There is a peculiar excitement in dropping the stylus onto a record which is a complete mystery. The label is blank, or illegible, or in a foreign language. Not Italian or German: an English speaker can puzzle those out, more or less. I’m talking seriously challenging languages: Russian, or Hebrew, or (as in this case) Chinese. What, you wonder, as you start the turntable, what on earth am I going to hear?
It can be a disappointment. A Taiwanese pirate pressing of Barry Manilow’s Greatest Hits? Whoop-de-do.
But this EP – from the 1960s, you would guess – fully lives up to the mystery promised by its exotic-looking label. Rose Chan was a Chinese-born woman who lived in what is now Malaysia. In the 1950s she became a star cabaret dancer and acrobat, known as the Queen of Striptease. Her shows were breathtakingly daring for the day. A contemporary report of a Rose Chan show:
When Chan comes on stage, she moves subtly, gently swaying in a slow dance, all by herself. As she removes one piece of clothing after another, the tempo gradually picks up. When she reaches the point of removing her brassiere, she holds back. That is when her stagehands bring in the pythons, and she dances with the snakes wrapped all around her. Next, she removes her brassiere, and dances bare-breasted.
It didn’t stop there, but this is a family-friendly blog. Let’s just say that later in the show, bananas and coke bottles were involved.
Married many times, often in trouble with the law, especially as Malaysia came under the influence of conservative Islam in the 1970s, Rose Chan was flamboyant, unapologetic, brave. Not necessarily someone to trust with your life savings … but nobody’s perfect. And she could sing. Just listen to this – I don’t know what it is called, because I can’t read Chinese. I don’t understand the lyrics either, though you kinda pick up the general vibe. Not gospel, shall we say.
But the whole thing is an amazing creation – Marlene Dietrich meets Chinese opera with a hint of Marilyn Monroe singing cabaret while wrestling with a python in a Bornean swamp.
Question. How did this naughty record get to Australia, a country which long banned the importation of the novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover?
There are two possibilities.
A: Rose Chan did tour Australia in 1970, though she had an unhappy time of it, being prosecuted in Perth for indecent behaviour (the Lady Chatterley effect). Maybe someone saw her show before it was closed down, and bought the record.
B: Quite a few Australian servicemen served in Malaysia in the 1950s and 1960s, involved in the conflicts which accompanied the de-colonisation of British Malaya. Rose Chan was, no surprise, enormously popular with troops stationed there. An Aussie Digger, farewelling the nightclubs of KL, could well have snuck Rose Chan record into his kitbag.
My money is on Option B.
- Artist: Rose Chan
- EP Title: Unknown
- Side 1, Track 1: Unknown
- Format: 7” LP 45 rpm
- Label: Unknown
- Manufactured in: Unknown
- Year: Unknown