Tuesday, August 17, 2010

The Tai Thean Kew Circus

The Great Tai Thean Kew Circus entertained the masses in post WWII Malaya for decades.

My grandparents spent 40 years of their lives devoted to performing, and my great-grandfather, Sze Bing Shen, built this circus post-war alongside others, to let the art live on. I grew up with their memories, but it was only in University, doing a social memories course in Sociology, that I realized this was a family story I needed to write about.

While this type of traditional Chinese Circus is no longer in existance in Singapore or Malaysia today, I hope to more than preserve, but to proliferate the memory of this part of Malayan history. Basing my book mainly on my grandparents oral histories, (and the process is hilarious as my grandfather and my grandmother contradict each other's memories, for example, how their romance started...) I am also hoping to gather the memories of others as well.

Please feel free to send this blog out to friends and relatives, and feel free to contact me if there are any stories to share about the Tai Thean Kew circus, or questions to ask.
Check back for updates as I proceed to write this daily!

Thank You,



  1. Hi Adele,
    yes I remember Tai Thean Kew Circus. As a child I just loved the circus. Never missed one when they are in town. I believe they used to set up tent at Newton Circus.

    One of your uncle is still performing acrobatics and married a Singapore girl, no?

  2. Hi Adele,

    I am "Mei Cheng" the daughter of Sun Siong Kan, one of the 4 partners of Tai Thean Kew Circus -along with your great grandfather. It's been both heart warming and interesting to know that you have wanted to write a book on it.

    The photo you posted of your grandma... isn't she Ling Fen and your grandpa is Ah Lai. Correct me if I am wrong.

    It was my sister Mei Yee, probably feeling a sense nostalgia, who was surfing the net and decided if anything comes up on Tai Thean Kew Circus of which we had many childhood memories.

    My father, Sun Siong Kan was the trainer of the elephant and horse. My brother Sun Min Seng followed in his foot step. It was on the present siblings outing to Malaysia that Mei Yee told us about your blog. Thought I should add in some input as my family is very much part of Tai Thean Kew Circus.....

    Down this memory I go............I remembered the excitment and thrill when we(my siblings) made our way to Telok Kurau to hitch a hike on the lorry that would transport the actresses to and flo from places of performance...there would be banners of Tai Thean Kew Circus on both sides of the lorry..... how I would bath in the lime light as the lorry goes along it's journey with curious stares from car passengers...and people on the street... who would not look when theres these belle of young ladies sitting on chairs inside the lorry?....

    On rare occasions I got to sell tickets from the little booth to the merry-go-rounds....while my older siblings had a chance to sell entry tickets to the show....

    All 4 owners would sit just behind the ushers drinking from metal cups with a big pot of tea on the table ...a thick layer of saw dust were strewned on the ground during rainy seasons... I loved to sweep it from side to side with my shoes...I remembered the red velvet curtain with the words Tai Thean Kew Circus in English and Chinese characters...there would be rows of chair on the right and left side just behind this curtain. These were the A and B Classes, where the tickets were priced higher. There were rows and rows of graduated planks just behind the A and B's classes surrounding the inside peripheral of the circus....I even remembered balancing and running along those narrow planks which were actually the sitting arenas of the"C" class patrons...Behind the circus proper would be a tent for actor and a tent for actress... there would be a tent where they called the "masek pon" where staff meals were cooked..and at dinner time, there would be rows upon rows to tinffin carriers for the staff to bring to their tent.... circus would not look interesting without a caravan.... that caravan belongs to my brother Min Seng and Ah Mui... that's my sister-in-law who eventually also performed the magician act.....

    From a distant, one can hear the trumpet of the elephants... these elephants were not caged... they were chained down by thick chains... and they were always surrounded by eager patrons who will toss sugar cane and bananas to them...There's another tent where the other animals were housed....monkeys, chimpanzee, snakes, horses and etc... the tigers and lions were caged in big elevated cages...sitting or walking within the constrain of the cage..The smell of animals and their excretions were something that you have to content with... but that is something to add on to the part of the experience.

    As a child, I would wonder inside the actress tent and watch them all dolled up and dressed for the performance...if they have time, they would also add a touch of blusher or eye shadow for me, of which I was very much pleased....
    From a distance,one can hear the music that permeates from the "orchestra" and we would know who was performing that particular act...

    Memories of Tai Thean Kew Circus flipped between the pages of my mind...my child hood were very much in that era...1960's. There were just too many fun and fond memories spend with cousins and siblings on the ground of Tai Thean Kew.........

    1. Hi Vicki; Adele,

      I'm the editor of poskod.sg and I would love to do a piece/speak with you more about your childhood with regards to Tai Thean Kew Circus - sounds totally amazing.

      Do drop me a line at amanda@poskod.sg if you see this!

  3. Hi Adele, got the heads up of your blog from Philip Chew. Can't wait for your subsequent posts.

  4. I watched the TTK circus several times when I was growing up in Ipoh.

  5. To Adele and Vicki(the daughter of Sun Siong Kan) I belong to a grp on FB https://www.facebook.com/groups/bukitbrown/permalink/211811152222440/

    Raymond Goh who created group has identified the graves belonging to the founders of the 2 circus and a group of us are setting up a new blog to promote awareness of Bukit Brown - history, culture, pioneers, nature.

    We have identified tombs we want to feature with a little back story of the people buried there. If you could go to the page and send me a message on facebook would be great to get some inputs frm you. Catherine Lim. I post on the page quite often and you should be able to find me here https://www.facebook.com/groups/bukitbrown/