Cabaret 'Lancing' Girls in Singapore (1920s - 1960s)

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Some cabaret girls that worked at Great World Amusement Park. Photo from National Archives Singapore.

A mispronunciation of ‘dancing girls’, the lancing girls were a large part of Singapore's night entertainment scene from the 1920s to the 1960s. They also went by other names such as ‘Cabaret girls’ and ‘taxi dancers’. These cabaret girls performed at the now-defunct Great World,[1] New World[2] and Happy World[3] amusement parks. By the 1940s, these girls were well represented in Singapore society with a 350-member strong Cabaret Girls' Association.[4]

History[edit | edit source]

A night scene of one of the cabarets in Singapore in the 1960s. Photo from National Archives Singapore.

Cabarets were a crucial part of the night entertainment scene in Singapore and were mainly held at New World, Great World and Happy World. The arrival of cabaret girls in Singapore's entertainment scene had been influenced by a similar movement in Shanghai.[5] In the 1930s, female migrants who came to Singapore looking for employment turned to the cabaret as a lucrative option.


As cabaret girls, their job was mainly to dance and drink with customers. Therefore, they had to be extremely skilled at a variety of dance genres. The customers ranged from average salaried workers to rich towkays and even members of the British army. During the Japanese Occupation from 1942 to 1945, the night entertainment scene continued and the only exception was that they had to entertain the Japanese soldiers as well.

Singapore Cabaret Girls' Association[edit | edit source]

When the Singapore Cabaret Girls' Association had been formed in 1939, there were a total of just 10 members.[6] Within the span of a year, the association accumulated a total of about 350 members. The association was significant in granting the girls a platform to fight for their rights. On at least two occasions, cabaret girls have protested against what they deemed as unfair management practices. In 1941, a group of 100 dancers from Great World Cabaret held a week-long strike over their discontent at the price of tea dance coupons.[7][8] After discussions, the girls and the cabaret management agreed on the new terms.[9] In 1953, 104 girls from New World Cabaret held a protest over the management's decision to ban the girls from dancing with one another.[10]


Beneath the glamour of the entertainment industry, cabaret girls have been associated with a life of crime and indecency.[11][12] One reported case in 1954 told the story of a 17-year-old dance hostess who had gotten into a physical altercation with the wife of a married man.[13] In 1950, the Singapore Cabaret Girls Association was renamed the Singapore Dance Hostesses’ Association as the cabaret girls themselves viewed the term as ‘too degrading’ and closely associated with negative traits.[14]

Charitable involvement[edit | edit source]

Students posing in front of The Happy School that had been founded by 2 cabaret girls. Photo from Chinese Schools Exhibition.

Many overlook the fact that these girls were enthusiastic in giving back to society. This desire was driven by their genuine empathy for children who were unable to receive formal education due to poverty and complicated families.[15] The Singapore Dance Hostesses’ Association raised money for the Nanyang University building fund in 1953 by holding charity night performances across the few cabarets in the country.[16] Through their efforts, they managed to raise a large sum of $13,000.[17]  

The Happy Charity School[edit | edit source]

During the war, many children's education had been interrupted. In 1946, 2 cabaret girls from Happy World Cabaret founded a free Chinese medium school called ‘Happy Charity School’ in Geylang to provide a continuation of studies for these children.[18] The school was founded by Madam He Yan Na, who became the chairperson of the school’s board of governors and Madam Xu Qian Hong, who was in charge of accounts.


Madam He Yan Na was the chairperson of the Happy World Dance Troupe who encouraged the other cabaret girls to donate in order to set up the school. Madam Xu herself donated about half of her earnings to the school every month and had to balance her work of running the school alongside her cabaret duties.[19]

Rose Chan[edit | edit source]

A portrait of Rose Chan, a prolific figure in the world of cabaret girls in Malaya. Photo from April Magazine.
The poster of ‘Beauty World’ performed in 2015, starring famous Mediacorp actress Jeanette Aw as the evil cabaret queen Lulu. Photo from Youth.sg.

Rose Chan was a famous cabaret girl and strip dancer in Malaya. She was born in Suzhou, China with the name Chan Wai Chang (陳惠珍).[20] Her birth parents were acrobats and she was eventually adopted by a lady who brought her to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, at the age of 6.[21] She received very little formal education and started working at the tender age of 12, making buttons out of coconut shells. When Rose was 16, she was sold for $3,000 to become the fourth wife of an old harbour contractor.[22][23] However, the marriage did not last as her adoptive mother’s greed resulted in her husband calling off the marriage.


The divorce kick-started her career as Rose became a cabaret dancer at Happy World and New World in Singapore.[24] She took part and won second place in the 1949 Singapore Ballroom Dancing Championship and the 1950 Miss Singapore Contest.[25] She eventually formed her own dance company, The Rose Chan Revue, in 1951 and focused on performing in Malaya.[26] In the same year, she was performing at The Majestic Theatre in Ipoh when she had a wardrobe malfunction which received an enthusiastic response from the audience.[27] She leveraged on the incident and changed her performance to involve stripteasing and dangerous acts such as wrestling with pythons.[28][29]


These acts propelled her to fame and she became known to many as ‘Malaysia’s Queen of Striptease’ and ‘Flower of Malaya’. The song ‘Rose, Rose, I Love You’ by Frankie Laine, an American singer, was said to have been about Rose Chan.[30] The song was so popular that held the No. 3 spot in the American Pop Charts.[31] However, not everyone enjoyed her dangerous acts to the point that her troupe had faced censorship on several occasions.[32][33][34][35]


In 1957, Rose Chan married the Indonesian manager of her revue and converted to Islam.[36] She reportedly vowed to stop her strip dancing in respect of her new faith.[37] Rose married a total of five times and had 2 biological sons and 4 adopted daughters.[38][39] Rose ran her own company for a total of 25 years before retiring at the age of 51 in 1976. In November 1977, it was reported in the spreadsheet New Nation that she had been acknowledged for her business acumen in the Asian Wall Street Journal.[40]


Rose Chan was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1980.[41] Although the doctor initially gave her 1 year to live, she managed to live for 7 more years. In 1981, it was reported that she was a cook at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur.[42] She died in Butterworth, Penang.

Popular culture[edit | edit source]

Musicals and films[edit | edit source]

In recent years, a few musicals have been written about the cabaret girls in Singapore's night entertainment scene. ‘Great World Cabaret’ was a musical created by Selena Tan, a member of the Dim Sum Dollies.[43] The musical is set in 1960s Singapore and tells the story of the era's famous entertainers, one of them being Rose Chan. The musical was performed in Singapore in 2015.


‘Beauty World’ was a musical written by Michael Chiang in 1988.[44] The musical follows the journey of a Malaysian town girl named Ivy Chan who had joined the Beauty World Cabaret in hopes of finding her long-lost father. This play was partially inspired by the hostess services and music stages in Beauty World during the 1970s.[45] The musical first debuted in 1988 at the Singapore Arts Festival. Following the success of the musical, it was remade multiple times and was even performed in Japan. It was most recently performed again in 2015.


Rose Chan was also a direct source of inspiration for films and musicals. ‘I am Queen’ was a musical produced by The Theatre Practice in 2008.[46] The musical tells the life story of a stripper called Betty Yong, a fictional character inspired by Rose Chan. ‘In the room’ is a complication of six short films produced by Eric Khoo in 2015. In one of the stories featured in the movie, the stripper called Orchid had been inspired by Rose Chan as well.[47]

Books[edit | edit source]

‘Lancing Girls of a Happy World’ was written by Adeline Foo, the author of ‘Diary of Amos Lee’. Adeline Foo had interviewed women who used to be cabaret dancers and even an ex-boyfriend of Rose Chan's in an effort to accurately depict cabaret girls in her book.[48] A book had also written about Rose Chan. ‘No bed of roses: the Rose Chan story’ is an account of her whole life story, written by Cecil Rajendra and published in 2013.[49]

References / Citations[edit | edit source]

  1. "AMUSEMENT PARKS, DANCE HALLS. ETC.". The Straits Times. December 11, 1936. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  2. "NEW WORLD CABARET". Malaya Tribune. September 17,1930. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  3. "SINGAPORE AFTER DARK". Malaya Tribune. February 2, 1939. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  4. "Cabaret Dancers". Malaya Tribune. June 14, 1940. Accessed on 16 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  5. "SHANGHAI CABARETS TO DIE?". The Straits Times. December 31, 1929. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  6. "Cabaret Dancers". Malaya Tribune. June 14, 1940. Accessed on 16 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  7. "Dancers' Strike". Sunday Tribune (Singapore). September 14, 1941. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  8. "CABARET HOSTESSES GO BACK TO WORK". The Straits Times. September 19, 1941. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  9. "CABARET HOSTESSES GO BACK TO WORK". The Straits Times. September 19, 1941. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  10. "104 TAXI-GIRLS STAGE PROTEST". The Singapore Free Press. October 31, 1953. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  11. "SHANGHAI POISON TRAGEDY" . The Straits Times. May 13, 1929. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  12. "TRAGIC WEEK FOR SHANGHAI". The Straits Times. January 26, 1935. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  13. "Wife v dance girl - court's verdict". The Straits Times. September 24, 1954. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  14. “‘Cabaret girl’ is ‘too degrading'“. The Straits Times. June 11, 1950. Accessed on 25 April 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  15. Foo, Adeline. Heng, Michelle. ‘Beneath the glitz and glamour: the untold story of the “lancing” girls’. Biblioasia. February 1, 2017. Accessed on 25 April 2019. Retrieved from: http://www.nlb.gov.sg/biblioasia/2017/01/02/beneath-the-glitz-and-glamour-the-untold-story-of-the-lancing-girls/
  16. "Cabaret assists Colony education". The Singapore Free Press. May 9, 1953. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  17. "Club aids cabaret girls". The Singapore Free Press. August 27, 1953. Accessed on 16 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  18. Foo, Adeline. Heng, Michelle. ‘Beneath the glitz and glamour: the untold story of the “lancing” girls’. Biblioasia. February 1, 2017. Accessed on 25 April 2019. Retrieved from: http://www.nlb.gov.sg/biblioasia/2017/01/02/beneath-the-glitz-and-glamour-the-untold-story-of-the-lancing-girls/
  19. Foo, Adeline. Heng, Michelle. ‘Beneath the glitz and glamour: the untold story of the “lancing” girls’. Biblioasia. February 1, 2017. Accessed on 25 April 2019. Retrieved from: http://www.nlb.gov.sg/biblioasia/2017/01/02/beneath-the-glitz-and-glamour-the-untold-story-of-the-lancing-girls/
  20. "Rose Chan: Charity Queen of Striptease". April Magazine. January 30, 2018. Accessed on 25 April 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.aprilmag.com/2018/01/30/rose-chan-charity-queen-of-striptease/
  21. "The Rose Chan Story". New Nation. September 12, 1981. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  22. Lee, Philip. "Who remembers Rose Chan?". The Straits Times. October 5, 1986. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  23. Supriya Singh. "The Rose Chan Story". New Nation. September 12, 1981. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  24. Supriya Singh. "The Rose Chan Story". New Nation. September 12, 1981. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  25. Lee, Philip. "Who remembers Rose Chan?". The Straits Times. October 5, 1986. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  26. Supriya Singh. "The Rose Chan Story". New Nation. September 12, 1981. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  27. Lee, Philip. "Who remembers Rose Chan?". The Straits Times. October 5, 1986. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  28. "Page 11 Advertisements Column 1 [ADVERTISEMENT]". Singapore Standard. April 16, 1957. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  29. "So Rose can't do it with flowers". The Straits Times. March 22, 1957. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  30. Lee, Philip. "Who remembers Rose Chan?". The Straits Times. October 5, 1986. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  31. Brown, Victoria. ‘She’s not just a stripper, says Cecil Rajendra of Rose Chan’. The Star Online. Updated September 24, 2013. Accessed on 25 April 2019. Retrieved from: https://web.archive.org/web/20141231010953/https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2013/09/24/cecil-rajendra-rose-chan/
  32. "Rose Chan show under fire at meeting-". The Straits Times. March 10, 1966. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  33. "$2,000 'behave' deposit". The Straits Times. October 10, 1956. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  34. "IPOH BAN ON ROSE CHAN REVUE". The Straits Times. June 28, 1957. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  35. "Police ban Rose show". The Straits Times. May 17, 1956. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  36. “‘After peeling for five years I was getting a little tired' Strip queen Rose ‘abdicates’ to wed her manager”. The Straits Times. July 12, 1957. Accessed on 25 April 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  37. "ROSE ('I peel no more') WEDS". The Straits Times. July 12, 1957. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  38. Supriya Singh. "The Rose Chan Story". New Nation. September 12, 1981. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  39. "HAVING A BABY". The Straits Times. December 20, 1955. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  40. "Good show, Rose Chan". New Nation. November 8, 1977. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  41. Lee, Philip. "Who remembers Rose Chan?". The Straits Times. October 5, 1986. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  42. Supriya Singh. "The Rose Chan Story". New Nation. September 12, 1981. Accessed on 26 June 2019. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  43. Rwscooper. ‘Introducing Great World Cabaret, Coming to RSW in 2015’. RWSentosablog. December 2, 2014. Accessed on 25 April 2019. Retrieved from: http://www.rwsentosablog.com/introducing-great-world-cabaret/
  44. Tan, Corrie. ‘Classic Singapore plays: Why Beauty World is a landmark musical’. The Straits Times. October 28, 2014. Accessed on 25 April 2019. Retrieved from:   https://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/entertainment/classic-singapore-plays-why-beauty-world-is-a-landmark-musical
  45. Tan, Corrie. ‘Classic Singapore plays: Why Beauty World is a landmark musical’. The Straits Times. October 28, 2014. Accessed on 25 April 2019. Retrieved from:   https://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/entertainment/classic-singapore-plays-why-beauty-world-is-a-landmark-musical
  46. Ng, Yi-Sheng. ‘Sex and the invisible city’. The Flying Inkpot Theatre Reviews. Accessed on 25 April 2019. Retrieved from: https://inkpotreviews.com/oldInkpot/08reviews/0814%2Ciamquee%2Cny.html
  47. Lui, John. ‘Eric Khoo's new movie to feature sex, nudity and a Japanese porn star’. The Straits Times. September 3, 2014. Accessed on 25 April 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/entertainment/eric-khoos-new-movie-to-feature-sex-nudity-and-a-japanese-porn-star
  48. Ho, Olivia. ‘Writer Adeline Foo stories of the cabaret girls of Singapore in new book’. The Straits Times. May 23, 2017. Accessed on 25 April 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/arts/lancing-girls-with-hearts-of-gold
  49. Brown, Victoria. ‘Cecil Rajendra: Rose Chan was a living legend, myth-maker’. The Star Online. September 24, 2013. Accessed on 25 April 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2013/09/24/cecil-rajendra-rose-chan-autobiography/