By Richard Lord
Stella Kon is perhaps Singapore’s most famous playwright, one whose renown spreads far beyond these shores. Kon has written and published dozens of plays, poetry, short stories and novels, but her fame rests largely on one work – Emily of Emerald Hill. This play is frequently referred to as the Singapore theatre classic. A one-woman tour-de-force, Emily has seen over a score of productions and been performed in a number of countries - by both men and women performers. Richard Lord meets up with Stella Kon at her brother’s flat in Bukit Timah to discuss her work and her life.
RL: First of all, you were born in Edinburgh, but you’ve lived most of your life in Singapore. How did that come about?
SK: Well, I was born in Edinburgh because my parents were there during the war. My father was there studying, as a medical student. And then we came back in ’48. I was brought up and educated in Singapore, in that house of Emerald Hill. And then, let’s see, I got married in ’66, and I was living in Malaya, when suddenly it became a separate country from Singapore. So I sort of emigrated without moving my feet. And I was a foreigner in Malaysia. But I lived there till ’81, or thereabouts, and then I went to UK and lived there for about four, five years while my children were in school, in Edinburgh. And most of my major works were written in that period, between ’78 and ’85, when I was in Ipoh and Edinburgh. So since I came back to Singapore in ’86, I haven’t done anything very major.
RL: So most of your work has been written either in Edinburgh or Ipoh, not Singapore. Yet, you write mainly about Singapore. What do you see as the reason for that?
SK: Oh, umm... On the one hand, if I’m in Malaysia, I’m not going to write about Malaysia because I don’t have, as it were, the authority to be writing about Malaysia. I think when I write about Singapore, I have what you call this “exile’s view”. It’s like the great Irish writers who live abroad, but they write about Ireland. You see the essentials more clearly, and you also see the circumstances, the atmosphere, filtered through some kind of nostalgia, which sharpens it and makes you go for the essence. So, yes, it’s quite a useful filter.
Since I came back to Singapore, I haven’t written so much. And I don’t know whether it’s because of a lack of filter or because I’ve been too busy. I’ve generated an awful lot of stuff in the last 15 years, since I came back, but not all of it of it has been useful. Not such good stuff.
RL: When did you start your writing?
SK: Oh dear... as a teeny, weeny little girl. Before I could write actually. My mother encouraged me. I’d be reading these Enid Blyton stories, and I’d tell my mother these stories. I’ve told this story many times. And my dear mother would take it down and write it in a little notebook. And then she’d probably go around and show it to the aunties and the teachers, and say, “This is what my girl did.” So she was in a way the first publisher. And she gave me the idea at this very early age that what I have to say was worth saying, and that there will be an audience for it. Which is what probably gave me the push, got me feeling that it’s normal to be a writer.
RL: Were you involved in theatre as a young girl?
SK: Oh boy, oh boy, yes. Quite apart from the kindergarten where I was Old Mother Goose in the end-of-year play because I was the one with the spectacles. Quite apart from that, my mom was – again my mother’s influence – she was an actress in Singapore. She was one of the leading amateur actresses of the 1950s. In ’52, she was in England at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. So I was almost a backstage kid. And I was watching her rehearse, and helping her learn her lines, mainly Shakespeare. And I think she may have also done short readings of sections from A Midsummer Night’s Dream with us children. So again, to me, theatre, plays, are something that one does.
RL: And since then? Have you done any acting in recent years?
SK: No, no acting in recent years. But I have done private readings of Emily with success.
RL: When did you start writing plays?
SK: There was always the childish self-imaginings at home. The first play was at school at the age of eight. The teacher wanted something for the end-of term class function, and she asked us who would like to write a play, and she gave us a plot. And I did, I scribbled a little play in my notebook. And it was acted. So again, there was this great affirmation – I write a play and it gets produced. Instant gratification, very encouraging.
RL: When did you take up writing for the, as it were, professional theatre?
SK: Good question. (Pause.) I’m just thinking of the year. ’71 or so. A Breeding Pair. And what happened is I read some collected plays of Emlyn Williams. He was very strong in the 1950s. And I was reading this book of plays, only reading the plays, but I had enough theatre background to read a play and know how it looks on stage. And I could see, as it were, the tricks he was using. It’s like I say, you can learn a lot from great bad writing. Not from the greats because, you see, I can never do that. But with great bad writers, you say, “Ah, I can see how he does that. And I think I can do that too.” So I went and wrote a couple of plays, called A Breeding Pair, and submitted them to my friend Chin San Sooi in Ipoh. And once more, that instant gratification, he actually produced them on the ACS stage. Yeah, yeah, that was it, that was the start.
RL: In a number of your plays, you exhibit a good sense of theatre – the geography of the stage, the look of a set. When you write a play, do you actually “see” that play?
SK: Umm... yes, I do. The sad thing is that nowadays, the way I see it is not the way the directors are doing it. That’s the problem.
RL: We’ll get back to that topic a little later. But you do have a real sense of seeing a play as you write it?
SK: Yes, and I would say again I learned a lot from Chin San Sooi and the Malaysian theatre, because in the 60s, early 70s, there was a strong Malaysian tradition of theatre. And it was very modernised theatre. As I understand it, the Malaysians learned from Rendra, the great Indonesian, and he learned from Brecht. And Brecht learned from the Chinese. So it all goes round in a circle.
So there was this more modern style of theatre staging. Whereas in Singapore, they were still doing this four walls and a proscenium theatre. So what I wrote, the styles of theatre that I wrote in in those years, was somewhat more modern, and based on what I had been observing from Chin San Sooi and other Malaysians. Chin San Sooi, a great Malaysian director, is still a close friend. He’s done more than a hundred productions of Emily of Emerald Hill.
RL: And he’s still based in Ipoh?
SK: In Kuala Lumpur now.
RL: What would you say was your first big success? For instance, you won a number of times at the National Playwriting Contest, with works like “Trial”.
SK: Well, it was very much a paper success, because it didn’t get produced. The first prize winner was actually “The Bridge”; that didn’t get produced either. The next prize winner was “Trial”; it didn’t get produced. The next prize winner was Emily of Emerald Hill and it took the longest time before that got produced. So success was slow in coming.
RL: So we finally come to the redoubtable Emily. Emily was first produced in 1984. When did you write it and how long did it take to get a production?
SK: I wrote it when I was in England, and I think it was the winter of ’81, and I submitted it for the ’82 Singapore National Playwriting Competition. And when it won the award, we couldn’t get any Singapore director to produce it because, well, this one-woman-play format, it was very unseen in Singapore. You know that I didn’t invent the form, I’d seen one-person plays abroad, but it wasn’t known here. So the local directors, they asked how can one person maintain the attention of the audience for that length of time. It was again Chin San Sooi, in Kuala Lumpur, who believed in this play. Somebody gave him a copy, a good friend of mine gave him a copy, he took it and he did it in KL. When it was done in KL, I believe that Singaporeans started asking, “Why is KL doing a Singapore prize-winning play before we are?”. They then asked Max Le Blond to do it in Singapore, and his production ploughed some new ground in the way Singapore plays were produced. And from then on, I guess you can say that Emily never looked back.
RL: What prize did it win?
SK: This competition was called the Singapore Playwriting Competition. This competition was run three times by the then Ministry of Culture, now part of MITA. The first time it was run, I won with “The Bridge”. The second time, about three years later, I won with “Trial”. The third one, three years later, I won with Emily. Then they said we don’t want to run this competition anymore. It’s like “we’re not running for Stella’s soul-stoke”. (Laughs.) No, what they said was, there weren’t enough entries coming in.
RL: So is it true that the character of Emily is based very much on your grandmother?
SK: Yes, yes. Based in character and personality type but definitely, I must emphasise, not her life story. She was not a young child bride, she was not bullied as an orphan, she did not have a son who committed suicide. Not the details of her life.
QLRS Vol. 1 No. 4 Jul 2002