Camaraderie. A word that came to mind after attending “We Heart Emma”, a memorial and fundraising concert for the late Emma Yong.
Familiar strains filled the Esplanade Concert Hall as guests streamed in to Emma’s splendid rendition of “When all the tears have dried” (Dick Lee, Stephen Clark for Sing to the Dawn).
And it was fitting that this song played, setting the tone for the celebratory evening to come. The tears had dried for many, and though for some the pain of loss will only ebb in time, a beautiful hope borne out of this was the setting up of The Emma Yong Fund to help theatre practitioners experiencing critical illnesses. “We Heart Emma” was thus less of a performance and more of a gathering of Emma’s friends, family, and like-minded fans, rallying together behind a cause inspired by her person.
From the printed eulogies, we learnt that Emma was vivacious, full of life, direct, a perfectionist, and quirky. “Interested, interesting, excited, exciting, intense, and passionate” was how good friend Kheng Hua also described her. It is notable that the main drivers of the fundraiser are Emma’s personal friends, so affected by her life and untimely death that they selflessly did something in remembrance of her. Other than that, the benevolence of 7 theatre companies, SISTIC, The Esplanade, and various other creatives shone through, united by their common acknowledgement of Emma’s contribution to the burgeoning theatre scene.
As the show opened, a custom-made screen was illuminated to show a clip of Emma as Junko the Japanese air stewardess in “Boeing Boeing”. Spouting Japanese in a perfectly honed accent, she had the audience in peals of laughter as she later transformed into minah, swordswoman and cabaret singer in the pieced together video clip.
Perhaps the diverse roles that she played onstage endeared her to the audiences she played to. She was a woman of many accents, and a woman who could just about tackle any genre of music with fervour. After all, her cherubic doll face could be transformed into nearly any kind of character on stage, and she became Singapore’s quintessential theatre darling. DJ and actress Denise Tan commented that “those who didn’t know her, felt like they got to know her when she performed onstage.“
As the night wore on, the audience was treated to a glitzy showcase of some of Singapore theatre’s big names. The hour-long concert was lovingly performed by Emma’s friends: Adrian Pang, Glen Goei, Ivan Heng, Sebastian Tan, Robin Goh, George Chan, Pam Oei, Selena Tan, Tan Kheng Hua, Karen Tan, Denise Tan, Sharon Au.
Grief had subsided, and there was an air of measured jubilance as the performers reminisced about Emma in song and dance. We watched as Sebastian Tan cha-cha-cham-boed and professed that Emma had often corrected the Broadway Beng’s spoken English (E.g. “Where have you been?” instead of “Where have you bin?”). Robin Goh and George Chan crooned a French Charles Aznavour song, “For Me, Formidable”, which they had performed previously with Emma in “A Singaporean in Paris”. And because Emma had acted in a number of Dick Lee’s musicals, a Dick Lee medley was performed, featuring songs from “Beauty World” and “Hotpants”.
And of course, Selena Tan and Pam Oei also sang a medley of Dim Sum Dollies songs, sans one precious harmony. The Dollies would not be the same without Emma, because the distinctive group had been propelled to household fame in the country and performing to sell-out audiences for 10 years. Poking fun at Singaporeans’ idiosyncrasies from “parking pontianaks” to “food court aunties”, “forgotten icons of Singapore” and “giggling schoolgirls”, they made it ok to laugh at ourselves. Tan and Oei also recounted that the three were part of an unforgettable courtesy campaign running on the “Mass (not-so) Rapid Transit”.
The audience hushed when Robin Goh performed the Jazz standard “I’ll be seeing you”. He emoted the pain of loss in every line. “I’ll be seeing you in every lovely summer’s day/in everything that’s light and gay/I’ll always think of you that way/I’ll find you in the morning sun/And when the night is new/I’ll be looking at the moon/But I’ll be seeing you”. As the concert drew to a close, Hossan Leong and Michaela Therese joined the cast in a beautiful and sacred rendition of Emma’s favourite hymn, “Amazing Grace”, anchored by Denise Tan and boosted by the Concert Hall’s acoustic canopy. This was topped off by the final performance, the soul-searching “Seasons of Love” from Rent the musical.
“Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
Five hundred twenty-five thousand journeys to plan
Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes
How do you measure the life of a woman or a man?
In truths that she learnt
Or in times that he cried
In bridges he burnt
Or the way that she died?”
Her memory will live on, as long as we remember the sacrifices that theatre practitioners make in the name of their art.
If you wish to make a donation to The Emma Yong Fund, please visit http://www.emmayongfund.org/ for more details. “We Heart Emma” played at the Esplanade Concert Hall on Friday, 15 June 2012.