CHANG the

Chinese Giant

 

Chang Woo Gow was eight feet tall and weighed an incredible 26 stone.  A physical freak from the mysterious Orient, he was good box-office material for the showmen of Victoria's reign and he, along with other Chinamen (including a dwarf) gave exhibitions in all the large towns of England, travelling everywhere with their coffins.

Chang's health began to fail as he approached middled0age so he retired to Bournemouth where he hoped the air would be beneficial for his chest complaint.  Here, he instantly became something of a celebrity, opening bazaars and fetes in his long colouful Chinese costume.  It broke his heart when his wife died and he quickly followed her to the grave.  Now he is forgotten and even the spot where he is buried has been obliterated.

 

 

 

 

ABOVE - the advertisement for Chang's "Bouremouth Observer" on  7 January 1893.

 

LEFT - the giant, Chang, as he appeared on the cover of the music "The Great Chang Polka" which was composed by Marquis Chisholm.

 

NO MEMORIAL STONE stands at the head of his grave.  History books on Bournemouth rarely mention his name.  His house has been transformed into a hotel and his neatly tended garden into an asphalt car park.

Yet, in a shady corner of Bournemouth's Central Cemetery in Wimborne Road lies a man who was, in his time, one of the town's most colouful and well-known personalities.  He was Chang Woo Gow - the Chinese Giant.

Chang was truly a giant among men.  Standing eight feet tall and weighing 26 stone, he was an imposing sight in his thick-soled Chinese shoes, mandarin hat and embroidered silk robes.  Early in 1980 he came to retire in Bournemouth at the age of 49, with the threat of tuberculosis hanging over him.
 

It was difficult to find a place where Chang could live in comfort and he finally bought a spacious house in Southcote road which he called "Moyuen". As many modifications as possible were made but even with the door lintels cut away to the ceiling. Chang still had to stoop to pass through.  Several pieces of out-size furniture were specially made, including a massive table that stood five feet from the floor and dwarfed the rest of his family.

Here at "Moyuen" he lived with his Australian-born wife, the former Miss Santley, whom he met and married in Sydney, and their two teen-age sons.  The boys were both of normal height, although Chang himself had come from an unusually tall family and had an elder brother who was nearly seven feet tall and his married sister stood six feet.

 

It became a happy home with the boys settled at a private school in Drummond Road and Chang, who soon made a circle of friends, was a gracious host to the many visitors who crossed his threshold.

In his early days Chang had been the toast of fashionable London.  He lived in an era when human curiosities were not to be shunned and whispered about behind the backs of hands, but were something to marvel at and even kings and queens had been known to keep dwarfs for their own amusement.

Chang reached the zenith of his fame when he received the royal command to be presented to the Prince and Princess of Wales and at their request he wrote his name in Chinese characters on the wall of the lofty room at a height of ten feet from the floor.

When Chang first appeared in London in 1865, after the long journey from his home in Foochow, one of the Treaty Ports of China, he was only nineteen years old but even then he was seven feet four inches tall.  Chang's services were greatly sought after by entrepreneurs like the renowned American, Phineas T. Barnum, and he was quickly employed and put on exhibition at the famous Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly.  Originally built as a natural history museum with a temple-like facade that looked like a set for the filming of "Cleopatra". it was soon turned into a profitable venue of popular entertainments.

 

The Victorians had a fascination for people with strange customs and "celestials" from the mysterious Orient were ever popular.  So Chang, who was advertised at "The Magic Giant". who had "created such an Extraordinary Sensation at the Court of the Emperor of China", was displayed with the dwarf.  Chung Mow, and a dozen other Chinamen of normal size, all of whom travelled everywhere with their coffins.

 

As the public entered the exhibition room, they would see Chang sitting like a jade Buddha on his throne in a pavilion that had been created to look like a Chinese mansion.  Clad in elaborately decorated white satin robes, with the dwarf at his feet and guarded by exotically costumed Chinamen, he was an awe-inspiring sight.

When the hushed room was full, the giant arose to the tinkle of bells and the pianist struck up a specially composed polka.  Slowly Chang descended to greet his admiring audience who gasped with astonishment at this great size.  With a beaming smile on his huge face, he shook hands with those nearest and his enormous, yet gentle, fist enclosed many a dainty hand.  The music excitedly played on until he "chin chinned" to his audience several times and with a flourish of gongs, majestically returned to his throne and the exhibition was over.

The season was very successful and despite the high prices of admission-one shilling, two shillings and three shillings-Chang performed for packed audiences four times a day.  He was a naturally friendly person and he fretted when his employers put restrictions on his free time for he enjoyed waling about the streets and watching the world pass by.  With his contract concluded, he returned to his homeland a rich young man, but his generosity outweighed his business-sense and his fortune gradually dwindled.

 

Twelve years passed by before Chang was attracted back to Europe again, this time by the Paris Exhibition in 1878.  The intelligent boy had now become a mature man who could speak several languages including English, French, German and Spanish.  With his impeccable manners and cheerful disposition, he was never short of engagements and he travelled all over the continent appearing in Vienna, Berlin, St. Petersburg and many other cities, before finally returning to London in 1880.

During his long absence from England he had incredibly frown another eight inches and he appeared at the Westminster Aquarium together with the Norwegian giant, Henrik Berstad, who was shorter and two stone lighter.

Many people who had seen Chang on his previous visit sixteen years before could not resist the temptation to see him again' and to their amazement and delight, he had developed such a good memory for faces that he recognized many of them.

 

As he approached middle age and his health began to fail, Chang became homesick and again returned to China with his family but the peace he longed for was not to be found there.  He had always had an affection for England and before long he was back once more and decided to live in Bournemouth where the air was beneficial for chest complaints.

With the quieter life Chang's health improved and he occasionally travelled up to London for short engagements to help the family budget.  Money was a constant source of worry and one of his fund-raising ideas was to sell his collection of Chinese and Japanese curios.  He advertised his "Oriental Bazaar" in the local papers but although a stir of interest was created, it was not a financial success.

Despite his monetary problems, Chang enjoyed the ease of semi-retirement and he was a much sought after figure at many local public functions.  To have him open a bazaar or attend a garden fete would attract large crowds and he was a colourful addition to the guests at mayoral balls.  One such occasion was the reception for the Dorset Yeomanry held on 7 June 1893 at the flower-bedecked and flag-hung Mont Dore Hotel which is now Bournemouth's town hall.

Beautifully gowned ladies dripped with sparkling diamonds, alderman and councillors wore their rich scarlet and purple gowns, there was a sprinkling of splendid regimental dress uniforms, and yet all eyes turned to Chang when he arrived in his Kingly Chinese costume.

 

After a life-time of being on the move, Chang found that the urge to travel could not be quenched, and he was planning a trip to Paris when his wife suddenly developed an illness.  Within a few weeks she died and with her passing the will to live went out of Chang.  Whenever he spoke of her his eyes would fill with tears, a sight very moving and unexpected in a man of such great physical stature.

Four months later on 5 November 1893, this remarkable giant died of a broken heart at the age of 52.  Before he died he called for his closest friend who lived nearby, Mr. W. J. Day, a well-known Bournemouth photographer, who promised to take care of the children.  Chang signed his will in Chinese characters and English leaving everything he owned to the boys, and holding Mr. Day's hand, he passed away.

 

Chang and his wife had no relatives in England to mourn their passing except their own sons, but so many friends attended Chang's funeral that they over-flowed the chapel despite the secrecy of the arrangements to keep away curious spectators. In a polished oak coffin that must have been one of the biggest ever made, measuring eight feet four inches by two feet six inches, and carried by eight pall-bearers, he was laid to rest beside his beloved wife.

The passing of the years has obliterated even the grassy mound over the spot where they both lie and nothing remains to remind us that Bournemoth was once his home.

 

By Anne Ruffell - Dorset 1976

 


 


 


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