For twelve weeks from the end of August 1958, Laurie Smith, the producer-manager of Brisbane’s Theatre Royal, sought to attract an audience for the very first Australian appearance of Rose Chan: “Announcement Extraordinary! Opening Saturday October 4th – Imported from Manila – Exclusively by this theatre – the hottest thing in the East – A New Entertainment Experience – Rose Chan – Strip-Tease Extraordinary – Malaya’s Gypsy Rose Lee – You’ll never see anything like this again in your life!” (Peepshow Scandals, Theatre Royal, Brisbane, 6 Sep 1958)
Rose Chan was born in Suzhou, China, in 1925 and moved with her adoptive mother to Kuala Lumpur in the early 1930s. Her career as a striptease artist and producer of erotic revues is chronicled in Singapore’s Straits Times. The scandal of her acts sustained, on an almost monthly basis, her presence in the news for years. In March 1954, while performing at the City Lights Cabaret in Penang, the police issued a warning. In September, at the Central Theatre Hall in Bukit Mertaja, she was pelted with stones, bad eggs and green snakes. In October 1955, she performed at the exclusive Setia Kesukaan Club in Alor Star. In November, performing at the Queen’s Theatre in Kuala Lumpur, she had her license revoked.
Detecting a pattern by January 1956, the Straits Times announced its predictions for the new year: ‘Miss Rose Chan will be denounced; Miss Rose Chan will prosper.’ That year she performed at Singapore’s New World, toured to Borneo, faced court proceedings in Johore and moral objections in Sarawak, before repairing to Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Alor Star where, in one performance, she lost consciousness on stage, as the python with whom she was performing coiled too tightly round her waist. In 1957 the Rose Chan Revue toured to cities throughout peninsula Malaya and played at Singapore’s Happy World Stadium and Badminton Hall and so on.
Just how Laurie Smith made contact with Rose Chan or her agent I do not know. Smith did well to communicate her reputation to his audience ahead of her arrival, but Australia’s quarantine regulations posed a challenge.
Rose Chan is known as the Gypsy Rose Lee of the East, and is one of the most daring performers in show business. One of her acts includes a fight with a python, but due to quarantine regulations we have advised her to leave the reptile at home. In any case, we weren’t too thrilled at the idea of a huge python crawling around backstage. (Striptease Follies, Theatre Royal, Brisbane, 30 Aug 1958)
At first announcement, Chan was to appear at Brisbane’s Theatre Royal on 4 October 1958. But that date passed and her appearance was rescheduled for 15 November. Smith kept up the illustrated advertisements for Chan in weekly programs to 1 November. But in the program for 15 November, neither Rose Chan nor her python rate a mention. I haven’t found an explanation for Chan’s failure to appear. There was, it seems, no apologies from Chan or promises from Smith to make amends.
I would love to know what happened! Perhaps Chan’s snake was so integral to her performance that she felt she could not perform without. Perhaps, notwithstanding Smith’s warning, she tried to bring her python to Australia and was refused entry on arrival. In earlier programs, Smith writes that he is importing Chan from Manila, but the Straits Times has Chan performing in Kuala Lumpur and Penang between September and December 1958. Maybe he or she just failed to make the right connections.
While Python wrestling was Chan’s signature performance, there were other entertainers of the 1950s and 1960s who also worked with snakes. Audiences in Brisbane had already some exposure to the erotic charms of snake dancing. Smith had introduced Bernice the Snake Girl at the Theatre Royal in 1952.
Bernice is no new-comer to this phase of entertainment, however, as she was originally booked to appear as a snake dancer and when her snakes died recently, she carried on as a showgirl (doing very well too) until she was able to procure more snakes and tame them down sufficiently to present her thrilling act, which includes the famous “Kiss of Death”. Unlike most performers with snakes, Bernice does not grip the snake’s head whilst performing this highly dangerous act, but merely lets the reptile slide through her open fingers, thus exposing herself to the definite possibility of a nasty bite if the snake is not in a good mood. Here’s hoping her pets remain docile during this season. (Theatre Royal, Brisbane, 27 Sep 1952)
In the early 1960s, Roberta Sykes danced with snakes in night clubs like the Pink Pussycat at Sydney’s King’s Cross. A photograph from the ABC television variety show, Cafe Continental (1959-1961), records a woman dancing with two snakes. In June 1969, a 21-year-old dancer, Jenny Marchinton, performing as Tabatha in Singapore, announced that her two-and-a-half foot python had died in Bangkok. She was searching for a new python, ‘preferably bigger than my last’, for her ‘sizzling jingle [jungle?] dance act’. Marchinton was appearing at a Singapore night club with Les Belle Sheilas, an Australian dance troupe led by Ray Bowell. The other dancers in the troupe were Jane Ballantyne, Irene Lau, Kim Swanson and Jan Brown.
Rose Chan did, eventually, make her debut in Australia. In September 1970, she was cleared by a District Court in Perth of having given an indecent performance before an audience of 100 men at a football club in May. In October and November she was back in court. Her visa had expired and she was found guilty of assisting in the management of premises for the purposes of prostitution and resisting arrest. Chan returned to Malaysia some time after that and continued performing until 1976.
- Programs from the Theatre Royal, Brisbane, are held at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre Museum and the State Library of Queensland.
- Information on Rose Chan is compiled from articles and advertisements in the Straits Times via NewspaperSG.
- Biographical information from Ong, Christopher. 2009. ‘Rose Chan’, Singapore Infopedia, http://infopedia.nl.sg/articles/SIP_1436_2009-02-10.html
- The story of Tabatha and Les Belle Sheilas is from ‘A snake act girl seeks a python’, Straits Times, 18 Jun 1969, p.4.
- Excerpt from Roberta Sykes, Snake Dancing, in Sayer, Mandy & Louis Nowra. 2000. In the gutter… looking at the stars: a literary adventure through Kings Cross, Milsons Point, NSW: Random House Australia.
- Photo from ‘Wild, wild Rose Chan’, Soft Film: Vintage Chinese Cinema, 2009, http://softfilm.blogspot.com/2009/05/wild-wild-rose-chan.html