The earliest reference to a person of Chinese origin in Leicester?

The Chinese Giant

Rummaging in the British Newspaper Archive has churned up a few more gems. Ostensibly seeking more information about Mr On Lee and his ‘Chinese oath’, I stumbled upon a reference to ‘The Chinese Giant’ (aka ‘Chang woo goo’).

‘Chang woo goo’ or Zhan Shicai to give him his accepted name today was, according to Wikipedia, born in Fuzhou, Fujian in 1841. He is said to have stood over 8′ and, having first left China to travel to London in 1865, he later visited Europe, North America and Australia, learning some 10 languages along the way. Lady Chang (aka Kin Foo) – who may or may not have been his wife but was advertised as such – died in 1871. In Australia, he met and married an English woman – Catherine Santley – from Liverpool. They went on to have two sons, Edwin (b. 1877, Shanghai) and Ernest (b. 1879, Paris). In 1878, the family settled in Bournemouth and, in his retirement from ‘entertainment’, Zhan opened a tea and curio shop. In 1893, at the age of 50, Zhan succumbed to ‘a broken heart’, just four months after Catherine died. Wikipedia notes that his coffin measured 8’6″.

Here is a report of Zhan’s visit to Leicester in 1866 [steel yourselves for the inevitable racial and cultural stereotypes that follow]:

VISIT OF THE CHINESE GIANT TO LEICESTER, — Large audiences have been immensely delighted during the fore part of this week, with the levees which have been given twice daily at the Temperance Hall, by the famous Chinese Giant — “Chang woo gow,” of Tychow, “Lady chang,” justly called the small footed Golden Lily of the Flowery land, “Chung Mow,” the Tartar Rebel dwarf, and their suit from the Celestial Empire. “Chang” is undoubtedly the greatest of the party in every respect, whether we allude to his stature, position, learning, or intellect, but whether he is not excelled by “Chung Mow” in the individual estimation of each others greatness, we leave those who have attended the levees to form their own opinions. The former in speech, look, and habit, is quite a gentleman, and presents none of those forbidding sights which one usually expects to find with giants. For his height — nearly 7 feet 10 inches — he is exceedingly well-proportioned, while his walk and movements generally, suffer not in the slightest by his enormous weight of about 25 stones. He moves with the agility and grace of a youth of his age (19), and his manners are so urbane that he wins the golden opinions of all who see him, and who evince[?] great anxiety to cordially shake hands with so *high* a personage. Smaller by many degrees and “beautifully less” is Lady Chang, whose twinkling almond shaped eyes (so peculiar to celestials), seem to rivet the attention of the audience, as they sparkle with delight at the enthusiastic reception with which her lord and master is received by them in his Chinchinings[?]. When seated at the side of him, she seems as much a dwarf as “Chung Mow” in comparison with herself. Of “Chung Mow” we may say that he is a small bundle of fun, and greatly rises[?] the visible faculties of his audiences by his antics, for in his walk he seems more like a ball 30 inches in diameter set on castors than a human form. This entertainment while in Leicester has been a decided success, and we doubt not that there are many in the town who would gladly hail the return visit of so distinguished a party.

Anon., The Leicester Mail, Saturday, August 25, 1866 (p.4)

All in all, this is an overwhelmingly positive account of Chang woo goo’s levees [as in ‘formal reception’], and it is striking to note the affection for and apparent joy elicited by this small group of Chinese visitors just a few years after the close of the last Opium War during which British attitudes towards the Chinese reached an all time nadir.*

Nevertheless, what we’re dealing with here is a ‘freak show’ with all the uncomfortable and problematic associations that attend such phenomena. It inevitably puts me in mind of Leicester’s own Joseph Merrick – himself later ‘displayed’ to the paying public – who was just four years old when Chang, Lady Chang and Chang Mow visited the city, and lived in the Wharf Street slum, not more than 10 minutes walk from the Temperance Hall. Incidentally, the Temperance Hall was built by Thomas Cook – yes, he of the travel company fame. Traces of the building still exist but in a very sorry state.


*See Barnes, A. J., 2010, ‘Exhibiting China in London’, in Knell et. al. (eds), National Museums: new studies from around the world (London: Routledge), pp. 386-399.

Image: ‘Chang the Chinese Giant’, c. 1870, via Ralph Repo on Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.



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