The idea to work on the documentation of Tai Thean Kew Circus came to Adele Wong during one of the social memory classes she had attended in National University of Singapore. She reached this epiphany that her grandparents’ experiences as acrobats in her great-great-grandfather’s circus was a unique story to a particular group of people of certain generation and geographical location. There was a social memory shared by many people living in Singapore and Malaysia between the 1930s and 1980s about the Tai Thean Kew Circus. It was integral to the entertainment culture and the happy memories people had back then.
It is through Adele’s efforts that we can now travel back in time, into a world of dazzling spectacles as we flip through the pages of “Life Beyond the Big Top”.
In this first part of the post, we share a condensed summary on the adventures of Tai Thean Kew Circus from the “Life Beyond the Big Top” to give you a glimpse of that enthralling world. The second part consists of the interview we have conducted with writer Adele her to reveal insights to her thoughts and feelings towards writing this book which is so closely related to her family’s history.
The Beginning & The End
The earliest immigrants to the Malay Peninsula, or Malay, came from China, India and Sri Lanka. One such pioneer was Sun See Ting, who brought the Chinese circus to Malaya in the 1920s. Prior to its arrival, no Chinese circuses had visited Malaya.
In 1925, Sun See Ting, a textile merchant by trade, applied his business acumen to managing his wife’s (Gao Er-Gu) acrobatic troupe and founded the Tai Thean Kew All Female Acrobatic Troupe. See Ting and his wife, chose to set up their small family circus business in Telok Kurau of Singapore, with the hopes to expand it regionally. Within a few short years, the circus’s fifty artists doubled in size and included male performers. In 1934, the circus was renamed the Tai Thean Kew Chinese Circus.
However, World War II came to Malaya which saw the destruction of the circus from Japanese bombings and Tai Thean Kew Circus was disbanded. After the war, See Ting’s family members gathered themselves to fulfill the promise made to See Ting on rebuilding his legacy. And so, Tai Thean Kew Circus finally made an official comeback at Telok Karau on 17 August 1948.
At its peak, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the circus had over 100 members catering to visitors all day at their outdoor carnival, menagerie, and shows. It was as if people in the post-war were ready to move on from hardship. And welcome, instead a fairground of joy, magic and fantasy.
At the beginning of 1970s, as entertainment became more accessible, business at the circus started to wane. Movie theatres and drive-ins sprouted up, and television sets began to appear in more and more households competing for audience time.
But the final catalyst of the circus’s decline was the dearth of next-generation performers. Baby boomers shifted toward pursuing new jobs and careers instead of continuing their families’ craft-based trades which was deemed as physical and risky by the performers of the circus. Adele’s grandparents left the circus in 1972 to do freelance performance and gradually retired from the scene by the mid-1980s.
Do you like the stories we have shared? Stay tune to our blog for the interview with Adele coming up in the next post.
Singapore Memory Project