PETALING JAYA: Rose Chan is a name that most young Malaysians are not familiar with.
But for the older generation, just hearing her name will send hearts palpitating, as her beauty and performances were legendary.
It may be hard to believe now, but in Malaya’s early years, Rose was the Queen of Striptease herself.
Her performances, as raunchy as they were, were infamous, with men flocking to her shows from all over the country to gawk at her.
But while she was better known for her stunning looks and raunchy onstage performances, it should not be forgotten that she had a big heart as well.
She was also known as the Charity Queen as she donated much of what she earned from her performances to charity, often anonymously.
Rose succumbed to cancer on May 26, 1987, but to this day, the mere mention of her name stirs familiar feelings in many people of the older generation.
FMT spoke to Cecil Rajendra, Rose’s friend and lawyer to uncover the story and the hidden side of the sex goddess.
“Rose Chan was the first artiste in the region to gain international fame. She was acknowledged as Asia’s Striptease Queen,” said Cecil.
Her skills in the art of striptease were so extensive that she represented the country in a striptease contest in Paris, as well as served as a striptease trainer in Japan.
According to Cecil, the hit song, “Rose, Rose, I love you” was actually written for her.
But even the greatest of figures tend not to be propelled to fame at birth.
Born as Chan Wai Chang in Suzhou, China, she was adopted and brought to Kuala Lumpur in 1931 when she was six years old.
Her childhood was not entirely happy, as she received little in terms of a formal education, had to work odd jobs and was married off at the age of 16 to a man much older than her.
Before she started shedding her clothes, Rose was a ballroom dancer, accomplished in the art of the tango, cha-cha and samba.
She even won a dance competition in Singapore in 1949 and two years later, she founded her own dance company, The Rose Chan Revue.
“She was a consummate professional; dancer, entertainer, innovator and entrepreneur,” said Cecil.
“She managed, choreographed and performed in her own shows.”
Her entertainment career was set to change directions in a drastic manner shortly, by pure accident.
The following year, during a performance, she suffered a wardrobe malfunction which saw her bra strap snapping in mid-performance.
Instead of writing this off as an unfortunate incident, Rose decided to reinvent herself as a striptease artiste instead.
For many young Malaysians today, the thought that such explicit performances were once commonplace in the country is hard to digest.
But Cecil noted that Rose was “no backstreet performer”. Everything she did was legal and she performed in official venues with advertisements carried by the national newspapers.
He remembers that Malayan society during Tunku Abdul Rahman’s time was honest, open-minded and liberal enough to allow Rose to reach stardom the way she did.
If striptease shows were commonplace during those days, what earned Rose the crown of the Queen of Striptease?
Cecil says her dancing talents certainly made her performances far more spectacular than any other show at the time.
She also took inspiration from the dance routines of Hollywood greats like Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
“She had absolute contempt for strippers who could not dance – branding them as ‘no standard chabo (woman in Hokkien)’.”
But while she was the object of desire for many men, her relationships were come and go; she had a total of five marriages.
Saying that Malaysian society then and now is chauvinistic, Cecil called Rose an “ultra-feminist.”
“She was fearless and bowed to no man. She was arguably Malaya’s first feminist!”
Rose’s personality left quite the impression on Cecil. “Off the stage, she was warm and witty but could also be fierce and domineering.” She was particularly direct about her opinions and ultimately had little patience for time-consuming nonsense, he says.
Rose was a woman of many talents, as she was also an excellent chef among other things.
Being a highly philanthropic person, she often organised fundraiser shows for numerous charities. Much of her earnings went to good causes, and she never tried to claim recognition for it.
For Cecil, Rose is someone to be remembered as she brought fame and attention to the then young Malaya.
“Feminist, dance pioneer, striptease queen and sex goddess – Rose Chan was our first international icon,” says Cecil.
“She had the stuff true legends are made of…”
“No Bed of Roses: The Rose Chan Story” by Cecil Rajendra is available for purchase at Gerakbudaya.com and MPHOnline.