As a child, I’d drag my feet to my paternal grandmother’s house. For one, she was a fierce woman, so there were no two ways about things. She also spoke loudly, which distressed me. And because I wasn’t allowed to switch the TV channel, the only way I could busy my restless self was by playing with a collection of props from her past as an acrobat. They weren’t particularly interesting to an eight-year-old; there are, after all, only so many ways to fiddle with an orange paper umbrella or metal rings.
But what was uninspiring to me used to be entertaining to many: There was a time when these kaleidoscopic tools were what people trained their eyes on before the introduction of the TV. I’d always known that my grandparents were circus stars back in their heyday, but it didn’t fascinate me too much because it was so often talked about within the family; so normalised.
The novelty only stopped being lost on me when I stepped into young adulthood. I started to appreciate the history behind the now-tattered umbrella and, more importantly, that of the family trade of running a circus. This is a little story about my grandmother and her place in Tai Thean Kew Circus of the 1950s.
Princess of the Circus
The first time a circus from China reached the shores of Malaya was in the 1920s. It specialised in its national art of acrobatics and toured all over the region. Seeing that there was much opportunity to be capitalised on, the man behind it decided to uproot his family from Tianjin to Telok Kurau.
His eldest granddaughter was born in 1934. This was my grandmother, and on her sixth birthday she started acrobatic and dance training. Even though she had seven siblings, she was the only one to have been recruited at a tender age because she was the first-born daughter; her brothers, as favoured male heirs, were sent to school, while it was subsequently decided that her younger sisters would also have access to education even if only for a few years. Sze Ling Fen was the only one to not have seen the inside of a classroom in her life.
She was subjected to a gruelling schedule of daily training and rehearsals, all of which she wasn’t paid for since she was fulfilling an obligation of supporting the family business. When World War II broke out, the circus got destroyed in a bombing, but she managed to survive by performing for the Japanese soldiers. She remembers that they were keen audience members and generally kind towards child performers, at times dispensing rewards in the form of rice and little trinkets.
The war ended when she was 12 and her grandfather ordered a rebuild for the circus. Thanks to marketing efforts and the fact that it was one of the very few modes of entertainment available, it quickly exploded in popularity—tickets were always sold out and they would sometimes have to stage three shows a day to cater to demand. Invitations from amusement parks in neighbouring countries also started pouring in, and business was good enough for her to finally start getting paid 50 cents a day. For context, that could get her about seven bowls of noodles.
Quite naturally, it was under the big top that she met my grandfather, Wong Fu Qi, who had approached the troupe to look for work. The son of an acrobat and magician, he quickly rose through the ranks and became the circus’s top aerialist—one of his signature acts was walking a tightrope high up in the air while carrying three female acrobats that, together with the balancing contraption, weighed 200kg. Even though he frequently received love letters from female fans, it was my grandmother that he had his eyes on, and he made sure to woo her through small affections like leaving chocolate at her dressing table.
My grandmother was a star performer by the time she was 20. In addition to tightrope unicycling and hanging off an aerial perch with ankle loops, she was the only performer to have been able to pull off acrobatic stunts on a moving horse—she could get into handstands on a galloping horse, and swing over and under it as it sped around the sawdust ring. When her grandfather passed away and her father took over the circus, she was quickly dubbed by the media as the “Princess of the Circus”.
The Demise of the Big Top
My grandparents married in 1954 and had their first son the next year. At its peak, which was during the late 1950s and early 1960s, the circus had over 100 members and frequently travelled around countries such as Thailand and the Philippines, moving from town to town every two weeks. But while reception was overwhelming, the performers were overworked, and at one point my grandmother suffered a miscarriage. It didn’t help that touring meant she frequently couldn’t be with her two kids, whom she left under her relatives’ care.
Perhaps then it was a blessing in disguise that demand for circus shows started going on the decline in the mid-1960s. Several factors led to its end. For one, the acts were repeated year after year—the weariness of the performers left them uninspired. Then there were increasing restrictions on the use of animals in the circus, and it was the menagerie of horses, elephants, lions and tigers that the crowd also wanted to see. There was also the rise of the TV, which meant that the imagination of audiences was captured somewhere else.
The final nail in the coffin was the dearth of next-generation performers—baby boomers wanted to eke out a living by banging away on a typewriter within an office and not risking life and limb in stunts. That lifestyle held an appeal for my grandmother. As much as life in the circus was exciting and the applause exhilarating, it was important to her that her two sons pursued an education and not follow in her footsteps.
My grandparents finally left the circus in 1972. The family of four moved from the big tent to a newly acquired HDB unit. As a homemaker, my grandmother was like a fish out of water—she didn’t know how to boil rice, much less cook. I suppose this was unheard of for a female in that era; she’d been anything but a regular woman up till that point in her life.
But while you can take the performers out of the circus, you can’t take the circus out of the performers. It wasn’t long before my grandparents brought their acrobatics and magic to the hotel lounges, and nightclubs sprouted up everywhere.
However, performing at significantly smaller venues meant they had to redesign new props and adopt a new repertoire of tricks. My grandmother picked up juggling an umbrella with her feet, an act she saw at a Russian circus as a child. It became something that she, although an older performer by then, was also known for because no one else in the region could pull it off. That paper umbrella would grace many a stage and eventually end up in the hands of her granddaughter—me—who’d spent many hours opening and closing.
Although being under the limelight was all they’d ever known, the call for a more subdued family life pulled them back in. In their 50s, my grandparents decided to close this chapter in their lives. They kept themselves busy in new ways—integrating themselves into their neighbourhood community and regularly joining classes and overseas trips for the elderly when not caring for my cousins and me.
A Retiree on her iPhone
In For One More Day, Mitch Albom wrote: “But behind all your stories is always your mother’s story, because hers is where yours begins.” While I used to loathe my grandmother’s feisty disposition, I have come to see that it is the exact trait I inherited, and this is accentuated every time we have conflicting views.
And while she no longer bellows at 87, she isn’t any more compromising as a person. I’m reminded time and again what it means to be tough-minded, the very characteristic she needed to have made it through her circumstances. More significantly, it is perhaps because she was an absent mother, albeit a very reluctant one, that I always had a very present father.
Now a widow, she spends her days chatting with her sisters over the phone, watching cooking videos on YouTube, attending SkillsFuture courses (out of curiosity and not so much function, of course) and reading the news. Given all the stunts she has pulled off in her life, it might not be surprising that she taught herself to read and write. She is still sprightly and fiercely independent. She lives alone and asked for help only when necessary.
These days when I visit her, it is because I absolutely want to. As it is, she is a lot more intriguing (and a lot less intimidating) to an adult than a child. The collection of props is mostly gone—most of it was removed when she started taking a more minimalistic approach to her home.
But the paper umbrella still sits in her wooden closet. Every so often I’d take it out for a bit, echoing the curiosity of that eight-year-old self. I’d give it a slight twirl. I ruminate on the canopy— a cyclone of orange—and ruminate on a trade that held fascination and magic in a world that moved on, and on the pride, it symbolises for my grandmother and her family.
WordsWong Hui Hui
IllustrationsPenn Ey, Chee