Often billed as Chang Yu Sing the gargantuan Chang Woo Gow was born in Fychow, China in 1845 and, before appearing in front the Prince and Princess of Wales by request in 1864, the nearly eight-foot giant was best known for delighting the emperor of China as part of his royal court.
It is unclear why Chang opted to leave the imperial court and visit England, but perhaps he knew there was a fortune to be had by exhibiting his 7 foot 9 inch frame. During his visit to England the reception he received was beyond his expectations and quite literally thousands of curious patrons paid good money, up to three shillings each, to witness the exotic giant speak and display traditional Chinese garb and etiquette. So great was the demand that what was initially planned as a brief visit eventually ballooned into a two year tour of England.
In the years following, Chang toured Europe with various promoters. Often he was exhibited on his own as a single attraction and sometime he was paired with a dwarf in order to accentuate his grand proportions.During his travels Chang proved to be quite an intellectual marvel as he learned to speak several languages including English, German and French and developed and adoration of literature. During exhibition, rarely was a book far from his reach.
Of course, rarely was anything far from his giant reach.
In 1881 the great P. T Barnum contracted Chang to his Greatest Show on Earth. At $600 a week Chang was one of the most well paid attractions of his time and he proved to be worth every penny. Aided by a Barnum advertisement campaign, the giant billed as being ‘as strong as Heracles’ and ‘as beautiful as Apollo’ Chang drew record crowds and hordes of admirers.In fact despite being paired with a demure Chinese woman named King-Foo, hired to play the role of his bride, female admirers were persistent in their pursuit of the Chinese giant.The courting was so intense that Chang was forced to address his availability in nearly every interview he granted as it was always amongst the first questions reporters asked.
Chang was, of course, eventually smitten. While in Australia he met a young lady from, curiously enough, Liverpool named Catherine Santley and he fell in love with her beauty, honesty and character. The couple married, had two sons and lived in China for a brief period before Chang moved everyone to Bournemouth, England.
Retired from exhibition, Chang purchased a Villa at 6 Southcote Road where he opened a tea house. There he displayed his many eastern curios and chatted with townsfolk including photographer William J. Day.
Admired and well liked for his character and kindness, Chang’s peaceful life was magnificent until his beloved wife passed unexpectedly in 1893.
Four months later, Chang died of a broken heart.
His funeral was a quiet affair as per his wishes. 50 of his closest friends gathered around his eight and a half foot plain oak casket to pay their respects. There, William J. Day summed it best when he described his friend Chang as ‘a gentle giant, a giant of giants, great of stature, but with the kindest nature and a heart as true and tender as ever beat’.
image: 1880 cabinet card of Chang the Chinese Giant.