The Asian-Australian touring circuit

Research plan for Hong Kong, Manila, Singapore, Taipei and Tokyo, Feb-Jul 2010

My research to date has revealed how variety performance in mid-twentieth century Australia provided audiences with frequent opportunities to encounter the exotic in performances from Asia. In 1956 Garnet H. Carroll toured the Chinese Classical Theatre Company with a mixed bill of opera scenes, dances and acrobatics. In 1958 Harry Wren took the Cherry Blossom Show from the Nichigeki Theatre in Tokyo on a national tour. In 1959 and 1960, Tibor Rudas toured Oriental Cavalcade, an extraordinary show which promised ‘the mystery of Siam, the fascination of China, the excitement of Malaya, the enchantment of India’. There were many such revues touring Australia during the 1960s, including Bayanihan (1964) from the Philippines, and Tokyo Nights (1965) and Japan by Night (1968). These shows were not simply folkloric displays of oriental tradition. They were products of ‘showbiz’ modernity: modeled lavishly on an international ‘Las Vegas’ style, they mediated access to transnational capital, international tourism and sexual entertainment in popular, commercially-successful performance. Their impact was amplified beyond theatres with performers concurrently appearing on variety television. Asian performers from Oriental Cavalcade, for instance, performed their acts on episodes of The Bobby Limb Show in 1959 and again in 1960. In hindsight, they anticipate, by some thirty years, the intercultural encounters of government-sponsored Asian-Australian arts festivals and exchanges. But, as Helen Gilbert and Jacqueline Lo demonstrate in Performance and Cosmopolitics (2007), research into such popular aspects of cultural exchange has lagged behind studies of the intercultural avant garde.

Biographies of variety performers in theatre programs reveal the operations of a variety circuit extending well beyond cities in Australia and New Zealand to encompass Bangkok, Calcutta, Colombo, Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Penang, Singapore, Taipei and Tokyo. Chinese entertainers such as Chung Doo and the Great South China Troupe appeared frequently at Brisbane’s Theatre Royal in the 1950s. Australian producer Queenie Paul presented revues in Singapore from 1953. Singer Toni Lamond spent three months of 1954 performing as Carmen Miranda in Manila, before returning to Australia via Singapore. By 1959 the Australian-based Rudas Theatrical Organisations was simultaneously presenting The Suga Baba Revue in Tokyo, The Heatwave Revue in Hong Kong, Funfiesta in Calcutta, Revue Contental in Manila and The China Doll Revue in Singapore. From the Philippines, singers Pilita (billed as ‘Spain’s Nightingale of Song’), Don Soliano (the ‘Elvis of Manila’), Alan Madam and Trio los Tropicales appeared on Australian stages and television in the 1960s, as did performers from China (jugglers Che Chung Chong and Mana Koon, singer Theresa Leung Ping), Japan (‘muscle dancer’ Cheery Minato), Indonesia (Zid Afiff, ‘Indonesia’s Sammy Davis Junior’) and Ceylon (Reuben Solomon). By the late 1960s, many Australian entertainers – including comedian Lucky Grills, drag artists Tracey Lee and Carlotta, and singers Peter Allen, Lola Nixon, and the Flat Tops (Ross Edgerton and Tom Parker) – were performing in theatres, hotel lounges and on cruise ships throughout Asia.

Comprehending the intercultural significance of this Asian-Australian touring circuit is a challenge. Histories of variety performance in mid-twentieth century Australia have largely focused within a national frame on the contraction and closure of the Tivoli and traveling show circuits. Consequently, they tend to ignore the emergence of successful international touring across the Asia-Pacific region. I will address the challenge of researching beyond national borders by conducting research on internationally-touring entertainers in five cities outside Australia: Hong Kong and Singapore are chosen for the cultural disseminations of their expatriate English-speaking populations; Tokyo for Japan’s cultural history of modernization and the popularity of western forms; Manila and Taipei for their post-war mediation of American popular entertainments. My aim is not to collect comprehensive data on variety performance in each city. Rather I will seek traces and connections to the artists, companies and productions within my existing dataset on touring and locally-produced variety performance in Australia for the period 1946-1975. To assist with the comprehension of source materials in Hong Kong, Singapore and Taipei, I have completed two years of study in Mandarin through the University of Adelaide’s Professional and Continuing Education program.

Timetable (18 January–16 July 2010)

Professor Peta Tait has invited me to present at ‘Beyond Burlesque’, a symposium at La Trobe University on 15 February 2010. In the preceding four weeks, I will write a paper which draws on my research at the National Film and Sound Archive to examine comic burlesques of the classical genres of opera, ballet and tragedy through which Australian variety television in the late 1950s and early 1960s simultaneously ‘historicised’ theatre and ‘modernised’ itself. Following the symposium, I will spend five days in Melbourne (16–22 February) at the Performing Arts Collection and the State Library, focusing on materials relating to Asian-Australian touring of variety artists. I will also research tourist literature for Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan, Philippines and Taiwan for the period which, as I have already discovered at the State Library of SA, contains valuable evidence of variety entertainment in the theatres and nightclubs of major destinations. I will then spend five days in Sydney at the State Library of NSW (22–26 February), again focusing on materials relating to Asian-Australian touring and relevant tourist literature. An additional focus of my research in Sydney will be the P&O archive. I have arranged with the P&O archivist, Rob Henderson, to view materials relating to entertainment on P&O cruises from Australia to Asian cities.

For the remainder of my study leave, my research base will be Taipei where I have arranged accommodation for the period (27 February–16 July). I will visit Hong Kong for one week en route to Taipei, and Singapore for one week on my return to Adelaide. From Taipei, I will make research trips to Tokyo (two weeks) and Manila (one week). Rather than undertaking one long round-trip, this approach allows time to prepare for each archival visit and to intersperse archival research with periods of analysis and writing. In Hong Kong (27 February–6 March) and Singapore (10–17 July), I will focus on variety entertainment for the expatriate community by surveying the entertainment sections of English-language newspapers for the period – South China Morning Post and The Standard in Hong Kong; The Straits Times in Singapore. I will also conduct research at performing arts collections identified by SIBMAS, the International Association of Libraries and Museums of the Performing Arts, including the Arts Resource Centre at the Hong Kong Central Library, and the Arts Collection in the Lee Kong Chian Reference Library at the National Library in Singapore. In Tokyo (3–17 April) my research will primarily focus on the Toho Entertainment, the production company which was responsible for the Japanese revues which toured Australia in the late 1950s and mid 1960s (http://www.toho; a secondary focus will be the Tokyo venues where Australian entertainers performed, including the Copacabana, Monte Carlo and Latin Quarter night clubs and the Mikado Theatre Restaurant. In Manila (1–8 May), my research will focus on Bayanihan, the Philippine National Folk Dance Company (, which toured Australian cities for three months in 1964, including a season for the Adelaide Festival of Arts. In Taipei, I will utilize the recently digitized newspaper collection at the National Central Library, which is only accessible on-site and includes the English language China News, China Post and Taiwan News. I will also draw on collections at the Performing Arts Library at the Chiang Kai Shek Cultural Centre and the Taipei National University of the Arts.

Expected Outcomes

The immediate outcome will be three refereed journal articles. The first article will be based on my presentation at the ‘Beyond Burlesque’ symposium which looks at comic burlesques of opera, ballet and tragedy on variety television. A second article will focus on Asian performers touring Australia in the exotic revues, such as Oriental Cavalcade and The Cherry Blossom Show. This article is already partly written; a portion was presented at the 2008 ADSA conference. The third article will focus on Australian variety performers touring in Asia, correlating extant oral histories and life writing from Australian artists, with newly researched evidence about their performances and reception in Asia.The longer term outcome is that all three articles will be incorporated into a monograph on the transformation of Australian variety performance from 1946 to 1975. The book will embody the findings of the research, enhancing both scholarly appreciation and public knowledge of the contributions of variety performers to the evolution of Australian entertainment, and resolving the disparity between histories of Australian theatre which gloomily narrate variety’s demise and claims on Australian television to simply celebrate its survival.