21 June 2017

Grandfather Poe and the King of Chinese Cinema

When I started asking about my grandfather, Alexander Marion Poe, and his work in vaudeville, my father told me he went to the United Kingdom (UK) and that his theatrical agent was Ramos and Ramos.

This occurred during the second time he ‘went missing’ from Australia, roughly 1908-1912.

He had first arrived in Australian in 1902 at the age of 17 and was back in California, the place of his birth, in early 1906 though returned to Australia before October that year.

I could find nothing about Ramos and Ramos in the UK. People I wrote to there just said ‘there is no record’ of such an agent.

The other stories about this period included one that grandfather Poe’s vaudeville stage act was performed after a film about Edgar Allan Poe was shown. Grandfather Poe would then be introduced as a ‘direct descendant’ and perform his act which may have included magic, mind reading, flamenco guitar or singing.

Part of the story was that he returned to Australia with two English friends he had met in the UK and on the way, they worked in ‘China’.  It all sounded a bit farfetched but I kept an eye out for ‘Ramos and Ramos’ checking the internet from time to time. 

Eventually, they popped up on The Australian Variety Theatre Archive which began in 2011 as a research website devoted to popular culture entertainment between 1850 and 1930. The item was written by Juan Ignacio Toro Escudero as part of his PhD research.

All of a sudden one short paragraph on Ramos and Ramos gave some credibility to the stories. So, who were Ramos and Ramos?

One of the most important pioneers of Chinese cinema and a significant presence in the ‘Far East’ as a vaudeville entrepreneur was Antonio Ramos Espejo. He operated the firm Ramos and Ramos with Ramón Ramos (no relation) from the early 1900s, initially out of the Philippines. Antonio became so successful with his film theatres that he was known as ‘The Spanish King of Chinese Cinema’.

By 1906 they had established themselves in China and within another three years were running live shows and films in Manila, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tianjin (in north-east China), Macao and Beijing.

Australian vaudeville acts toured for Ramos and Ramos and were signed up by the firm’s Australian representative, Amaro Lopez, for a six-month tour of Hong Kong, Shanghai, Tianjin, Macao and Beijing. Lopez was based in Sydney. 

The path to China was well trodden by artists of the time. Lopez placed an advertisement in the Sydney press in October 1909 seeking vaudeville artists for Ramos and Ramos to work in Hongkong and Shanghai. At least 40 applicants responded – more than he was looking for.

However, the story I had was that Poe was linked with Ramos and Ramos in the UK and headed back to Australia via China with them.

I asked Juan Ignacio Toro Escudero for advice as he is the only person dedicated to studying Ramos & Ramos. Much of his research was derived from newspapers, but he didn’t find any reference to grandfather Poe, though one of his stage names, Abdul Khan, did ring a bell. Acts did change their names often following suggestions from local entrepreneurs. Sounded like grandfather’s kind of people.

Juan was especially interested that his agent in England was Ramos and Ramos. Ramón Ramos was the first agent for Chinese vaudeville artists in Europe that he has knowledge of. So the story of Poe being engaged from the UK fits with what is known, though it certainly is an area for further study.

Juan's thesis is now completed though it is in Spanish and his focus is on Ramos' film enterprises. For a fascinating introduction to his work please see his video ‘Antonio Ramos Espejo, el emperador Española del cine Chino’ [The Spanish Emperor of Chinese cinema]

One of the features of the Ramos shows was to combine a film show with a stage act. Grandfather Poe's time with Ramos and Ramos in China may be the origin of a story that he did his stage act after the showing of a silent film about Edgar Allan Poe.

The basis of this speculation is that the only film which fits the story would be D.W. Griffith's film 'Edgar Allen [sic] Poe' made in 1909

This would fit the time he was away from Australia (1908-1912). In some cases, these films were shown a year or two after their release in the USA, so if it played in China in 1910 or 1911 this is consistent with it happening just before his return to Australia. Although there is apparently no record of this particular film being shown in China, Griffith’s films were popular and widely distributed in China, so it is highly likely to have been shown there.

As an aside, the story that he was related to the poet would have some credibility given that grandfather Poe was of a similar complexion. Whether the relationship is actually true is, of course, another story.

There is not enough information of grandfather Poe’s two English companions to identify where they were exactly at this time. One of his companions was certainly Jack Wright. Jack had apparently learned martial arts in Japan but was also an entertainer. He certainly arrived in Australia at about the same time as grandfather Poe did so the timing fits. 

Wright's family does not know anything about his time in ‘the Far East’. However, within a few years of arriving in Sydney, he made a short film called Yellow Fang set in China which he combined with a demonstration of Jujitsu.
Ramón Ramos, who may have signed up Poe
to work in China. Via 
The Theatre, December 1909.

The other part of his China story is that he supplemented his interest/skills as a herbalist during his time in China. As yet there is no way to verify this, except that he only began working as a herbalist after he arrived back in Australia in about 1912. He was apparently able to communicate in 'Chinese' with Chinese herbalists back in Australia. This would be consistent with him having spent some time in China and most likely in Hong Kong if it was Cantonese he was familiar with.

In spite of many gaps in the record, the story of his time in China is at least consistent with some verifiable facts. There are many stories which (as yet) are not.

Postscript 13 August 2018

Interesting to read about historical links between Indian and Western stage magicians as described by John Zubrzycki in his latest book. In 1917, grandfather Poe billed himself as Abdul Khan ‘The Hindoo Mystic’ with feats of strength and mind reading, appearing 'with other comedians'.

The Northern Champion, Taree NSW,
Wed 13 Jun 1917  Page 5 

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