Western performance magic has long had an historical fascination with the Middle and Far East. The most ancient magic demonstration is arguably the ‘cups and balls’, which some have argued had its origins in Egypt in 2500 BC. The famous Lo Shu Square, which lies at the heart of modern demonstrations of the ‘mathmagical’ powers of mentalists is based on a pattern of dots seen on the back of a turtle in Ancient China. Many tales of the magical arts (and the accompanying artefacts) speak of magic making its way West to Europe, where early practitioners brought unique forms of entertainment and wonder to audiences across the continent.
Across Europe, but in particular in the UK, as magic moved from the street to the theatre in the Victorian period, there was a competitive market for entertainment and magicians had to craft their performance personas and identities in ways that made them deeply mysterious, superhuman, and exotic. Some magicians turned their gaze Eastward to find inspiration in the Fakirs of India, the alleged secrets of the Pharaohs, and of course the natural appeal of ancient Chinese culture.
Famous London theatres, such as The Egyptian Hall, would be adorned with decorations, hieroglyphs, and images of pyramids to allure their paying guests inside for an evening of magic, wonder, and in many cases, demonstrations of spiritualism. Famous magicians Maskelyne and Cooke ran a successful show there for 31 years and the hall became known as England’s Home of Mystery. Sadly, the site is now home to a Starbucks.
Psychics and mentalists such as Alexander (‘The Man Who Knows’) would often dress as the famous ‘Swami’ and engage in feats of mind reading and divination complete with crystal balls on stage or large glass bowls filled with sealed envelopes containing questions from the audience for which the performer would provide inexplicably accurate and uncanny answers.
The most famous example of a socially constructed ‘Eastern’ identity for entertainment purposes is arguably that of the magician Chung Ling Soo. Inspired and in competition with magician Chung Ling Foo, Chung Ling Soo toured Europe and the US at the turn of the 20th Century, appearing on a full Chinese stage set, in a Chinese costume, and a long black pony tail, and performed a wide range of effects with Chinese props and apparatus. His act is even featured in the popular film The Prestige. He was in fact, an American by the name of William Robinson from upstate New York.
These uses of Eastern culture, constructed for Western audiences are examples of what Edward Said has called ‘Orientalism’; or the appropriation, celebration, and depiction of peoples and cultures of Asia, North Africa and the Middle East. For Said, this practice was both patronising and fictional, which taken to its extreme represented an imperialist project underpinned by Western power to the detriment of ‘real’ Oriental culture. His book has inspired many studies that have sought to deconstruct this misuse of the Orient across popular culture, society, and politics.
Whether magicians were wittingly part of this project, or whether Said is actually correct, remain open questions, but the use of such Orientalist practices continues to this day. Indeed, magicians across the world remain fascinated with Eastern history, artefacts, stories, clothes, and myths that provide countless opportunities to fashion shows that appeal to many different audiences.
In his show An Evening of Wonders, celebrated mentalist Derren Brown performed an extraordinary Swami act, which I had the pleasure of witnessing at The Regent Theatre in Ipswich. He appeared in formal attire, complete with white bow tie, starched shirt, and black tails, as well as a full head turban, along with a glass bowl and sealed questions from the audience. His performance was tongue and cheek, but enough ambiguity remained about how he was achieving direct mind reading that many in the audience exclaimed after the show that he was ‘the real deal’.
Eastern magicians also play to the audience through their own culture in ways that are selective, popularised, and much like their Western counterparts. Magic is hugely popular in China, which hosted the 2009 meeting of the Fédération Internationale des Sociétés Magiques (FISM), while its 2018 meeting will take place in Seoul, South Korea. Famed magicienne Juliana Chen, originally a foot juggler from China who emigrated to the United States adorns her set with large Chinese umbrellas, silks, and other trappings as a backdrop to her extraordinary displays of ‘cardistry’.
My own travels to China, Japan, and Mongolia have taught me much about the appreciation of magic in the Far East. I have performed in a street market in Shanghai, private dining rooms in Beijing, a dinner hosted by the Mongolian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the most amazing whiskey bar in Fukuoka, Japan.
Beyond magic, I have also noticed that Asian popular culture is vibrant and in many ways subverts its own history in playful and inventive ways. In China, tourists are free to purchase ‘the little red book’ Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung and a variety of gifts that are adorned with pictures of Mao and other symbols of the Chinese Revolution. I have a collection of matchboxes, notebooks, and playing cards in this genre, where there remains an ambiguity about the true meaning and purpose of such artefacts.
In return, much of western culture is appropriated in the East, such that processes of globalisation since the publication of Said’s book in 1979 may have challenged his view of the imperialist and hegemonic western project. Rather, the world has seen remarkable cultural miscegenation and a melange of symbols, images, customs, music, and ways of being that are inventive and in my view, healthy.
I thus will continue to celebrate this ambiguity and vibrancy of multi-culturalism, and its subversive potential. I have featured Oriental inspired demonstrations in my stage shows over the years, and my new show SUBVERSION will continue to use magic as a means to communicate and frame these larger cultural questions, making us stop and think, while being baffled and entertained.