RINGLING Bros. Barnum & Bailey. These used to be the biggest names in the world when it came to running ‘The Greatest Show On Earth‘. However, like all good things, it was curtains down just a little over a month ago under mounting pressure from rising costs and dwindling attendance.
The final performance on May 21, 2017 was held to a sold out audience at the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, New York. Indeed, the modern circus has come a long way since the very first one was staged by Philip Astley in London, on Jan 9, 1768. For nearly 250 years, circuses around the world have successfully captured the spirit of the performers, the imagination of the crowd and, most important of all, the passion and emotion of the entire event.
This historic closure calls to mind an interesting item which I‘d acquired exactly a year ago — an extremely rare 1949 leaflet promoting the grand opening of Sheum‘s Circus in Alor Star on Feb 15, 1949. The printing proclaimed that the circus was the largest of its kind touring the East and boasted of well-known artistes, trained horses, tigers, lions, leopards, monkeys, and of course elephants. In the middle of the yellowing parchment was a rather blurry photograph of a trio of performing elephants.
Sheum‘s Circus was not the only travelling Big Top during the days when mass entertainment was few and far between. The other prominent travelling shows active in Malaya after the Second World War included Kinoshita, Brazil and Tai Thean Kew. The story of Sheum‘s Circus is closely related to that of Tai Thean Kew.
The proprietor of Tai Thean Kew Circus was Soon Si Ting who hailed from Jiangsu province in China. He was initially involved in the textile business in Nanjing until the day his son was kidnapped. Soon gave up his business and left China to look for his missing son.
Some say that he made a promise never to return until his quest was over. Sadly his efforts proved futile. Soon was nearly at his wit‘s end when he met up with a group of street entertainers in the then British colony of Hong Kong. He decided to follow them to Nanyang (a popular Chinese reference to Singapore in the past) to seek his fortunes.
In Singapore, the group noticed a huge response among the local population for several Western-styled circuses and saw potential in the business. In 1924, they teamed up to form Tai Thean Kew Circus. The troupe then began touring Singapore and Malaya. Word spread like wildfire and locals came out in droves, partly attracted by the fact that the circus, for the first time, was a Chinese owned establishment.
As demand soared, Soon began hiring more performers to add variety to the performances. One of the new members was a big and strong man by the name of Sheum Cheang Fu who coincidentally also came from Soon‘s home town.
After sometime, Sheum decided to part ways with Tai Thean Kew and went on to form his own circus group. Sheum‘s Circus prominently featured elephants together with other acts such as fancy fireball dances and vertical ladder act that were guaranteed to keep members of the audience at the edge of their seats from the beginning to the end.
PACHYDERMS THROUGHOUT HISTORY
Long before elephants were trained to perform at the Big Top, these rumbling giants had featured prominently in major historical events in the past. Pachyderms were first captured and tamed in the Indus Valley around 4000 BC. Then, about 2,500 years later, the Siamese began capitalising on their immense size and strength to gain an upper hand in the battlefield. In 326 BC, King Porus of the Paurava kingdom used 85 heavily armoured male elephants to stem Alexander the Great‘s advance in the Indian subcontinent during the Battle of Hydaspes.
Hannibal, the great Carthaginian general, marched an army through Spain, France and across the Alps into Italy with 34 African war elephants in 218 BC, although many did not survive the harsh conditions while traversing the mountains. In Southeast Asia, the Khmer Empire in Cambodia was known to have used battle-trained elephants against their enemies between 800 and 1600 AD.
In the past, elephants were mostly used as a mode of transportation across the dense Malayan tropical forest. The famous 19th-century English explorer, Isabella Lucy Bird wrote several accounts about her encounters with these animals in her book, ‘The Golden Chersonese and the Way Thither’ published in 1883.
Bird began her travels when doctors urged her to undertake a sea voyage after a fibrous tumour was removed near her spine in 1850. In her many travels, Bird visited the United States, Australia and Hawaii. In subsequent voyages she began exploring Asian countries like Japan, China, Korea, Vietnam, and Malaya.
Bird wrote extensively about her travels, producing no less than 18 literary works within a span of 45 years, from 1856 to 1901. Her books helped readers to better understand the places located in the ‘... far flung corners of the world“. In recognition of her immense contribution to the spirit of exploration, Bird became the first woman to be elected Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
BIRD AND THE MALAYAN ELEPHANTS
It was at Kuala Kertang (now Kuala Sepetang) in Perak where Bird had her first encounter with elephants in Malaya. In her book, she described three elephants of which the middle one was the largest and had a mahout seated behind its large flapping ears. The elephants belonged to the Sultan of Perak. Prior to her ride atop the smallest of the trio, Bird took time to give her first impression of the animals. She recounted, ‘...The first sight of elephants at home is impressive but they‘re fearfully ugly and their rolling gait does not promise well for the ease of my future journey.“
Bird could not be more correct in her prediction about her eight mile (12.8 km) elephant ride from Kuala Kertang to the British Residency in Taiping. Instead of her expected magnificent howdahs and gold cloth trappings, all she got were several mats and a shallow basket on both sides of the elephant‘s back bone.
Bird got into one of these baskets which was filled with fresh leaves and held in place with pieces of stout rattan. Her Gladstone bag was secured behind her with a similar forest vine.
Bird‘s mahout or elephant driver was a chatty Malay man clad only in a sarong. He used a stick with a curved spike at the end of it to hook the softer portion of the elephant‘s ears when the animal was disobedient or moved in the wrong direction. This action obviously angered the elephant as, according to Bird, it would raise its proboscis and produce a loud trumpeting noise that could be heard a mile away. The mahout‘s place was always at the head of the animal where he‘d either sit cross-legged or with his legs astride behind the huge flapping ears.
The subsequent two hour-long ride proved to be tortuous for the English woman. She described how her legs began to become painful as they dangled over the edge of the basket. She tried to shift her weight by leaning backwards but the rolling motion of the elephant‘s gait made matters worse. She then reverted to her original position until that again became intolerable.
The situation improved significantly the moment Bird reached Perak’s royal town of Kuala Kangsar. There, she described the Sultan‘s royal elephant as a “... well-broken and stately animal”. It was such a huge beast that a good-sized ladder was needed for her to climb up its back. The soft pillows in the baskets, delicious packed lunch and extremely good weather from dawn till dusk culminated in a most memorable expedition for Bird.
Upon her return, Bird continued to heap praises on the royal elephant, mentioning that it was perfectly docile and very obedient. She added: “It conquered steep slopes with ease, lifted fallen trees out of the way or took giant strides over them.
And just like a perfect gentleman it even held trees slanting dangerously over the track high so that its passengers could pass safely through without mishap.” At this point I guess she must have been overwhelmed with relief as the second ride turned out to be much better than her first experience at Kuala Kertang.
The royal elephant was considered the Sultan‘s grand regalia. It featured prominently during royal installations and nuptials. Sultan Idris Murshidul Adzam Shah I Ibni Almarhum Raja Bendahara Alang Iskandar‘s richly-decorated royal elephant was a sight to behold during the 1913 investiture ceremony where the Sultan was awarded the Grand Knight Cross of the Victorian Order, the highest award ever given to a Malay ruler.
The gigantic tusker could easily be identified by the white, yellow and black royal flags placed on the four corners of its glistening howdah.
Carefully returning the Sheum‘s Circus leaflet back into its protective sleeve, my mind begins to wander to the heyday of the circus. There was a time when its arrival into town would be a much anticipated event, particularly among children, and a trip to the Big Top would number among the year‘s highlights. And who could forget those performing animals, especially the elephants. How they charmed so with their clever antics...