Tai Thean Kew Circus

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A poster detailing the timings and location of Tai Thean Kew Circus' performances in 3 different languages - Malay, Chinese, and English. Photo from iremember.sg, credits to Adele Wong.
A bicycle act performed by the female acrobats of Tai Thean Kew Circus. Photo from iremember.sg., credits to Adele Wong.
"Life Beyond the Big Top: Stories of the Tai Thean Kew Circus" by Adele Wong.

The Tai Thean Kew Circus (大天球马戏团) was a popular circus that operated in Singapore from the 1930s to the 1980s.[1] The circus' history has been documented and published as a coffee table book called "Life Beyond The Big Top" by Adele Wong, whose ancestors were the first-generation founders of Tai Thean Kew circus.[2]

Origins

Founders

The Tai Thean Kew circus was founded and managed by a married couple who hailed from Nanjing, China.[3] Mdm. Gao Er-Gu was the woman in charge of leading the circus' acrobatic performances. In a 2016 interview, Adele Wong mentioned that Mdm. Gao (her great-grandmother) was a "feminist" and that she had "only adopted daughters".[4] Mdm. Gao's husband, Mr. Sun See Ting played the role of the circus manager.[5] As a textile trader, he made use of his business expertise to direct his wife's acrobatic troupe. Together, they founded the Tai Thean Kew All Female Acrobatic Troupe in 1925.[6]

Early operations

By the early 1930s, the Tai Thean Kew All Female Acrobatic Troupe had started performing in Singapore. According to newspaper entertainment ads from 1931, the "acrobatic company" was performing frequently at The New World Show.[7] [8] The 50-women strong circus expanded to 100 performers within a few years.[9] In 1934, the circus was re-branded as Tai Thean Kew Chinese Circus, after the introduction of male performers. While the female performers were known for their balance, flexibility and flying stunts, the male performers were recognized for their strength and juggling.[10]


The circus held shows nightly and the pricing of tickets was tiered according to different classes.[11] In March 1935, tickets cost $1.00 for Reserved, 70 cents for 1st Class, 50 cents for 2nd Class, and 30 cents for 3rd class.[12] Leopard and tiger acts, alongside acrobatic stunts were some of the acts advertised for the show.


By 1937, the circus troupe was performing nightly at a popular amusement park in Singapore called Happy World.[13] Described as "one of the best Chinese circuses seen in Singapore", the lady acrobats of the circus were well known for their flying trapeze, tight rope balancing and body contortion.[14] Other circus acts included the use of animals such as horses and elephants.

World War II hiatus

Japanese troops occupied Singapore from 15 February 1942 to 12 September 1945. During this period, the troupe was temporarily disbanded.[15] Mr. Sun See Ting passed away in 1944, at the age of 61 and buried at Bukit Brown Cemetery.[16] Before his death, Mr. Sze Bing Shen, his son-in-law who was also his mentee, promised to rebuild the circus after the war ends.[17]

Post-war operations

1940s - 1950s

After the war, the sons (Sun Tien Zhu and Sun Shuang Gen) and sons-in-law (Sze Bing Shen and Yang Shao Bai) of the late Sun See Ting re-established the circus.[18] The circus was renamed Tai Thean Kew Circus and opened on 17 August 1948.[19] Being one of the business owners, Sze Bing Shen expanded the circus by hiring more performers and bought more animals for the menagerie.


Tai Thean Kew Circus hired 2 brothers, Wong Fu Kwan and Wong Fu Qi, who soon became the most popular male leads of the circus. Wong Fu Qi, who was known as the ‘No.1 Aerialist’ fell in love with Sze Ling Fen (Sze Bing Shen's eldest daughter) and the two tied the knot in 1954.[20] The couple continued to work for the circus and spent all their time touring with the troupe for almost 20 years.


The circus offered a plethora of performances such as acrobatics, flying trapeze, strongmen, clowns and dances. It was also famous for its extensive menagerie which showcased animals like horses, tigers,[21] elephants, a monkey,[22] a bear and a python.

1950s - 1960s

By the 1960s, Tai Thean Kew was a household name in the Singapore entertainment scene. They performed all over Singapore in open spaces at Seng Poh Road, Tiong Bahru (1961)[23], Serangoon Garden Way (1963)[24] and Newton Circle (1965)[25] among many other venues. Like in the 1930s, tickets were still tiered although prices had increased. In March 1963, tickets cost $3.00 for Box, $2.00 for 1st Class, $1.40 for 2nd Class, and $1.00 for 3rd class[26]


In the 1960s, the circus got involved with public fundraising efforts in Singapore. In April 1961, the Tai Thean Kew Circus contributed a total of S$3,099 to the National Theatre Trust Fund.[27] The donations from the Theatre Fund went to the building of the National Theatre in Singapore.[28] The circus also held charity shows in February 1963 to raise funds for St. Michael's School.[29]


Between the 1950s and the 1960s, the troupe frequently shuttled between Singapore and Malaysia. The Tai Thean Kew Circus toured many cities in neighbouring Malaysia. In January 1953, the troupe was the first circus to perform in Kota Tinggi, Johor since 1949.[30] A year later, the circus performed in Kuala Kangsar, Perak where the Sultan of Perak graced the circus with his presence.[31] In July 1955, the troupe made its way to Kuantan as part of its "East Coast" (of Malaysia) tour.[32]


Despite the success of the troupe, the circus did face certain hiccups along the way. While on tour in Malaysia, two of the circus' tigers passed away in June 1954.[33] On the day of Chinese New Year in 1957, a python from the circus' menagerie had to be beheaded during a show as it had bitten Strongman Mohamed Zain bin Ahmad, a performer dubbed the "Malay Tarzan".[34] On another trip to Perak in July 1962, 12 of the female performers lost S$942 worth of belongings due to an unfortunate robbery. In 1961, the manager of Tai Thean Kew circus was fined S$250 for having staged a performance in Bukit Panjang Village without a valid license.[35]

Decline

Over the next few decades, the circus faced increasing difficulty in hiring a new generation of performers. There was just a lack of natural public interest in a circus career.[36] The circus finally closed its doors in the 1980s.[36]


This had been a long term issue for the circus industry in Singapore. In a 1951 interview with The Straits Times, a representative from Tai Thean Kew circus stated that "... young people in Malaya are just not interested".[37] Furthermore, it was illegal for young children to perform dangerous and risky acts due to the Children's and Young Persons Ordinance at the time.[38] Thus, newer generations of performers were either hired from China or born into the circus. For example, Sze Ling Fen, who is Sze Bing Shen’s eldest daughter, joined the circus at 6 years old. Crowned the 'Princess of the Circus',[39] Sze Ling Fen grew up to be the lead female acrobat of the troupe.

'Life Beyond the Big Top' by Adele Wong (2016)

Published in February 2016, 'Life Beyond The Big Top' is a book detailing the history of Tai Thean Kew Circus from the 1930s to the 1980s.[40] As of 2019, the book is available for purchase in-store and online from Kinokuniya Singapore at S$40.00.[41] The book was a product of Adele Wong's own research into documents and the interviews with her grandmother, Sze Ling Fen, and others who had first-hand experience with the circus.[42] The book started off as a Sociology assignment that Adele had written while at the National University of Singapore.[43]

References / Citations

  1. Wong, Adele. “Tai Thean Kew Circus Brief History”. Wordpress. June 18, 2015. Accessed on 14 March 2019. Retrieved from: https://adelewong.wordpress.com/2015/06/18/tai-thean-kew-circus-brief-history/
  2. Ying, Ying. “Tai Thean Kew Circus (Part 2)”. iremember. May 20, 2016. Accessed on 14 March 2019. Retrieved from: http://www.iremember.sg/index.php/2016/05/life-beyond-the-big-top-2/
  3. Ying, Ying. “Tai Thean Kew Circus (Part 1)”. iremember. May 13, 2016. Accessed on 14 March 2019. Retrieved from: http://www.iremember.sg/index.php/2016/05/life-beyond-the-big-top-1/
  4. Ying, Ying. “Tai Thean Kew Circus (Part 2)”. iremember. May 20, 2016. Accessed on 14 March 2019. Retrieved from: http://www.iremember.sg/index.php/2016/05/life-beyond-the-big-top-2/
  5. Ying, Ying. “Tai Thean Kew Circus (Part 1)”. iremember. May 13, 2016. Accessed on 14 March 2019. Retrieved from: http://www.iremember.sg/index.php/2016/05/life-beyond-the-big-top-1/
  6. Ying, Ying. “Tai Thean Kew Circus (Part 1)”. iremember. May 13, 2016. Accessed on 14 March 2019. Retrieved from: http://www.iremember.sg/index.php/2016/05/life-beyond-the-big-top-1/
  7. "Page 7 Advertisements Column 3". The Straits Times. September 16, 1931. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  8. "Page 11 Advertisements Column 2". The Straits Times. August 18, 1931. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  9. Ying, Ying. “Tai Thean Kew Circus (Part 1)”. iremember. May 13, 2016. Accessed on 14 March 2019. Retrieved from: http://www.iremember.sg/index.php/2016/05/life-beyond-the-big-top-1/
  10. "CHINESE GIRLS' CIRCUS". Malaya Tribune. March 12, 1935. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  11. "Page 9 Advertisements Column 1". Malaya Tribune. March 12, 1935. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  12. "Page 9 Advertisements Column 1". Malaya Tribune. March 12, 1935. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  13. "CHINESE GIRLS DO TRICKS". The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser. November 24, 1937. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  14. "CHINESE GIRLS DO TRICKS". The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser. November 24, 1937. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  15. Lee, Jian Xuan. "The circus in its heyday". The Straits Times. August 21, 2016. Accessed on 18 April 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/arts/the-circus-in-its-heyday
  16. “Tai Thean Kew Circus - Mr Sun Si Ting (Bukit Brown)”. Blogspot. November 24, 2011. Accessed on 14 March 2019. Retrieved from: https://mymindisrojak.blogspot.com/2011/11/tai-thean-khew-circus-mr-sun-si-ting.html
  17. Ying, Ying. “Tai Thean Kew Circus (Part 1)”. iremember. May 13, 2016. Accessed on 14 March 2019. Retrieved from: http://www.iremember.sg/index.php/2016/05/life-beyond-the-big-top-1/
  18. Wong, Adele. “Tai Thean Kew Circus Brief History”. Wordpress. June 18, 2015. Accessed on 14 March 2019. Retrieved from: https://adelewong.wordpress.com/2015/06/18/tai-thean-kew-circus-brief-history/
  19. Ying, Ying. “Tai Thean Kew Circus (Part 1)”. iremember. May 13, 2016. Accessed on 14 March 2019. Retrieved from: http://www.iremember.sg/index.php/2016/05/life-beyond-the-big-top-1/
  20. Wong, Adele. “Tai Thean Kew Circus Brief History”. Wordpress. June 18, 2015. Accessed on 14 March 2019. Retrieved from: https://adelewong.wordpress.com/2015/06/18/tai-thean-kew-circus-brief-history/
  21. Ee, Boon Lee. "Crowd gasps as tiger rides circus horse". The Straits Times. April 13, 1958. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  22. "Why should I walk?". The Straits Times. November 1, 1953. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  23. "Page 4 Advertisements Column 2". The Straits Times. March 3, 1961. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  24. "Page 4 Advertisements Column 2". The Straits Times. March 11, 1963. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  25. "Page 4 Advertisements Column 2". The Straits Times. September 15, 1965. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  26. "Page 4 Advertisements Column 2". The Straits Times. March 11, 1963. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  27. "Latest Fund donors". The Straits Times. April 20, 1961. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  28. "Theatre fund donors insulted, he says". The Straits Times. July 11, 1961. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  29. "8,000 see circus charity shows". The Straits Times. February 14, 1963. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  30. "The big top". The Straits Times. January 23, 1953. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  31. "SULTAN SEES CIRCUS TWICE". Singapore Standard. June 18, 1954. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  32. "The Big Top Hits Kuantan". Singapore Standard. July 12, 1955. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  33. "2 TIGERS DEAD". Singapore Standard. June 26, 1954. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  34. "SNAKE WON WITH EASE". The Straits Times. February 15, 1957. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  35. "Circus boss is fined". The Straits Times. June 10, 1961. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  36. 36.0 36.1 Lee, Jia Xuan. “The circus in its heyday”. The Straits Times. August 21, 2016. Accessed on 14 March 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/arts/the-circus-in-its-heyday
  37. "No Glamour In Circus, They Say". The Straits Times. January 3, 1951. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  38. "No Glamour In Circus, They Say". The Straits Times. January 3, 1951. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
  39. Wong, Adele. “Tai Thean Kew Circus Brief History”. Wordpress. June 18, 2015. Accessed on 14 March 2019. Retrieved from: https://adelewong.wordpress.com/2015/06/18/tai-thean-kew-circus-brief-history/
  40. "Life Beyond the Big Top". Kinokuniya SINGAPORE. Accessed on 18 April 2019. Retrieved from: https://singapore.kinokuniya.com/bw/9781941806715
  41. "Life Beyond the Big Top -- Paperback / softback [Paperback]". Kinokuniya Singapore. Accessed on 18 April 2019. Retrieved from: https://singapore.kinokuniya.com/bw/9781941806715
  42. Ying, Ying. “Tai Thean Kew Circus (Part 2)”. iremember. May 20, 2016. Accessed on 14 March 2019. Retrieved from: http://www.iremember.sg/index.php/2016/05/life-beyond-the-big-top-2/
  43. Lee, Jian Xuan. "The circus in its heyday". The Straits Times. August 21, 2016. Accessed on 18 April 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/arts/the-circus-in-its-heyday