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Asia’s celebrity heritage


Following the recent announcement that Charlie Chaplin once checked in to Raffles Hotel Le Royal Phnom Penh, T+L Southeast Asia looks back at other classic celebrity visits to Asian shores.

By Joel Quenby

Published on Jul 6, 2010

Marilyn Monroe wows South Asia

Marilyn socks it to US troops in Korea

When Monroe and Joe DiMaggio honeymooned in Japan in 1954, fans went mad for “the Honorable Buttocks-Swinging Actress,” as local press called her. The melee at Tokyo International Airport forced the couple back onto the plane to escape through the baggage hatch. At a press conference, hacks barraged Monroe with kinky questions. The Tinseltown sex symbol visited injured serviceman before the couple toured Japanese villages. (Perhaps not taken with sushi, Monroe ate onion soup three days running at Fukuoka’s first Royal Host restaurant.)

Korea: The new bride detoured to Korea, where she performed 10 shows in four days for American troops totaling more than 100,000. In what is now recorded on classic archive footage, Monroe sang numbers like “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” teasing in between: “You fellas are always whistling at sweater girls. Well, take away their sweaters and what have you got?” The draining foray left the icon with pneumonia. Although she later recalled it “was the best thing that ever happened to me. I never felt like a star before in my heart.”

Beatlemania storms the Orient

The Beatles arrive at Kennedy Airport, 1964

On June 30–July 2, The Beatles performed at Tokyo’s Budokan arena. A British Embassy memo reported that the Fab Four’s popularity was “said to be the envy of [Japanese] Cabinet Ministers,” although Communist newspaper Akahata called them “tools of American imperialism,” and there were a few sideswipes at them as “manifestations of British decadence.” The five 30-minute gigs were deemed so short they left “a profound feeling of ‘unfulfilment.’[sic]”

The note also lamented, “the luckless Beatles themselves did not have the chance to see any of the sights of Tokyo…” Perhaps its author was unaware of John Lennon’s escape from hotel confinement (and subsequent capture-and-return by local police), and the band’s persistent attempts to infuriate their hosts by sabotaging the strict Japanese itinerary (by dawdling, thereby being deliberately late for appointments).

The Philippines: The Beatles landed in Manila on July 3 to play two gigs to 100,000 during a volatile period of martial law. Manager Brian Epstein caused a massive loss of face by declining a breakfast invitation from the nation’s first lady, Imelda Marcos. “The whole place turned on us,” recalled George Harrison. Attempting to flee, The Beatles were mobbed by a spitting, kicking rabble at the airport. “Help!” indeed... Ringo called it “the most frightening thing that has happened to me,” while the band cowered behind bemused nuns at check-in.

Sinatra whistles through Bangkok

Thailand: Arriving via Singapore in 1961—where he reportedly snubbed fans and press alike—Frank Sinatra once passed through Bangkok on a two-day flying visit. (He promptly dismissed the one interview request made by a Bangkok-based magazine.) “Ol’ Blue Eyes” stayed at the Erawan Hotel, raising his glass to its dining room when excited hotel staff announced his presence, but repeatedly refusing to be photographed. He did perform in the hotel lounge and was described as “sweet” by bellboys quoted in the Bangkok Post,although some guests were reportedly more impressed by the presence of Hollywood restaurant proprietor Michael Romanoff.


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