The Tragic Tale of Singapore’s Most Infamous Stripper

This piece contains content which is meant for mature audiences.

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Chapter I: An End

Lam Wah Ee Hospital, Penang 1987

There was plenty of irony in her last days. The body that once captivated Malaya now laid frail in a hospital bed. The 36-inch breasts that were once the subject of lust, now disfigured by the attacking disease.  The hips that gyrated many to arousal, now in acute pain. While her heyday might have long passed, she still exudes the swagger of a sex kitten. She refuses to take pills, whines about the shitty  food, and wishes that she was dead. Well, she might as well be. The breast cancer had reached a terminal stage and doctors gave her six months to live, eight years ago. All her life, this woman has battled sexism, chauvinism, judgement and poverty, and has come out on top. But cancer, unfortunately, is one battle she is destined to lose.  

Rose Chan catapulted herself into fame and notoriety in the 1950s. Unlike other celebrities of the era, Rose wasn’t a movie star or a musician. She was a striptease. At the height of her prowess, Singaporeans and Malaysians alike flocked to see her bare it all. A far cry from the lone nurse accompanying her in her ward now. How could someone so popular die so alone? Maybe she was a relic of the past. The liberal, ‘live and let live’ climate of the post-war peninsular now gave way to a more religious, conservative society.  No one wants to be associated with someone this unapologetically dirty

Imagine her surprise when she finds out that she has a visitor. It’s Ah San, her eighteen-year-old adopted son. Rose took the boy in nearly a decade ago when his parents went deep into Johorean jungles in search of work. The parents, who did not know Rose personally, heard stories about the stripper’s legendary generosity and decided to seek her help. A temporary arrangement to keep the boy safe from the unknown lands of Johor, soon turned into a permanent one – with the couple never returning. 

With her own children going their ways, avoiding their difficult mother, Ah San came as a godsend. The cancer had her made her confront her own immortality and loneliness. The string of ex-lovers, husbands and patrons were gone and she longed companionship. Over the years though, Ah San had turned into a questionable character. As the person entrusted to look over Rose Chan’s club and massage parlour in Penang, he started siphoning profits, taking drugs and helping himself to the club’s hostesses. Rose knew about all of this, but couldn’t muster the emotional or physical energy to confront the kid

Today, he arrives at the hospital, determined to squeeze more money out of her dying mother. 

Mama, I need another $2,000 to pay the staff”

Chapter II: Two Men, One Name 

Singapore, Straits Settlement, 1930-1940s

The lights of the big city glimmered through the waves.  As the boat got closer to the harbour, the girl could see the messy array of bumboats, sampans and warehouses. Unbeknownst to the child, she had just arrived at the Straits Settlement’s capital: Singapore. Her parents had sent her on a gruelling journey across the South-China Sea in search of a better life. They were acrobats, going from village to village looking for work in a war-torn China. To them, any existence would have been better than the one they were living. Their eldest daughter, Ah Choon was already in Malaya and was doing well – even attending school. So, it made perfect sense to send the younger Rose over as well. 

As Rose got off the boat, she was thrusted into the hands of a stranger – a rather large women whom she would soon call mama. As the noise and commotion of the harbour was about to make her cry, the girl noticed a familiar figure behind mama. The presence of her elder sister, Ah Choon, was enough to pacify the fatigued girl, at least for the time being.

Unlike her elder sister, Rose wasn’t really a good student. She did demonstrate an entrepreneurial spirit though. Determined to make money, she stole her uncle’s old Kodak camera and brought it school. It turns out that the teenagers of the 1930s weren’t that different from the teenagers of today. Rose and her friends would stand in front of the school’s toilet mirrors, admiring themselves and striking poses of Hong Kong megastars of the day. Rose would then take pictures, and sell it to her friends at a profit. In an interview much later in her life, she would go on to say:

“It would cost me 5 cents a shot. But I would charge them 15 cents. Even then, I liked doing business.”

Rose Chan, New Nation 12th September 1981

Her plan did have its shortfalls. Having to develop and print the pictures out at a store, Rose started being late for school, missing entire lessons. This happened a few times before mama got a letter from the school, informing her of her child’s absence. Afraid of what Rose might have been up to, mama pulled her out of school all together. 

The man was fuming. 

He was promised a sixteen-year old virgin. But on the night of his wedding, there were no bloodied sheets or deflowering.  insisted that the she lost her hymen doing acrobatics on a trampoline, but to the aging harbour manager, it didn’t matter. It came as an attack to his pride and masculinity, and soon Rose’s body wasn’t as appealing as it once was. The man was having seconds anyways. 

In 1942, Singapore, the supposedly invincible British fortress, was seized by a fascist regime, hell-bent on creating a South-East Asian Empire. Syonan-To, as the island was called by the Japanese, was no place for young Chinese women. The Japanese Imperial Army had installed comfort stations in Tanjong Katong Road, in the Anglo-Chinese School at Cairnhill Road, and in shophouses at Bukit Pasoh Road. In these stations, local Chinese women were forced to satisfy the sexual needs and desires of the Japanese soldiers. Even Singapore’s first Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew remembered encountering one of these zones:

It was an amazing sight, one or two hundred men queuing up, waiting their turn. I did not see any women that day. But there was a notice board with Chinese characters on it, which neighbours said referred to a ‘comfort house’. Such comfort houses had been set up in China. Now they had come to Singapore. There were at least four others. I remember cycling past a big one in Tanjong Katong Road, where a wooden fence had been put up enclosing some 20 to 30 houses

Lee Kuan Yew, The Singapore Story

To avoid a similar fate, Rose’s guardian arranged a marriage of convenience to an old, but rich manager at the harbour. Not only did this keep Rose safe, but it also financially enriched mama. For a price of $3,000 and some gold and diamond jewellery, Rose was sold off to the old man. While she seemed to take a liking to his husband, the marriage soon unravelled.

In addition to the wedding night fiasco, the man also couldn’t keep up with Rose in bed. The pubescent girl seemed to be always horny and craving sex, and no matter how much the middle-aged man tried, he just couldn’t satisfy her. So, less than a year into their marriage, he left Rose, in search of another young bride to deflower. Breakups are typically trying affairs, but being tossed, discarded, deemed too dirty? That’s a whole another ball game. An ordinary girl might have been heartbroken and devastated. But Rose didn’t cry, mope or lose sleep over the divorce. In fact, she was plotting her revenge on the old man. The day after the breakup, Rose headed to the Gay World Amusement Park in Geylang to apply to be a dance hostess. 

Known as Lancing Girls (a mispronunciation of Dancing Girls), hostesses were a crucial part of Singapore’s nightlife in the 1930s. Working at cabarets around the island, their job was to dance, drink and interact with male customers. The harbour manager loved these cabarets and would often frequent the one at Gay World. Thus, to “show him” Rose decided work there herself. Becoming a Lacing Girl  was no easy task. But Rose outworked her peers, learning dances like the cha-cha, samba, rhumba, waltz, mambo and tango. While she was at it, she also learned a bit of English and Malay from her customers. It was these things, her dancing abilities and her friendly nature, that would find her fame as a dance hostess – with her eventually starting her own show. 

Chapter III: An Accident 

Majestic Theatre Ipoh, 1951

There is building anticipation among the men seated in theatre. They had just paid five dollars (a huge amount considering the abysmal wages of the fifties) to see the Queen of Striptease. The lights are dimmed and the spotlights are focused on the improvised platform just below the silver screen. The Majestic Theatre was filled to its 867-seat capacity – with people piling both the large balcony and the ground floor. Usually, the front-rows of these events were reserved for businessmen, politicians and civil servants: powerful people that were probably there without their significant others knowing. Even though Rose pleaded innocence in front of the press, she knew exactly what she was doing – barring those under eighteen from buying tickets, presumably for the overtly sexual nature of what was about to come.

The anxious chatter reaches a crescendo and Mambo Rock is blasted through the speakers. Rose appears on stage, barely clothed with a fabric draped over her generous breasts and waist. She glides from one end of the stage to another, completely in rhythm to the music, and as the night progresses she gets more daring. The scarf covering her torso, slips and slides down her thighs. She plays it off as an accident, maintaining the façade of a shy Asian girl. What is left now is a shoestring bikini that leaves little to the imagination. By now, the product of her labour is apparent in the soft gasps and moans coming from the audience. Some of the people seated at the front re-adjust their legs, while others have their hands deep in their pockets.

Rose presses ahead and ups the ante. She lays on the floor elegantly arching her back and hips to the music. That’s when an assistant brings Abdul – her three-year old albino python – over. Still on the floor, Rose points her feet to the ceiling, then spreads them apart. The snake then slithers and coils around her thigh, making its way over her bikini bottoms to her ribs. Rose presses Abdul onto her, moans and sometimes cries for help to add authenticity to her act. The damsel in destress trope goes horribly wrong when she realises that Abdul wasn’t playing this time around. The python coiled harder and harder, completely deflating her 36-inch breasts. It took a while to for her stagehands to realise that something was amiss, but when they do, they yanked the snake off Rose, then bring her backstage.

The audience is left speechless. Is their queen okay? Are they getting a refund for the show? Those questions are answered when Rose reappeared on stage a mere 20 minutes later as if nothing happened at all. In fact, she somehow seems reinvigorated, flirting with audience members and dancing more crudely. As she whirled her hips, tugging on her bikini bottoms, something unexpected happens, again.

Her bra snaps. 

Cairnhill Constituency, Singapore, Mid 1950s

As the city’s first Chief Minister, David Sual Marshall made a promise during the elections that he would dedicate a day each week to meet the people of his ward directly. He kept this promise, holding Meet-the-People sessions at Cairnhill every Tuesday evening. Meet-the-People sessions weren’t glamour affairs – with lines of people waiting to air their grievances with the government. 

That Tuesday evening was a little different. David could hear a cacophony of camera flashes and wolf whistles right outside the building. It was the infamous striptease, Rose Chan. As she made her entrance, David was reported to have asked Rose whether she was there to give a free performance. “No! At least not in broad daylight,” she retorted, completely stealing the limelight from the Chief Minister.

Rose was there to seek legal assistance from the Chief Minister. 

The rousing reception that her wardrobe malfunction in 1951 received inspired her to incorporate full-frontal stripping into her act. “Here I dance all night and sweat so much and nobody claps. My bra breaks and they clap,” she once quipped. But there was an issue with this. Colonial laws in Malaya considered nudity to be an illegal act of indecent exposure and relied on a legal loophole to continue stripping. To allow artists to paint and sculpt nude models, there was a provision for public nudity. So long as the model stood completely still and did not move, it was legal for the model to be nude publically. This was the loophole that many seedy pubs in London’s Soho district used to bypass indecency laws. They would have nude living statues would appear on stage with performers like acrobats and dancers. “If it moves, it’s rude,” the clubs would say. 

Rose took this technique to the next level. While her licence forbade her from moving an inch while naked, it didn’t say anything about the stage itself. Together with her manager, she devised a 2×2 wooden platform that would be attached to ropes. At the very end of Rose’s act, when she completely naked, stage hands would use the ropes to manoeuvre the platform around the stage. That way, she could be completely still while still exhibiting her body to the lustful glances of the audience. 

The first time that she tried the moving platform, plain-clothed policemen in the audience immediately ended the show and charged her for breaking the law. In addition to being the Chief Minister, David Marshall was also known as one of Singapore’s most prolific criminal lawyers. As such, Rose hired David to help her indecent exposure case. The case was eventually won and Rose Chan got her licence back.  

Chapter IV: A Death 

Rose Chan died at the age of 62 on the 26th May 1987 in her home in Butterworth, Penang. While at the height of her popularity, she was a household name, rising conservatism in the peninsular ensured that she died quietly, ignored and dismissed by most. Her final days weren’t any better either. Due to her pride, most of her family members weren’t informed about the cancer. The massage parlour and club become a failure as well, having their licence revoked presumably due to Ah San’s mismanagement. Combined with the high cost of chemotherapy, this led to financial issues, with her having to sell her house. While she married four men in her lifetime, none come down to visit her in her final days when she longed for companionship. In a 1981 interview, she talked about the lack of satisfaction and fulfilment, looking back at her life.  

I did not love any of my husbands. I did fall in love once — with a police officer. There was no way we could work it out, I was 20 years older than him. I knew he loved me a lot. But I wanted him to have a good life, to be able to have children. I was so much older than him. So, I ran away. He is married now. But it is sad. One of the reasons I ran away was that I wanted him to have children. But even after years of marriage, he and his wife do not have any.

Rose Chan, New Nation 12th September 1981

There is something to be said about her independence though. In what was a male-dominated society, Rose Chan depended on no man and was a trailblazer in the things she did. She didn’t mope when her first husband dumped her nor did she care too much about the slut-shaming that she faced throughout her career. This was what led Cecil Rajendra, in his book about Rose, to call her “the country’s first real feminist.”

Rose also leaves behind a trail of myths and legends. Even while writing this article, it was hard to tell where truth ended and where lore began. For example, Rose told Cecil that the court case happened in 1953. A biography of David Marshall however, clearly states that the incident happened in 1956 and that she definitely came down to the Meet-The-People’s session (which weren’t up and running till 1955). It is also speculated that American singer and songwriter Frankie Laine wrote the hit-song ‘Rose, Rose, I Love You,’ about Rose Chan. Oddly enough, she has never publically confirmed or denied the rumours, adding fuel to the fire. 

While Rose Chan might be long gone, it is apparent that her fame (or infamy) still lives on. There is revived public interest in her story, with the production of multiple plays, books and even movies about her. 

It’s just a pity that this interest didn’t exist in her final days. 


Art by Angelia Gan.

Sources: NewNation on 21 September 1981, No Bed of Roses: The Rose Chan Story, Marshall of Singapore: A Biography, From Third World to First: The Singapore Story, I Watched Rose Chan Perform, Johnathan Bollen (image), Wiki.SG.

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