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The Greatest Show on Earth

  • June 22, 2004
  • 93 Views

By Elaine Tan

First you repress all such bohemian desires. Then you get into show business and establish yourself as an impresario. Being a promoter, one day, you might chance upon a circus coming to town, awakening dormant dreams. Then you network like mad, get your hands on all the contacts, and when your job is done, you give everything up and work for free in circuses all over the world. After a year of cleaning animal cages, you buy over one of the oldest circuses in England and bring it to Asia.

This is exactly what Paul Lee did. He’s now a middle aged man of growing girth, moustachioed and regal, the ultimate ringmaster and the owner-producer of the Royal London Circus. Back in the early 80s, he promoted Gary Cattle’s Circus in KL. Gary, however, short-changed Paul on the deal. Paul told him, “Gary, what you did was totally unfair and unethical, but I am a man of my word. I will complete my job with you but I will start a show of my own. So don’t ever come back to Asia because I will give you a run for your money!” Needless to say, Mr Cottle laughed in Paul’s face. “So where’s your circus?” he would taunt Paul every time they met. Paul would nod and say nothing. Quietly, he kept the details of all the circus people he worked with to himself.

“When the show ended,” he told me, “I left Malaysia and toured every single circus I could find in Europe, America and Australia. I volunteered my services free, doing anything they wanted. I was determined to start a circus of my own. When I felt I knew enough, I went to England and negotiated a deal with Chipperfield of Chipperfield’s Circus. It was one of the oldest circuses in England – commemorative stamps have been made about them. I convinced him that I am one of the greatest show promoters in Asia, and we registered the company to bring it to Asia. Our first stop was Indonesia.”

A few years later, Paul “raised enough money to buy out my 50% equity – 350,000 pounds at the time” and the name was changed to the more neutral ‘Royal London’.

The Royal London Circus is now 20 years old, and Paul has brought it back to Malaysia for only the fourth tour in all these years. By all accounts, everybody thinks it’s a great show. Paul’s show business and marketing savvy is evident from the gimmicky name down to the ticketing (he offers free tickets to schools as prizes), marketing (he’s joined up with various nearby restaurants to offer discounts) and the wonderfully accessible location at the 1 Utama carpark. The acts are chosen for their wow-factor – high-wire and daredevil pieces predominate. Some circuses focus on grace and skill, and a couple of Paul’s acts are visually aesthetic ones, but mostly, the show chases the ‘oooohs’ rather than the ‘mmmm’s.

Which is what circuses should do – circuses are not meant to be glamorous, but celebratory of an alternative lifestyle, fecund and flexible; it is about sawdust and sweat, sexy simply because it looks so impossible. “If you ask us traditional circus owners about ‘modern circuses’ like Fantastica! and Cirque du Soleil, we say they are not real circuses. They are theatre; with great costumes, sound and lighting.”

I was pretty chuffed when Kakiseni called to say the circus is in town and to take my little girl to the show. Barely four, she’s already been to Fantastica!, the New Age “circus of sorts” at Genting, three times, and was not keen about the Royal London… until I promised her elephants and tigers. And her eyes popped out when she saw the trailers and tent. To her, to every little kid, it’s not a circus unless there is a Big Top, a carny culture and animals doing tricks.

Paul Lee’s philosophy exactly. His is quite probably the biggest circus on tour in the world today, with a 6,000 capacity fire resistant Big Top “that withstood a typhoon in the Philippines and an earthquake in Taiwan”, 115 people including “artists, technicians, musicians, trainers and what have you” and a menagerie of animals, from acts to personal pets. They are a completely self-contained travelling community with their own trailers (which double as housing and office), vehicles, equipment, water supply, generators and even sewerage hoses. When they move, they pack up to a phenomenal 88 containers weighing some 1400 tons – “we literally have to charter a whole ship”.

Although they play a few weeks to a couple of months in each town, the circus usually spends a year or two in any particular country as moving overseas involves a massive about of administration and co-ordination. ‘There is a tremendous degree of logistics involved. You need to know the various government agencies and licensing requirements like animal vaccination and permits. To go to China, we have to go through 36 different departments to get import permits and work permits; you need to get the approval of the Town Planning Department, and the Fire Brigade, both town and state, and the Traffic Police, Special Branch, and Customs… just to name a few.”

The Royal London Circus concentrates on the Asian region, including two very successful tours of China, and plans to head to India, which is, in Asian terms, well-known for its circuses. The concept of ‘a circus’ is quite occidental. Many Asian languages don’t even have a word for ‘circus’. In Thai, it is ‘lakonsud’ which means ‘trained animals display’ and in Chinese, ‘ma si tuan’ meaning ‘horse show’. A circus without animals is simply not a circus.

“You really have to love animals in this business: that circuses don’t treat their animals well is a fallacy,” Paul clarified. “All circus owners are animal lovers. We buy them the best feed, we ensure they are in good health, and we make sure they have a comfortable home. We have to work very closely with CITIS, which is a world organisation on wildlife protection, for permits and approval. Quite a number of our animals are under Appendix I in CITIS; they are listed as Highly Protected – they are forbidden for trading. We only buy animals born in captivity and it is like an exchange programme, or an adoption, so to speak. I have just gotten 11 new tiger and lion cubs and when they are trained, the older animals will go to the national zoo.”

Even to my jaded eye, the animals look healthy and well groomed. I am glad Paul is getting new animals as the current two tigers and a lion seem pretty jaded as well. Even their roars seemed half-hearted. The Malaysian baby elephant although young, isn’t really a baby, and his tusks show the good care he is under. I couldn’t help noticing his little (!) erection every time he sat down.

Not many people know that the Royal London Circus is neither royal nor English, so it has thankfully escaped the Malaysia Boleh publicity death knell. Not that Paul is trying to hide anything; for him it’s a family affair. His wife Doris and son Kenneth (who “easily” gave up his job as a lawyer to work in the circus) assist him and his grandson Christian spends all his holidays there, a fact wholeheartedly supported by his Filipina mother Kim. “His best friends are the Chinese jugglers. He learned to speak Mandarin from them. Since he goes to a Chinese school and I don’t speak Chinese, it’s great!” Christian doesn’t have to run away to join the circus. He is the only little boy in Malaysia who can say “My grandfather owns a circus”. Paul says a circus is for “children of all ages – the child in all of us” and if you ask my little co-reviewer, it’s the greatest show on earth. I think we might have another runaway to the circus soon.

First Published: 22.06.2004 on Kakiseni