Book : Life Beyond the Big Top by Adele Wong


This photo book is supported by the Singapore Memory Project as part of the SG50 Celebrations and captures the history of the Tai Thean Kew Circus, a once-great Chinese Circus established in Singapore in 1929. The collection of photographs and surviving props and costumes that make up this visual documentation belong to Mdm Sze Ling Fen and Mr Wong Fu Qi, lead performers of the circus. It is written by their granddaughter, Adele Wong. At the launch of the book (which was attended by both grandparents), Adele gave an insight of how she came to write this book. Her grandparents also explained (and gave a little demonstration) of some of the props they brought to the event.

The book is divided into six sections : Beginnings (A Chinese Circus), Post War Pinnacle (A Malayan Circus), Man Versus Beast (Four Footed Circus Family), Offstage (The Personal Lives of Circus Folks), After The Circus ( A Husband and Wife Team) and Retirement (A Full Time Affair).

In each section, there are many photographs and documents, with clear and crisp write-ups and footnotes to explain them. These give a glimpse of the perfoeming legacy of the circus, a big part of entertainment culture in Singapore and Malaysia between the 1930s and the 1980s. They also make for an intimate and exclusive presentation.

Being of a certain age, I enjoy the section on Retirement best, especially as it is hailed as “a full time affair”. Besides the many colourful photographs of props and costumes, there are also adorable pictures of the author as a toddler. These photographs show her being the favourite “toy” of her grandparents as they display their acrobatic skills. There are four full pages of photographs of her grandparents from the days of their youth to the present. The grandparents met as teenagers in the Tai Thean Kew Circus in 1948 and have enjoyed a stable relationship. (Yes, they revealed snippets of their courtship days during the launch, much to the delight of the audience!) They are now in their 80s and enjoying their retirement : finding joy in the mundane, staying active and occupied with community centre activiteis and socialising in their neighbourhood. They enjoy taking strolls together, visiting the hawker centres for delicious food, going to the wet market for fresh produce and travelling occasionally. One of his favourite hobbies is playing Chinese chess with other elderly enthusiasts (not the Digital chess games on flate screen tablets): hers include dance lessons, soft tennis lessons, mahjong lessons and cooking. They now lead well-deserved peaceful, calm and satisfying lives away from the limelight. Ahh! The joys of retirement!

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