Rose Chan's story finally told

The biography of a controversial personality is finally written. Rose Chan’s life told today also tells us how illiberal Malaysian society has become since her heyday.

There was something that set Rose Chan apart from the average striptease dancer. Beguiling as she was, she was extremely adept at controlling the men in her life, both on and off the stage. To her, the striptease was an art, and she had mastered it. “Sometimes she’d strip completely, sometimes she wouldn’t, you know, and then of course there’d be a huge crowd cheering and booing,” says Cecil Rajendra, an eminent poet and lawyer from Penang who was a close confidante of hers in the latter years of her life.

Not only had she performed in Malaysia and Singapore, Chan had also travelled to France, Australia, Indonesia, Japan, Hong Kong and Taiwan after word of her had spread through newspapers and radio. She reached the height of her fame in the 1950s – in the days before television. But it wasn’t just her finesse for stripping that propelled the Suzhou-born striptease dancer into becoming the Queen of Striptease, a paramount figure in her line of work.

New World Park 2. Rose Chan used to perform here.

Chan was also known to be a strongwoman. As part of her shows, mostly held at amusement parks like New World Park and Great World Park (where Komtar is located now), she’d perform acrobatics, wrestle with pythons, bend iron bars and have motorcycles run across her on planks over her body – before, of course, stripping. A trained dancer as well, she took her ballroom dancing and ballet lessons so seriously that she eventually won a ballroom dancing competition in Singapore at the age of 24.

“That’s why she thought that everybody else who’d stripped had no standard. That it was all a low cost prostitute thing and they were all just dancing to get men,” Rajendra says. “She always kept her audience titillated – the suspense was always there. And that’s why she was so successful.”

In his latest book, No Bed of Roses: The Rose Chan Story, Rajendra writes as a solid kaki of Chan’s, having met her in Penang in the early 1980s when she was looking for a lawyer to help transfer her property. They’d met through a close buddy of theirs called Lee Ying, an influential journalist who’d become a developer by then, his sifu so to speak and her manager. Much to Rajendra’s surprise, Chan hardly resembled the femme fatale he knew from the posters. She’d bloated up with age, had begun wearing wigs – she was suffering from breast cancer, eventually succumbing to her illness in 1987 at the age of 62 – and had, evidently, lost the glamour of her youth.

Cecil Rajendra, back in the day.

Earning Chan’s trust was no small feat, considering that she never wanted to have a biography in the first place. But Rajendra – or Sessi, as Chan used to address him – would eventually earn it, such that he was invited to her 61st birthday party held on April 18, 1986 at what was then Jimmy’s Hong Kong Congee & Noodle House on Bishop Street. “If you don’t drink and chat with them, you’ll never get to know them at all,” Rajendra says of their time spent together.

They’d meet up at all times of the day, whether it was during a lunch that she’d cook, dinner parties where she’d hold court for close friends, between meals or after hours, and speak about her experiences. “Sometimes after a few drinks, you’d already be half pissed and she’d give you incredible insight to some sexual secret or some aphrodisiac thing, and you would completely forget it! Then I’d have to go back and put it in my notes. The book is full of Chan’s secrets, all sorts of little things,” he says.

Lee, who passed away in the 2000s due to cancer, also figures prominently in the book. He was “one of those very strong nationalist types” and had met Chan in his late teens. Lee knew Chan better than almost anybody else. They’d pulled through all sorts of hardships together, one being the Japanese occupation, and she’d confide her problems in him. He knew her story as well as she did.

“Sometimes Chan would exaggerate la, and Lee would be there to correct her. Then they’d have a big argument: ‘No no it didn’t happen this way, this is what happened’,” says Rajendra. “The book is dedicated to him because it couldn’t have been written without him. If not for Lee, I would never have known the real story.”

While Chan came to Penang because of her good friend Lee, what made her stay was the food here. Rajendra mentions that Chan liked having the loh mee next to the Goddess of Mercy Temple for breakfast. Together with Lee, they’d walk there from the Magistrate’s court after Rajendra had dealt with her cases.

Ho chiak ma,” Peter Soon quips about what Chan thought of Penang food. “She liked the food courts here.” The owner of the Pinang Peranakan Mansion, Soon himself was a good friend of hers, having gotten to know her in the early 1980s as a business partner, when she retired from her profession and had begun operating Sakura at the hotel he owned then, the Hotel Galant (presently known as Hotel Regal) on Transfer Road. Sakura functioned primarily as a massage parlour on the second floor, but there was also a hairdressing saloon and a pub downstairs, where she would have live bands perform. It was the first establishment she’d ever had, for she was always on the road with her dance troupe in her heydays.

Peter Soon

Hotel Galant (Now Hotel Regal) - Sakura was here.

“Business was very good when I partnered with her. You’d even have to make an appointment to get a massage from her,” Soon says. The year before Chan passed away, Soon held an exhibition of her photographs and her jewellery, but the bulk of the photographs was lost when a thief drove off with his car, pictures and all, sometime after the exhibition. “It was such a waste,” he muses.

While working on the book, Rajendra fought with his publisher regarding certain snippets of history that they’d tried to remove from the book. He had added them to provide context to what lies at the heart of the book – his sentiments on how our freedom of expression has faded. “I use the book and her story to show how hypocritical we’ve become within the historical context of society,” says Rajendra. “We talk of ourselves as being a developed society but it was actually far more liberal in those days.”

One of the incidents he is talking about happened in 1955 in which religious groups had protested against Chan’s costume – she’d worn a bikini and had had her body striped in grease paint. The striptease dancer explained that her attire was body art. The Malayan government accepted her reasoning and let the issue pass.

That episode is contrasted with another incident that occurred 16 years later, in 2012, when Erykah Badu was scheduled to perform in Malaysia. Her promotional pictures, where she was photographed with the Arabic word for Allah hand-painted on her shoulders, were seen to have insulted Islam. The Malaysian government swiftly banned the American singer’s concert.

"Although people still speak of Chan, a number of things said about her are half-truths mired in gossip and questionable at best."

According to Rajendra, many people started to get very moralistic and hypocritical about sex by the 1980s. So it’s interesting to see how people respond to the name “Rose Chan”.

“I was talking to a doctor and his wife,” Rajendra says. “They’re very modern, you know. But the doctor whispered, ‘Eh… I heard you’re writing a story about Chan…’ And I said, ‘What the hell are you whispering for?’

“But that’s where we are – Rose Chan: sex. That’s it.”

Although people still speak of Chan, a number of things said about her are half-truths mired in gossip and questionable at best. Some say she was a pai cha boh, a euphemism for “prostitute” in Hokkien, (the term literally means “naughty lady”) while others automatically assume that she was a mistress to the many taukes who wanted to marry her in her youth. But the book sets her story straight. No Bed of Roses reveals the many facets of Chan unbeknown to us hitherto, shedding light on some of her most redeeming qualities. The book captures who she was as a person both on and, more importantly, off the stage – because her story certainly didn’t end there.

No Bed of Roses is now available in bookstores.

Amanda Yeoh is a student, a writer and, of all things, a minimalist.

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