Today, the Hippodrome is at the centre of Birmingham’s bustling and thriving Chinatown but 117 years ago, when the theatre was just opening, China was perceived as a very far-off, exotic and forbidding land. Not many Birmingham people would have known much about it, even though by then there was a small Chinese community in the area. The image would probably have been one of sinister goings-on, often fuelled by the opium trade, and of sailors being ” Shanghai-ed”. The people were seen as being remote and rather incomprehensible, even though the West was aware of Chinese history, art, literature and dress.
From the start, Chinese performers brought their skills and artistry to our stage. The very first act at the Tivoli Theatre of Varieties, as the Hippodrome was called when it opened on 20 August, 1900, was Chung Ling Soo – “the Mysterious Chinese Magician” – even though he was a fraud, because he was actually an American named William Robinson! However, it could not be denied that he gave that first-night audience a spectacular and spell-binding display of illusions. Indeed, to Birmingham Hippodrome audiences, the Chinese performers were seen as very clever and skilled illusionists, acrobats, equilibrists or jugglers, who always presented their acts gracefully and colourfully.
In October, 1900, M. Aude performed as an “oriental juggler”; in January, 1903, Foo Choo brought his illusions; and in October, 1907, Ormonde Penstone, “the prestidigateur”, was assisted by “The Eastern Lady Illusionist Tsaou- Ngo”. In February, 1907, Gustave Fasola, “the famous fakir and oriental wonder worker” had performed here and “The Owl” journal had commented that “some of the illusions are very good; it takes a good deal to make a Birmingham audience very astonished at anything”. Nothing new there, then! In 1917 and 1918, the celebrated Chinese magician Chung Wu appeared too much mystified acclaim.
The other side of how China was perceived was also portrayed on the Hippodrome stage in these early years. In October, 1905, Brown and Nevarro presented their original sketch “A Chinese Elopement”, and In December, 1911, Miss Mary Mayferis and her Company staged “The Yellow Fang”, ” based on the actual facts of a Terrible Crime committed in the Chinese Quarter of San Francisco in the summer of 1902″. Another Chinese-American episode came in August, 1913- this was called “The Big Joss”, about the Gold Rush of 1849.
Chinese acrobats, jugglers and balancers appeared regularly in Variety from the 1930s. On the 9th Anniversary of the Hippodrome’s joining the great Moss Empires circuit, which had been in 1924, a special Birthday Show included the Sue-Yee Chinese Troupe; and Chinese acrobats came in a show in July, 1932 which included an item called “Shanghai Nights”, performed by the “Peking Girls” dancers. Right up to the 1950s, there were Chinese acts in Variety. In August, 1950, there was the Young China Troupe and in March, 1959, the Pan Yue Jen Troupe – “the Chinese Wonder Entertainers”
A famous Chinese troupe were the Lai Founs, who were on our stage in Variety in April, 1944 and May, 1948. They comprised four men and two women who did plate-spinning on swaying bamboo poles. They have entered the history books, because they appeared on the opening day of the world’s first television service, broadcast by the BBC from Alexandra Palace, north London, on 2 November, 1936. After the official opening at 3.00pm and an interval with the time, weather and British Movietone News, the very first programme was “Variety” from 3.30 to 4.00. The Lai Founs were part of this show.
The Chinese community have also been portrayed in several musicals that have been staged at the Hippodrome. For years, the most famous and popular was “Chu Chin Chow”, first performed at Her Majesty’s Theatre in the West End in August, 1916. It ran for five years and 2,238 performances, more than twice the previous run for a musical at that time, and its record stood until “Salad Days” from 1954. A huge hit with Servicemen on leave in WW1, it boasted a dozen lavish scenes, spectacular sets and lighting effects and was inspired by the then English taste for all things oriental. One of the attractions was the chorus of girls, scantily dressed for the time, who performed as slaves; there was also a camel, donkey, poultry and snakes.
“Chu Chin Chow” was first staged at the Hippodrome in 1949 but it returned even more spectacularly on Ice for the Christmas season in 1953/1954, with a huge cast of over 100. (BHIPP: 2015.507). There was a production by the Birmingham and Midland Operatic Society in November, 1958 (BHIPP: 2015.509) and an expensively re-staged version in October, 1959, starring New Zealand singer Imia Te Wiata.
Other musicals featuring the Chinese community of San Francisco have been Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Flower Drum Song” – the only production of which at the Hippodrome was by the BMOS in October, 1966 (BHIPP: 2015.328). “Thoroughly Modern Millie” features a Chinese laundry, which is a front for selling young, naive provincial girls into slave labour. It was staged here in April, 2005 and again, with Lesley Joseph and Grace Kennedy, in June, 2007.
“The World of Suzie Wong”, a play staged here in November, 1960, was about a young English artist in Hong Kong who befriended and eventually married a Chinese woman who worked as a prostitute. It starred Derek Waring and Juliet Yuen.
In the 1970s, the Chinese entertainment on the Hippodrome’s stage was a reversion to our own roots as a circus. In June, 1976, The Chinese Circus Variety of Taiwan visited with 36 artists “in skilful acrobatic feats dating back to 200 BC”. The Peking Opera was here in June, 1979 and again in October, 1986, wearing their traditional costumes, masks and headdresses. (BHIPP: 2016.420).
The most regular Chinese influence at the Hippodrome is, of course, in the Pantomime “Aladdin”. However, the story comes from the “Thousand and One Nights”, a collection of fables told by Scheherazade and first collected together in Persia (now Iran) in the 9th Century. According to Peter Lathan in his history of Panto, “It’s Behind You!”, “the source of the version we know is a 15th. Century Egyptian manuscript”. The story of Aladdin was first published in 1722 and was first performed as a Pantomime at Covent Garden in 1788. “The costumes were inspired by Chinese, Japanese and Persian”.
Aladdin’s real name was Arabic but over time, the setting of the Pantomime moved from Baghdad to Peking, as the English taste for Chinese art and culture blossomed.
The Hippodrome has staged nine Aladdin’s so far:-
1959/60 – Dickie Valentine, Eve Boswell and Norman Evans
1967/68 – Harry Worth, Yana, Lauri Lupino Lane, and Peter Butterworth
1974/75 – Larry Grayson, Alfred Marks, Keith Harris
1981/82 – Danny La Rue, Dilys Watling, The Half-wits
1992/93 – Brian Conley. Michael Elphick, Britt Eckland
1998/99 – Brian Conley, Danny La Rue
2002/03 – Amanda Barrie, Bobby Davro, Melinda Messenger, Don Maclean, and John Challis
2007/08 – John Barrowman, Don Maclean, The Grumbleweeds, Masashi Fujimoto as the Emperor
2015/16 – Marti Pellow, Julian Clary, Lee Mead, Matt Slack, Andrew Ryan
Perhaps Aladdin is so popular because it offers the chance for oriental sparkle and spectacle, with colourful costumes and eye-popping scenes and effects. In many ways, it reflects the popular appeal of “things Chinese” (including these days, food!) from way back in the 19th Century, even though these perceptions are stereotyped and bear little relation to the present day.
Article researched and written by Heritage volunteer, Ivan Heard