Asia and The Tramp

In the post-globalization age, it is common for Hollywood stars to visit Southeast Asia. This was not the case in 1836, when the tourist happened to be one of the greatest male screen legends of all time.
Raffles Hotel Le Royal in Phnom Penh recently announced: “On April 18, 1936, Charlie Chaplin, one of the most creative and influential personalities of the silent-film era, was checking-in…”
The movie icon chatted with reporters in the hotel bar, the release continues – complimenting the “superb” hotel, where he was enjoying “such perfect service” to Echo du Cambodge.

The weirdly timed missive concludes: “Nobody really knows the true purpose of his trip to Orient.”

It is an intriguing tidbit. Other sources (especially Darryl Leon Collins, co-author of Building Cambodia: 'New Khmer Architecture' 1953-1970) are thankfully more descriptive.

On 12 February 1936, five days after the Hollywood premiere of Modern Times (a satire on mass production that radicalized the actor’s reputation), Chaplin and a three-person entourage, including his co-star and mistress of four years Paulette Goddard, left America on the S.S. President Coolidge.

The New York Times later called Chaplin’s five-month trip his “conquering tour of Europe and the Orient – a whirl of meetings with statesmen, writers, artists and celebrities.” (Others say it was partly promotional, partly escapism.)

After stopping over in Hawaii, the party sailed via Shanghai to Singapore on 19 March – where a photo of Chaplin in the Tiffin Room of Raffles Hotel is still on show. 

Meanwhile, a wire report informed the world that the two movie stars had married en route, in Singapore or Canton. It remains unclear whether the wedding actually happened – more of which later. 

The tour passed through the Malacca Straits to Bali and Java. Silent home movies show Chaplin sporting a pith helmet visiting Balinese villages and feeding monkeys in the jungle (purportedly on an earlier trip). He stayed at the island’s first resort, The Bali Hotel, where Noel Coward paid him a visit. 

The group set course for Saigon, from there driving to Phnom Penh. During their 24 hours there, reporters from five Indochina daily newspapers sought to interview the immortal star. Chaplin indeed received them “with much courtesy and charm” for a couple of hours in the hotel bar.

What were his impressions of Phnom Penh?

“The Cambodian capital is a charming little town,” said Chaplin. “The Royal Palace as well as the Silver Pagoda are delightfully pretty.”

The Tramp was pleased to encounter King Sisowath Monivong in residence. He also appreciated lively scenes of local life while strolling the “Asiatic quarters” – probably a reference to the Quartier Chinois, a Chinese district near the Grand Marché (Psah Thmei) then under construction.

Chaplin considered certain tree-lined avenues as “little sisters” of the grand Champs Elysées in Paris. “The Cambodian houses are very picturesque,” he added, reserving sole criticism for the quasi-elegant, European-style suburban villas he had been surprised to see among them.

Asked if he would go game hunting, Chaplin responded that he had never fired a rifle in his life, though might be interested in capturing – but not killing – an elephant.

The cinema idol concluded the evening by offering to publicize tourism to Indochina upon returning to America.

The next day, a Wednesday morning, Chaplin’s party departed for the temples of Angkor. The travelers subsequently returned to Vietnam for the remainder of their Asia-Pacific excursion, visiting Dalat, Hue and staying at the Metropole Hanoi, where there is a suite named after Chaplin.

When the alleged honeymooners returned to California, they refused to clarify the marital rumors. The enigma typified Chaplin’s notoriously complex love life. (Biographer Joyce Milton asserted that the actor’s brief marriage to Lita Grey inspired Vladimir Nabokov's 1950s novel Lolita. Chaplin was 35, she 16.)

After their relationship ended amicably in 1940, both parties insisted they had secretly eloped in 1936. Chaplin maintained the marriage took place at an undisclosed location in the Orient in his 1964 autobiography.

Historians, however, interpret the claims as a mutual damage-limitation effort – after the controversy supposedly cost Goddard a shot at playing Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.

Similarly, we can only speculate that Chaplin’s fascinating Indochina foray may have fuelled his famous assertion, “I am known in parts of the world by people who have never heard of Jesus Christ.”

--  Published by Travel+Leisure Asia.Com,  2010


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