Saturday, March 22, 2014

World Tour Revisited: The Chaplin brothers visit Ceylon (Sri Lanka), circa mid-March, 1932

Illustration by Robert Gellert for "A Comedian Sees The World,"
Woman's Home Companion, December 1933

The voyage from Egypt to Ceylon was "uneventful and the weather calm throughout," remembered Charlie. "The only event was changing to shorts when we came into the Red Sea. Shorts are tropical trousers that show the knees but I don't believe in them." 1

Sometime during the trip, Charlie and Syd partook of their first Japanese-style meal. "One night we went Japanese and had dinner on the floor of the deck," Charlie recalled. "I learned from the ship's officer that pouring a little tea over my rice complemented its flavor."2 In a letter to his friend, R.J. Minney, Syd described the meal in more detail and with his usual dry wit: "Charlie and I sat for two solid hours in Japanese manner, and believe me the feeling after a first day's horseback riding is nothing in comparison with the aches and cramps on rising from the Japanese squat. Believe me, Japanese sitting, like skiing, should be learned while young." He wrote that he "thought the Japanese meal was never going to end. They cook it right on the table in front of you and put everything in but the mountain of Fujiyama. When it's all finished, if you can guess what it is--you can have it. They gave us chopsticks to eat with." While Charlie had practiced with chopsticks before, Sydney claimed to be "about as graceful as an elephant trying to thread a needle with boxing gloves on. Can you imagine trying to take a pea with two sticks in one hand? When it comes to eating peas you can have your chopsticks. Give me a knife--even though the peas do roll off."3 After the meal, the stewards entertained with Japanese dances and Charlie performed a burlesque fan dance.4

Japanese meal aboard the Suwa Maru, March 1932.
Syd, looking displeased, is seated across from Charlie. Kono is at far right.

"By the time we reached Colombo, the capital of Ceylon," Charlie wrote, "it was pretty warm and I began to envy my brother's shorts.* The boat docked there for twenty-four hours which gave us an opportunity to spend the night at the sacred city of Kandy, seventy miles from Colombo. Ceylon was the realization of all my exotic dreams. It has all the mysticism of the Orient and the charm of the tropics. As we motored to Kandy we were thrilled viewing strange sights and drinking the perfumes that lay heavy in the air. The night of a full moon is a ceremonial holiday for the Ceylonese."5

On the way, they came upon a procession of devil dancers. Charlie describes the scene:
"We pulled up to watch them pass, and the devil dancers approached. I became a little scared as they looked quite fanatic. The rest of the procession surrounded us, still chanting to the tom-toms. Then the dancers suddenly jumped in the air, twirled and pivoted in a most weird and demoniacal manner. After they'd finished, they came over and bowed, and we understood. So we dipped in the exchequer and went on our way.
Throughout the journey, I kept saying to my brother, "Did you ever realize there was such a place? We must settle down here in our old age and buy a tea plantation.' This was my first reaction."6

After dinner in Kandy, they took a rickshaw ride around the lake. Charlie remembered the "warm, sultry air and the strange sound of insects as our rickshaw boys walked silently in the moonlight, pointing here and there to wild turtles along the edge of the lake.

Returning to the hotel, we were met by one or two stragglers who recognized me. I threw them a coin. 'Thank you, my lord and master,' and all for a quarter, but everyone was 'my lord and master' here."7

The next morning, the brothers visited the temple where they were "impressed by the handful of rice donations to the poor."8

Before motoring back to Colombo to catch the boat, a crowd of natives surrounded the hotel and gave them a "rousing cheer." Charlie was happy to get away: "My enthusiasm to settle down there was not as keen as it was when I first arrived, for you quickly realize the opiate lure that excites your ardor also repels it, and I came away impressed with its beauty but realizing that it was not the place for Nordics."9

Charlie, Kono, and Syd in Ceylon

Charlie & Syd's next port of call: Singapore on the 27th.

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*Charlie recalled thirty years later in My Autobiography (1964) that "by the time we were on the Red Sea, we peeled off our "Nordics" and wore white shorts and light silk shirts."

1Charles Chaplin, "A Comedian Sees The World,"(ACSTW), Woman's Home Companion, Dec. 1933
2Charles Chaplin, My Autobiography, Simon & Shuster, 1964
3Lisa K. Stein, Syd Chaplin, McFarland, 2011
4Syd Chaplin typescript courtesy Lisa Stein Haven
5ACSTW
6ibid
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8Syd Chaplin TS
9ACSTW

4 comments:

  1. Wow. I had been oggling the photo of Charlie, Kono and Paulette and the stainless steel Japanese table with private cook last month. Nice pics of Syd. Where were they when the crew filmed the topless pubescents and moms and told the story of how a couple must elope according to custom?

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    1. I think you're talking about Bali--that part of the trip is coming up soon.

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  2. Goody.

    In this photo of all at dinner on the boat I can see where daughter Victoria has his features. She was so delicate and pretty in the photo you posted of him wearing gloves reading a note with Josephine in there too. Victoria had a strange rounded forehead as a baby and I couldn't see her in Oona or CC.

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