Previously, we shared snippets of the Tai Thean Kew Circus from Adele Wong’s book “Life Beyond the Big Top”. In this Part II, Adele shares her thoughts and feelings towards writing this book which is so closely related to her family’s history.
YY: Hi Adele, can you tell us more about yourself?
Adele: I just moved back to Singapore from Tokyo, where I have been based for a few years, working in finance while pursuing my creative career there. I am an actor and a writer here now.
YY: Can you bring us through the efforts you have taken for your project?
Adele: The whole research and interviewing process took me over a year, and I consider this fast, given I had to trace back three generations worth of history. I guess this is what sociologists call an “insider’s access” given that I understand my grandparents well and I grew up, hence and familiar with many of the characters and stories. But to actually start planning and lining up the chronologically, working on it from a documentation point of view took me another year. I then wrote a full manuscript based on their oral history to be released as a novel.
My initial dream as to make a movie out of this story, but I realized the family factual account should be prioritized.
I interviewed some granduncles and grandaunts; many of them are advanced in years and some, no longer with us. My main sources were still my grandparents, and even my granduncle said my grandparents would have the best information since they were most involved. Lucky for me, I can force my grandparents to speak to me.
Halfway through, I realized I had enough photographs and information to release a pictorial documentation, a coffee table book of sorts, to illustrate this history.
It is important to me that people hear about this history from the remaining sources. The Tai Thean Kew Circus was a family business. Its legacy should be told from the family, respectfully.
YY: What were some of the challenges you have encountered in this project?
Adele: First was establishing a timeline, and figuring out the geographical locations and details of this prolific traveling circus.
Then it was making sure that my facts and timelines were accurate. Memory is subjective. I wanted this book to be based on the lead characters of the circus – My grandmother, Princess of the Circus and daughter of its proprietor, as well as my grandfather, the lead male acrobat who later became the son-in-law of the circus. Their memories do not always tally, so sometimes it takes a few sessions, coupled with my own research, to come to an accurate consensus.
Then it was battling my own concerns about making sure the book does my ancestors’ three-generation circus justice.
There are actually little researches and documentations about the circuses we had in this region.
I told myself that if I were to contribute to these researches, then I want it to stay true to the family. I tried to remove my voice as far as possible and reflect my grandparents’ voices and memories the most.
YY: Were there any emotional moments for you or insights which you have gained from working on your project?
Adele: I learnt a lot about the family, not just my immediate family, but about my progenitors as well. There private family matters, and there were amazing feats to be shared. There were also many times that my grandmother would stop recounting her performing history to reiterate to me how difficult the performing career can be, and that she hopes I just get a desk job instead of choosing to be a performer as well.
Perhaps one of the most early, stark emotional moment I got was when I realized that my grandmother’s grandmother (the first generation founder of the circus) was a feminist who believed that women were just as capable, if not more capable than men. So she only adopted daughters.
YY: Can you share with us on your future plan after the completion of this book?
Adele: My Literary Agent is working with me on putting out the novel, a fictionalized, dramatized version of the story soon.
The Media Authority Development of Singapore also awarded me with a Script Development Grant to turn this story into a screenplay. My ultimate goal is to play the character of my grandmother on the big screens. (Of course, it would be a dream come true if we could be so lucky to get some amazing actresses I admire for years to play my feminist great-grandmother!)
We (my family and I) might also continue our chat with the National Museum to do an exhibition.
Meanwhile, I maintain the Tai Thean Kew Circus Facebook page and we are always happy to interact with people who want to come on there to reminisce or share their memories as well. So please feel free to drop by the page and say Hi! I show it to my grandparents often.
Life Beyond The Big Top: Book Cover
For those of you who are keen to read the Life Beyond the Big Top for its full story and stunning images, the book is now available for loan at various public libraries (click here for more information).
Singapore Memory Project