand Opening of its new theatre in Funan. What are you most looking forward to in this new production of the play?
I have seen many actors play Emily – and they are all different! This is the wonder of theatre – each actor brings his or her own personality and experience to the same script to create a unique performance; and even the same person’s performance can change and evolve over the years, as the actor grows in experience and maturity.
Twenty years ago, Ivan Heng’s charismatic personality and theatre skills gave us an outstanding Emily, which thrilled audiences then. With the passage of time, Ivan has scaled ever greater professional heights – and now, ably abetted by Glen Goei, he is creating a new Emily for a new era. I am excited and eager to see Ivan’s Bicentennial Emily!
35 years on, what would you say Emily of Emerald Hill means to you?
Emily is my daughter who has grown up, gone out into the world, and developed a life of her own! She has made her own friends and taken her own partners – and one of her most outstanding partners is Ivan Heng!
And now, turning from Emily – how did you discover your calling as a writer?
When I was a little girl, even before I started school, I would make up little stories and tell them to my mother, and she wrote them down in an exercise book. Her respect and encouragement were a vital ingredient in my becoming a writer.
How did you move into writing for the theatre?
In Raffles Girls’ School, when I was about nine years old, our class teacher suggested we write a play to perform at our end-of-term party and outlined a story. I took up the suggestion and wrote The Fisherman and the King. During my school days, I wrote two other plays which were produced. One was a rhymed parody of Shakespeare called Loh Mee Oh and Tzu Lee At. I forget the other!
What does theatre mean to you?
Theatre is a gift my parents gave me. My mother was a noted actress in Singapore theatre in the 1950s, under the name Kheng Lim. Her story is told in the film, A Dream of Emerald Hill. On trips to London and other cities, she was a tireless and insatiable theatre buff. My father, Dr. Lim Kok Ann, accompanied her on these theatre excursions. He loved English poetry and his sense of the rhythms of spoken English influenced my writing. Two seats in WILD RICE’s new theatre are dedicated to my parents and their love for the art form!
Stella's family pays tribute to her parents by naming two seats in WILD RICE's Ngee Ann Kongsi Theatre
Have you ever faced writer’s block? How did you handle it?
I once worked so hard on a difficult script (Dragons’ Teeth Gate) that I experienced burn-out and had to go to bed for three weeks! Nowadays, I would stop before it gets that bad. When I have a script problem, or a set of lyrics to write, I sometimes take my notebook and pencil on a long bus ride to some far-flung terminal such as Yio Chu Kang. I find this is quite helpful, what with the enforced sitting-still, the passing scenery, and the lack of other distractions.
What advice would you give to young aspiring playwrights today?
Read lots of scripts and watch as many plays as you can. Work backstage with directors and stage managers to understand the practicalities of theatre production.