China Trip: Madame Tussauds Wax Museum (Shanghai)

The Madame Tussauds Museum in Shanghai displays waxworks of film stars, sports stars and pop stars. It also exhibits sculptures of historical, political and royal figures.

Now, why is this museum so popular? Why are there satellite Madame Tussauds Museums in cities from Las Vegas to London, Bangkok to Busan and Shanghai to Sydney? Why do the waxworks appeal to us so much?

They appeal to our egocentric human instincts. Standing in the company of the powerful, famous, rich, beautiful and intelligent beings, we can exercise our imagination. Perhaps these people could be personal friends and not just people whom we read about in tabloids and fantasy about at night. Perhaps the gap between us weren't that big. Perhaps we could be like them.

So who is Madame Tussaud?

Marie Grosholtz was born in 1761, the daughter of a housekeeper. After marriage to civil engineer Francois Tussaud in 1800, she became known as Madame Tussaud.

She was a skilful artist and this opened many doors for her. Her ability to create realistic waxworks has even saved her from execution! At different points of her illustrious life, she was a Royal tutor, a master figure maker and an astute businesswoman.

When she not even 20 years old, King Louis XVI and his Queen, Marie Antoinette, invited her to the court. Her waxworks were recognised for her consummate craft. For nine years, she lived at Versailles, supervising the artistic education of the King’s sister and enjoying the splendour of court life. 

However, political unrest and social discontent was spreading across France, a reaction to frivolous, absolute monarchical rule, and she was recalled back to Paris. 

The Portrait of Madame Tussads

But alas! Fate wasn't kind. Paris would become the centre of a bloody Revolution that would send tremors throughout Europe. Everybody came under the scrutiny of revolutionary leader Robespierre and his bloodthirsty henchmen, and Marie’s connections with the Royal Family made her guilty by association.

Both she and her mother were arrested and imprisoned, sharing a cell with future Empress Josephine. Their heads were shaved in preparation for grisly execution by guillotine, a fate they only narrowly escaped…

On release, Marie’s loyalty to the Revolution was severely tested - she was asked to prepare the death masks of executed nobles, including former friends from her time at court, and her one-time employers, the King and Queen. The only reason she was spared from the guillotine was due to her waxworking skills.

Life after the Revolution also presented problems. By 1800, Marie was married to Francois Tussaud, with two young children. She also inherited an ailing business from her mentor. Madame Tussaud then made the bold decision to take her exhibition of figures on tour; in 1802 she left her husband and country for Great Britain. She never saw either again.

[Text credit: Adapted from the biography of 

I could only imagine the tumultuous nature of her life, being swept about by higher powers, being controlled by forces beyond her control, being a woman in an era when gender equality was unheard of. 

She must have been one lady with spunk.

Here, an artist demonstrate how a sculpture
was created from scratch.

Here're some photos of the glamorous film stars that light up the museum:
Marilyn Monroe
Angelina Jolie (and her bee-stung lips)
Brad Pitt

As my friends and I pranced about the galleries, taking photos, I became increasingly quiet and wondered about the nature of fame.

How is it that these people become famous? Through what the media industries dictate? Are we worshipping the wrong ideals - looks and money? Are we behaving like mere cogs in the omniscient consumerist cycles dominated by mega industries?

Do we recognize that there is more to being?

At that time, no one was interested in debating this question with me. The interest revolved about making the most of our time in the museum by posing with and kissing Prince Harry. Anyway, we paid for the entrance fees already - it'd be a shame not to take more photos.

Arnold Schwarzenegger 
Pierce Brosnan
Tom Cruise

It has been gratifying to notice that there was at least a smaller gallery dedicated to sports stars.

Tiger Woods

There was an even smaller gallery dedicated to scientists. Here's Albert Einstein in the pose of a Victoria's Secrets Angel: 

Albert Einstein
Source credit: Mail Online

There was also a gallery dedicated to politicians, including Barrack Obama and Bill Clinton. They are influential figures in the global power hierarchies. This brings us much closer to them than we could ever be.

Bill Clinton

Thus far, the hyper-realism of the sculptures were amazing. Skin was carefully rendered. Hair was pushed with a needle into scalp. There were even wrinkles on faces.

Out of idle interest, I pointed my DSLR under Bill Clinton. To my surprise, that was no nostril hair stuck into the nostrils. Perhaps the Madame Tussauds sculptors believe that no one would bother taking photos of nostrils. In this regard, I've proven them wrong.

Here's a photo of Bill Clinton's nostrils.
Notice that there was no nostril hairs present.

It was interesting to notice the large numbers of Chinese nationals presented in the wax museum. Does the contract stipulate that? Or is this a conscious decision to play up the Chinese cultural heritage?

On hindsight, it does make more business sense for the museum to display more waxworks of Chinese nationals. After all, this museum is based in Shanghai, a blazing Chinese metropolis, and it ought to reflect the personality of this place.

The Madame Tussauds Wax Museum (Shanghai) has been an eye-opening experience, both literally and figuratively. 

As we lay our eyes on these famous people, it is necessary for us to examine our strong attraction to them. Are we respecting the film stars because they're famous? If so, why are they famous?

Are we worshipping the sports stars because they're rich or because they've shown us that it's possible to breach human physical limits?

This Shanghai museum evokes emotions. It remains pertinent for us to be reflexive about these emotions and what they reveal about our personal paradigms.