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Zoe Tay takes on oldest role to date as 72-year-old matriarch in Emerald Hill

Zoe Tay takes on oldest role to date as 72-year-old matriarch in Emerald Hill
Veteran actress Zoe Tay, 56, plays the role of a matriarch celebrating her 48th birthday during a scene in Mediacorp's upcoming series, Emerald Hill.
PHOTO: Shin Min Daily News

SINGAPORE — Veteran local actress Zoe Tay has portrayed mums many times in her three-decade career — but never one this old.

Her latest role is that of the matriarch of a Peranakan family who ages up to 72 years old, in Mediacorp’s upcoming Mandarin blockbuster drama Emerald Hill. A spin-off of popular series The Little Nyonya (2008 to 2009), it is slated to air in early 2025.

“She’s the oldest character I have played, and the first time my on-screen children are so grown up,” says Tay, 56, during a media visit on June 18 to the mansion where Emerald Hill is being filmed.

The four cast members playing her children — Shaun Chen, Hsiu Chieh-kai, Romeo Tan and Sheila Sim — are between the ages of 39 and 45. 

To get into character, Tay tells The Straits Times during an interview on set that she looked to her mother, who is in her late 80s, as a reference. Although playing an elderly woman was challenging for the “Ah Jie” of local show business, she says it has been an enjoyable process. 

(From left) Actors Romeo Tan, Hsiu Chieh-kai and Shaun Chen, who play Zoe Tay’s on-screen sons, during a scene celebrating her 48th birthday. PHOTO: Shin Min Daily News

“I have to adjust my tone and reduce my energy to be calmer and more relaxed,” adds the mother of three boys aged 13, 16 and 19. 

Despite being cast as the oldest character on the show, Tay does not feel pigeonholed by her age.

“It’s true that I can play characters way older than 72, but I don’t think Mediacorp will put me only in such roles moving forward. Instead, I think they will give me more opportunities to demonstrate my range in acting if I can handle this role.”

Playing Tay’s eldest on-screen son is Malaysia-born actor Chen, 45. The pair previously co-starred as would-be lovers in the drama My One And Only (2023).

He says going from that relationship to mother and son has been very challenging. 

“However, we’re actors and whatever relationship we have to play is acceptable to me. By making our on-screen appearances look younger or older, the age gap can be believable,” he says. 

Malaysia-born actor Shaun Chen, the eldest son in the Emerald Hill family, says playing Zoe Tay’s on-screen son has been a challenge. PHOTO: Shin Min Daily News

For local actor Tan, 39, treating Tay as a maternal figure comes naturally. Since the start of his career in 2010, he has “always seen her” as one. 

“She gives us a lot of advice, and I respect her tremendously,” he says. “Now that she’s playing my mum, it’s very close to home. I feel really comfortable calling her that.”

Actor Romeo Tan says calling Zoe Tay his on-screen mum is easy, given the guidance she has provided him over the years. PHOTO: Shin Min Daily News

Before being cast in Emerald Hill, Taiwanese actor Hsiu, 41, had never watched any of Tay’s performances. 

He adds that he did not know her age before filming either, which only made him treat her with a lot more respect.  

Emerald Hill marks Hsiu’s first time acting in a Singapore-based production. 

“It’s quite stressful because coming from Taiwan, I’m not that knowledgeable about Peranakan culture and had to learn a lot to get into character,” he says in Mandarin. 

Taiwanese actor Hsiu Chieh-kai, 41, says filming Emerald Hill in Singapore has been stressful due to his lack of knowledge about Peranakan culture. PHOTO: Shin Min Daily News

However, he says his castmates have taught him a lot about the culture, which has helped them bond greatly.

To prepare for their roles, they were taken to the Peranakan Museum as well as ronggeng classes, a type of traditional Javanese dance.

For local actress Sim, 40, seeing everyone try their hand at dancing has been the most memorable part of the production.

“When we went for our ronggeng dance rehearsal, I laughed until I cried,” she recalls. “It was hilarious. I felt like that was a distinctive moment in this production as we all put ourselves out there.”

(From left) Shaun Chen, Zoe Tay, Priscelia Chan, Sheila Sim and Jesseca Liu during a scene celebrating the matriarch’s birthday. PHOTO: Shin Min Daily News

ALSO READ: $1m refurbishment and furnishing fee: Inside the heritage house used for The Little Nyonya spinoff drama Emerald Hill


This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.

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