Peranakan arts festival promises to be a cultural melting pot - On Stage | The Star Online


Peranakan arts festival promises to be a cultural melting pot

By April 27, Pearlly Chua will have done Emily Gan 200 times.

By April 27, Pearlly Chua will have done Emily Gan 200 times.

Amboi! Baba Meets Nyonya Arts Festival will show audiences the way of the Peranakans, and lead actress Pearlly Chua to her 200th performance of Emily of Emerald Hill.

With a country as diverse as ours, arts festivals inspired by different cultures are aplenty. For the first time, Peranakan culture comes alive at the Amboi! Baba Meets Nyonya Arts Festival next month. The inaugural month-long festival, which takes place at the Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC) in Damansara Perdana, PJ from April 3-27, aims at capturing diverse works inspired by the illustrious story of Peranakan culture.

The word Peranakan in Malay simply means “locally born”, and is Malaysia and Singapore’s most fascinating hybrid culture descended from unions between China and South India merchants with local women.

Before coming up with the idea of the festival, co-producer Adrian Teh did extensive research at the Peranakan Museum in Singapore, then approached DPAC to hold the festival.

“They turned around and asked me to manage it instead! So I decided to work on a story instead of showcasing just the Peranakan artefacts and ornaments. Yes, we will have those things on display and sale, but the highlight will be the monologue, Emily of Emerald Hill," says Teh.

Pearlly Chua will reprise her role in the one-woman play as the indomitable Nyonya matriarch, Emily Gan. Written by Singaporean playwright Stella Kon, the play chronicles the life of Emily, whose grit and determination takes her out of an impoverished childhood to ultimately becoming the owner of the prestigious Emerald Hill mansion.

Fairuz Sulaiman's Main Wayang: Hikayat Sang Kancil is a performance docudrama in reference to the Sang Kancil character in Malaysian folklore.
Fairuz Sulaiman’s "Main Wayang: Hikayat Sang Kancil" is a performance docudrama about Sang Kancil.

Emily of Emerald Hill premiered at the Guthrie Chemara Club House, Seremban in November 1984. Directed by Chin San Sooi, another Malaysian actress, Leow Puay Tin, helmed the title role. Since then, it has gone on to create Malaysian and Singaporean theatre history by being the most performed play in full, abridged, added or without the playwright’s permission, locally and abroad. The play has also been introduced as a literary work in schools, colleges and universities.

Chua, a theatre stalwart, first took on the challenging role of portraying the protagonist in 1990 and has since performed it 165 times. She literally knows the script like the back of her hand. With 35 performances scheduled for the festival, she will reach her 200th milestone for the play.

“I’m excited!” Chua gushes. “The Peranakan culture, though preserved through the efforts of many Baba Nyonya associations, is slowly dying. Hence, I would like to be able to use the play to keep this culture alive. I’m looking forward to reaching out to the younger generation and see how the play can synthesise with current times. Yes, I have the words under the folds of my sarong, so I just focus on living in the moment and concentrate on the nuances.”

Once again directed by Chin, certain scenes in the upcoming performance have been tweaked to give it a different feel. Although the script has full stage directions, Chin will try to give it a new spin by taking away all the paraphernalia and making it a minimalist show.

“Every time we revive Emily, we change it a little to give it a different interpretation. This is my 24th year of doing this, and I take it as a compliment that people want to see me take on the role again,” Chua adds. “The most challenging aspect is to wrap your head around this woman and breathe life into her after two decades. My sentiment is for people to learn English and have some fun.” 

Amboi! Baba Meets Nyonya Arts Festival co-producer Adrian Teh did extensive research on the Peranakan culture.
Amboi! Baba Meets Nyonya Arts Festival co-producer Adrian Tehdid extensive research on the Peranakan culture.

“Over the years, I’ve begun to understand why my mum and aunties think in a certain way, say a certain thing, and act in a certain way. It’s an art. There’s an Emily sort of spirit and character in everyone’s lives. It’s okay to be wrong,” says Chua, who has lived a quarter of her life on stage as Emily.

The two-hour play can take its toll on Chua, who sometimes does two or three shows a day, but she takes it in stride by eating healthy and getting lots of rest. “There are no designs. I don’t know what will happen after 200 shows,” she says

Apart from theatre, Amboi! Baba Meets Nyonya Arts Festival will roll out media, visual art and dance events, as well as hosting guest speakers from academic, media and business. There will be talks, exhibitions and performances programmed weekly. Other events include the Sembang-Sembang Talk series facilitated by Vernon Emuang, where a panel of five arts practitioners meet guests for an afternoon tea with Nyonya desserts.

Meanwhile, DPAC has commissioned Five Arts Centre co-founder Marion D’Cruz, multimedia artist Fairuz Sulaiman and comedian Kuah Jenhan to create a new work based on the title theme. The trio will present 2-Minute Solos (D’Cruz), Main Wayang: Hikayat Sang Kancil (Fairuz) and Good, Bad, Nasty! (Kuah). Kon will also give a playwright workshop on April 5.

On top of all that, there will be art exhibitions featuring Peranakan culture and a festival bazaar at the festival venue. “We’re holding it over a month because we want to create loyalty and traffic to DPAC," Teh says. "It’s intended as a family festival and there’s something for everyone.”

Amboi! Baba Meets Nyonya Arts Festival runs at Damansara Performing Arts Centre (DPAC) in Damansara Perdana, PJ from April 3-27. For details and tickets, visit or call (03) 4065 0001 / 0002.