Chung Ling Soo in Sydney 1909
There has long been a fascination with the East amongst citizens of the western world. This fascination was intense around the early 1900s. Orientalism, as a study was fashionable. It propagated stereotypes of Asian culture throughout the west. These stereotypes relied on images of mysticism and primitivism. In Australia, this lead to fear, and to restrictive, racist immigration policies. Orientalism was used to enhance the myth of white supremacy and relied on spurious notions of Darwinism and science to legitimise it.
Many performers of the era used the image of the mysterious East to enhance the popularity of their act. One man who perfected this art was magician, Chung Ling Soo.
Chung Ling Soo dressed in long robes and wore his hair in a pigtail. He was clean shaven and round faced. His act was one of illusion and magic, and his stage image was one of oriental stoicism. Chung Ling Soo rarely spoke on stage. His performances were occasionally punctuated by the words, "much glad’ in broken English. Privately, his command of English was quite colourful, especially when something went wrong with the stage mechanics. His image however, was of a humble oriental that had mastered the mysterious arts of the East. His humility ensured that xenophobic Australian audiences did not see him as a threat and his performances were enthusiastically received throughout the country.
Chung Ling Soo made his first appearance in Sydney in April 1909. He had travelled to Australia accompanied by a multitude of assistants, including his wife and seventy-five tons of luggage. He was paid four hundred pounds a week for his tour of Australia. This was a larger salary than the Governor General.
Chung first appeared on the Tivoli stage on Saturday April 10. He proceeded to mesmerise a large audience for fifty minutes. He performed several fabulous illusions. Many were old tricks, but their presentation was unique. The mysticism of the East which pervaded the act, added to it’s amazing impact.
A large glass cage was suspended above the stage. It was transparent and it was made clear to the audience that there was nothing above or below it. The case was revolved above the spectators heads. The magician, clothed in long robes fired three shots into the air. Suddenly, a slight, small, Asian lady materialised in the cage. She jumped out nimbly and bowed and smiled at the awestruck crowd.
Chung Ling Soo took coffee beans, rice and sawdust, mixed them together and produced cups of coffee. They were served to audience members. Flowers were produced from pots of sawdust, and dolls, flowers and brightly coloured paper magically appeared from an empty cauldron.
The slight Asian lady from the cage, reappeared in other amazing feats. In one, the illusionist used a gigantic witch’s cauldron. Into it, he threw dead chickens, rabbits, geese and pigeons. Then a fire appeared burning under the pot. The cauldron steamed in the heat and it’s contents boiled. Suddenly from the midst of the inferno, in the heart of the steam, chickens, rabbits, geese and pigeons, leapt from the pot. In a final incredible moment, Chung Ling Soo brandished his wand, and behold the lady from the cage appeared in the middle of the blazing cauldron. She stepped out, alive and unscathed.
In another illusion, the same lady stood centre stage, with a target behind her. The magician fired an arrow tied by string, which appeared to pass right through her body. She emerged from the trial unhurt. Four large dice were placed atop each other and a cylinder placed over them. After mere seconds, the cylinder was lifted and the lady had replaced the dice. The audience was astounded.
Fire eating was also part of the act. Chung Ling Soo lit many pieces of paper and ate them as they burned. He then swallowed a lit candle whole. Finally he crammed down his throat a large wad of cotton wool. He used a chopstick to push it far into the reaches of his gullet. It caught fire, he stuck out his tongue and the audience could see the cotton burning in his mouth. Amidst the smoke and flames he breathed out coloured paper, silk handkerchiefs and other brightly coloured objects. By all accounts this was the part of the act that he least liked to perform.
His performance mystified, astonished, delighted and awed those who saw it. He performed in Sydney for about four weeks. It was Easter and the competition in entertainment was fierce. The Royal Easter Show had brought many novelties to the city. Chung Ling Soo overwhelmed the competition with his incredible and unusual act.
The act continued off stage. He often spent time after the show in Sydney’s Chinatown. Soo, accompanied by an entourage of admirers would sit down and encourage them to partake of the exotic delights of Asian cuisine. According to Edward Maas, the Tivoli stage manager,
‘weird tales are told of internal convulsions when some new member of the party was subsequently told what he had eaten.’
Chung Ling Soo also had a habit of strolling around the streets of Sydney casually performing miracles as he went by. It astounded the on lookers, but advertised his show and ensured a large audience at the Tivoli each night.
Towards the end of his Easter run in Sydney, Chung Ling Soo appeared at the Institute of Journalists in Sydney. He performed several conjuring tricks at the appearance. Valentine Day, a Tivoli insider stood within two feet of Chung as he performed and stated that he could not ascertain the secret of his tricks.
According to Chung Ling Soo, his Asian appearance and interest in orientalism was due to his background. Chung maintained that his father was a descendant of the Campbell and Robertson clans. In an interview, he added that his father was a Scottish engineer who had married a Cantonese woman. According to the conjurer his father died when he was seven and his mother when he was twelve. As an orphan he was apprenticed to a Chinese magician named Arr Hee. Arr Hee and Chung moved to South America. After seven years, Arr Hee died and Chung travelled the world persuing the art of illusion.
Chung said that his conjuring methods combined old Chinese tricks with European methods.
The Chinese hundreds and thousands of years ago performed many tricks that today are considered outstanding. But today those tricks have to be done in a European fashion."
He added that he got the idea for the appearing lady illusion through practice with a squirrel.
"I thought that it would be a great idea if I could do a trick with a squirrel in the cage. I made a little model with the intention of making the squirrel disappear. But I was told that sort of thing had been done….. I turned my attention to making the squirrel appear in the cage. So I advanced until a human being was utilised in the trick, and so you see that is how I evolve tricks.
The magician cultivated his image by stating that he was ignorant of many of the cultural aspects of western life. The Tivoli’s highest paid performer also maintained that he had no interest in money.
I have never seen a horse race, a football match or sport of that kind. Money is no object to me except to live. I spend all on my art and that is my life.
Indeed, Chung Ling Soo’s art was his life. The half Cantonese apprentice of Arr Hee was an illusion as mystifying and confusing as the mysterious lady who appeared in the glass cage.
Chung Ling Soo was in fact an American. He was born William Ellsworth Robinson in New York on April 2nd 1861. His parents were Scottish. He worked extensively as a performer, assistant and an illusion builder in the United States, before establishing himself as Chung Ling Soo. In 1900 he was offered a European engagement if he could imitate a real Chinese magician called Ching Ling Foo. Robinson shaved his head and his moustache, put on a false pigtail and on May 17 that year appeared as Chung Ling Soo. His wife, the very Anglo Olive Path became his assistant and was the slim lady who appeared in the glass cage and boiling cauldron.
The magician toured Australia and New Zealand for most of 1909. He reappeared in Sydney in July that year. Throughout his stay he had continuously worked on new illusions. He arrived in the country with thirteen feats prepared, he left with thirty. Two of his assistants stayed permanently in Australia
Upon his return to London, Chung continued to headline vaudeville shows. By 1911 he was presenting two hours of magic feats at one show. His amazing ability to innovate, and his superb showmanship were highlighted by these incredible matinees. They consisted of thirty-eight tricks, each one more complex and befuddling than the one before.
During World War One, Chung often visited the troops between shows. He also experimented with model aeroplanes. On March 23rd 1918 he was performing in front of the usual packed house when a tragic accident ended his career.
He was performing the bullet catching feat. Two assistants would load marked bullets into a gun. They would fire the gun at the unprotected magician. He would then catch the bullets in his teeth and they would rattle into a plate that he held in his hands. When inspected, the bullets had marks identical to those that were placed in the muzzle of the revolver.
Chung Ling Soo had performed this trick routinely for many years. That night something went wrong. The assistants fired as usual, but the magician fell to the ground. With a gasp he exclaimed, "My God, I’ve been shot, lower the curtain."
One of the pistols had malfunctioned and a bullet had pierced his right lung. He died in London the following day.
Chung Ling Soo exploited the western craze for orientalism and made for himself a stellar career. The highest paid vaudeville star to appear in Australia, his mystery, charisma and ability to charm has continued to fascinate for decades after his death.