The circus in its heyday

Actress Adele Wong pens a book about the circus her grandparents used to run here

Tai Thean Kew was one of the popular local circuses in the pre-cinema and TV days of Singapore. Between 1930 and 1980, it put on performances by acrobats, trapeze artists, strongmen, clowns and dancers and travelled throughout the region to places such as Malaysia, Thailand and the Philippines.

Part of its line-up was an impressive animal menagerie comprising lions, tigers, elephants, horses, a chimpanzee, a python and a bear. Performers did daredevil acts such as acrobatics on horseback and wrestling with a bull and python.

The troupe started in China in the 1920s, but moved to Singapore when the circus owners went in search of a better life here.

Handed down through the generations, the business folded in the 1980s as its organisers struggled to recruit performers and lost audiences to other mass entertainment options such as the cinema and television.

Actress-writer Adele Wong's paternal grandparents were the last generation to run it and she has just put out a new book about the history of the circus.

Titled Life Beyond The Big Top, it traces the founding of the circus, its heyday in Singapore and what happened to the performers after its closure.

Two of the acts at the Tai Thean Kew circus – the tiger beam and the tightwire unicycle that author Adele Wong’s grandmother Sze Ling Fen (above) performed. PHOTO: ADELE WONG

The book comes with photographs that conjure spectacles almost unimaginable in today's Singapore - acrobats straddling trapezes without safety ropes, lions and tigers with majestic coats of fur and elephants grazing peacefully on kampung vegetation.

The book started as a paper on social memory for Wong, 33, when she was doing her sociology degree at the National University of Singapore. She incorporated some aspects of her family circus history and got an A for it. After that, her professor told her she should write a book from the material.

She had initially decided to produce a novel based on the experience of her grandparents at the circus, with help from a creation grant from the National Arts Council.

Wong spent a year researching and interviewing family members, but found it hard to spin fiction out of the material. She did, however, churn out a manuscript for the novel, but for now, it will remain in her drawer.

The non-fiction account she produced will hit the shelves first.

She explains the transition from fiction to non-fiction: "It was difficult for me to inject drama and create conflict when the story is so personal. If I need a villain, who do I choose?"

"I realised I have to get a non-fiction book out first, tell the story straight, then I can do a fictional account and take all the creative licence I want," she tells The Sunday Times.

Wong researched and wrote the book while she worked as an actress. She has starred in movies and television dramas such as Mediacorp's The Pupil and Fighting Spiders.

Most of the information came from interviews with her grandmother, Sze Ling Fen, now 82, who joined the circus as a performer at the age of six. Sze is the granddaughter of the circus' founder, the late Sun See Ting, whose grave now lies in the Bukit Brown cemetery.

Life Beyond The Big Top by Adele Wong.

The circus was forced to disband during the Japanese Occupation in the 1940s, and was later re-built by Wong's great-grandfather, who increased the number of performers and animals in his stable.

A chapter is devoted to the animal menagerie, but the author stresses she does not condone keeping animals in captivity.

"As much as it's not okay in this day and age now, this was also a different time when child labour was acceptable," she says. "So let's bear that in mind."

Retiree Charles Phua, 67, recalls how his father took him to the shows near their old home at Serangoon Gardens.

"The clown or ringmaster would come out with a bucket which we thought contained water, but it was actually confetti, and he would throw it into the audience," he recounts with a laugh.

Published by San Francisco-based publisher Oro Editions, Life Beyond The Big Top is supported by the Singapore Memory Project, which disburses funding of 90 per cent of project costs or up to a maximum of $50,000.

She is developing a screenplay about the circus, with a grant from the Media Development Authority.

Wong hopes to play the protagonist, whose character is based on her grandmother, when the film comes to fruition, despite her grandmother's objections to her show business career.

Adele Wong.

She says: "For my grandparents, stability is important as the circus was always moving from one place to another. My grandmother doesn't understand why I want to act. She told me: 'You use your life to perform.' So I said to her: 'But you did it, anyway.'"

• Life Beyond The Big Top ($40) by Adele Wong is available from Books Kinokuniya at $40.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 21, 2016, with the headline 'The circus in its heyday'. Print Edition | Subscribe