When it comes to naming the legends of Malaysian theatre, it would be impossible to leave out distinguished director and playwright Chin San Sooi. Having written works such as Lady White, Refugee: Images and Yap Ah Loy, Chin has dedicated his life’s work to reviving and retelling the history and legacy of Malaysia through the arts.

Born in Kuala Lumpur and bred in Ipoh, the acclaimed director began his journey to the stage at school, where he acted as well as designed costumes and sets in school plays. Ultimately, he achieved a British Council scholarship to study at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London.

Upon returning, he took up teaching English in Ipoh while exploring this passion for theatre by directing large-scale productions.

At a recent interview in Petaling Jaya, he clarifies the need and importance of understanding language as something more than reading words on a page.

“The importance of language is in its meaning. This doesn’t necessarily mean a word’s dictionary meaning. The rhythm and emotion of words are seen within the printed text, and this becomes the performance’s language,” emphasises Chin, 76, who practices this in rehearsals with the Canticle Singers, where he assumes the role of artistic director.

“Emotion itself is the true language of communication (between an actor and his audience).”

Chin has a long list of contributions to the Malaysian theatre scene, including acting as a co-founder of certain arts communities such as the Kuala Lumpur Chinese Opera Club and Five Arts Centre.

The Five Arts Centre was originally set up in 1984 to encourage Malaysian playwrights to perform and produce both traditional and experimental works. Now, it is a small but thriving community of members who are passionate and dedicated to exploring the medium of performance in contemporary Malaysia.

Chin praises the Five Arts Centre for its individualism, smiling as he recalls the process of setting it up.

“We didn’t, at any point, think that it might fail. Sometimes you need the stamina, persistence and belief that it will succeed.”

Success in performance, especially in Malaysia, isn’t always an easy feat. Many in the arts faced a difficult time in the 1960s to 1990s. Plays performed in English were hard to come by due to the emphasis on Malaysian theatre being performed in Malay.

Chin San Sooi

Lady Macbeth (Vivienne Oon) and her husband Macbeth (Cheong Chee Yoon) in a heated exchange in Chin’s Chinese opera take on MacBeth, which was staged last year in Petaling Jaya. Photo: Ng See Bun

“I used to joke that if I wanted to see a play, I’d have to direct it,” says Chin with a laugh.

Chin, among many other playwrights at the time, faced a dilemma. Must dramatists only write in the national language to be recognised as a Malaysian playwright? For some, it determined if their work would be staged or not.

“There was no kind of openness for people to express themselves. Now, many don’t care about the label of being a ‘Malaysian’ dramatist.

“They write what they want to write; it doesn’t matter which language, dance or mind goes into it.

“I think that’s why we have a larger variety now – because younger people are not worried about these labels, and are fed up with them.”

Last April, Chin directed a unique performance of Macbeth as a Chinese opera at the Damansara Performing Arts Centre.

This week, Chin will be back in the spotlight, directing the classic production Emily Of Emerald Hill. It will feature Pearlly Chua in action, who will be looking to reach her 200th performance of the one-woman play.

Emily Of Emerald Hill, a play that thrived under Chin’s direction in the 1980s and 1990s, is about Singapore’s Peranakan culture and way of life.

It was written by Singaporean playwright Stella Kon in 1982. It has become the longest running local play as well as one of the most beloved among Malaysian and Singaporean audiences.

Chin San Sooi

‘There is always something new to uncover, and the more you search, the more you will discover. Emily has such a vast dimension to it. It excites both Pearlly and me, and this is why we keep coming back to it,” says Chin about the one-woman play Emily Of Emerald Hill.

Chin reveals that the show will return for a limited run at The Play Haus in KL starting Oct 5. The final night will be a celebration of Penang-born actress Chua’s 200th performance as Emily.

Of the play, Chin reveals, “When I finished reading it, I thought, ‘This play must be seen by the whole world.’”

Emily first premiered in Seremban, in a humble clubhouse, the Guthrie Chemara Club House, in November 1984.

“There was no proper theatre in Seremban,” recalls Chin.

“We converted a clubhouse into a theatre. There was no air-conditioning, so we fixed a quarter-mile long cable from the main building to the clubhouse. There was no stage, so we invented one.”

Kon, the writer of Emily herself, had recently witnessed the play when it was performed in a nonya restaurant in KL last year.

Chin recalls how she relayed to him that she could see new elements introduced into it, despite being performed numerous times.

“There is an excitement in discovering and digging into things, especially in regards to emotions,” says Chin.

“There is always something new to uncover, and the more you search, the more you will discover. Emily has such a vast dimension to it.

“It excites both Pearlly and me, and this is why we keep coming back to it.”

As for future performances, Chin has revealed that he would love to direct an elderly man in the role of Emily.

“But it depends on finding a person who is willing to put in time to rehearse,” he says.