A history of magic: How local magicians took control of the HK scene

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Mona Chu meets two generations of local magicians and charts Hong Kong magic’s development from elitist entertainment to rehabilitative wonder


Harry and Micky Wong

A small, mundane SF Express parcel seems an unremarkable container for a ‘wow’ inducing magic trick, but that’s what magicians Harry and Micky Wong  – no relation – promise us when gently prizing open their newly arrived package. Once inside, the older Wong, Harry, deftly removes a $100 note, folded in half. Suddenly, with a slick flick of his fingers, one note becomes a fan of 20 golden $1,000 bills. Wow.

“A decade ago, I only had to turn a blank sheet of paper into a $100 note, and that would be the killer act of the night. Now, you can custom make this prop for $500 and probably learn how to manipulate it from YouTube [tutorials]. That says a lot about the changing magic landscape,” reveals Harry, flicking the sheaf of notes again, somehow transforming them back to their original modest state.

Harry and Micky Wong are the magicians behind the regular Magic at the Fringe show, the Cantonese cabaret magic gig held consistently at Central’s Fringe Club. Local TV audiences should have little trouble identifying either of them. Affectionately known as Harry Gor Gor (Harry 哥哥, Brother Harry), the 53-year-old has enjoyed a successful career as a children’s TV show host since 1986, simultaneously performing as an entertainer and musician. Micky, 29, has appeared on multiple TV programmes, including TVB’s popular competition The Magic Ring (魔法擂台) in 2012, where he pretended to demonstrate psychic powers. In 2014, he won the 10th Hong Kong Open Close-Up Magic Championships by fusing together a tactful string of optical illusions. Seeking to popularise magic further, the pair started Hong Kong’s Professional Diploma of Close-Up Magic in 2014, based on the diploma of the same name run by London’s renowned International Magic Shop. Divided into eight units, the course covers tricks, props and act design, with a particular focus on a magician’s interaction with the audience –unlike other available courses that emphasize the perfection of a stage trick itself.

“Like it or not, magic is becoming more accessible these days,” says Harry. “In the past, it used to be an elitist form of performance. Take Mr WY Chu, founder of Chu’s Magic, Hong Kong’s first magic company in 1939, as an example. He was a descendent of certain Qing Dynasty officials, well educated and spoke fluent English. This gave him access to the key audiences, most of whom were wealthy expats. Your average locals were too busy making a living under that economy to be able to appreciate the triviality of magic.” Early catalogues of Chu’s Magic reveal that neither learning nor watching magic was widely affordable. A standard set of ‘Seven Marvelous Items’ cost $680 at a time when the average monthly salary was less than half that amount. Making access even harder, magicians jealously guarded their secrets. Keen students would either have to purchase manuals of different tricks and self-teach, or splurge a whole month’s salary to have a magician show the trick up-close, without verbal explanation. Secrecy and elitism were the rule of the magicians’ circle – and quite likely part of the charm.


Chu's Magic

With all these barriers to entry, determined apprentices had to go an extra mile to make a name for themselves in the scene. One such person is Wah Kee, a prominent props engineer for magicians and a competitive magician himself for many years. Hidden on the roof of an industrial building in Kwun Tong, his studio is a sorcerer’s den, producing everything from rigged dice cases to the famous boxes in which magicians’ assistants are sawn in half. Wah is the unsung hero behind many famous stage tricks and television props, and is well known and respected by magic practitioners. However, his uphill struggle to break in to the world of magic illustrates the hardships many keen magicians once faced in Hong Kong.


Props engineer Wah Kee

“I first became curious about magic in primary school and was constantly on the hunt for props. As a kid, I lived in Tai Po and wasn’t rich at all, but I kept my eyes open when wandering districts like Tsim Sha Tsui and Mong Kok. One day, I saw a magic promotion at Sino Centre in Mong Kok, and successfully nagged my dad into getting me my first set of props. It was $9.50, I remember. You have to understand, a meal only cost around $7 at that time, so magic was a real luxury. Two years later, I quit school and started doing renovation work. Ever since, I’ve always saved money for magic books and props. The best books were in English, but I couldn’t understand them unless they were well illustrated. I also saved up for three months before I could afford a pack of special cards priced $29.50,” recalls Wah. “It was tough, but if I had given up I would have felt like a loser.”


Old magic publications

His love for magic eventually led Wah to try his hand at performing full-time. “For two years I wasn’t earning anything. I was on the brink of quitting, when an old master asked if I’d like to perform at a children’s party. I was very nervous at my first show and dared not charge my client,” he laughs. But word spread and Wah began to develop steady business, finally allowing him to pursue his passion. 

“Another exception to the expat circle would probably be Charlie Cheung, a cabby-turned-magician,” mentions Harry. “He sold one of his taxis to purchase magic props and performed nightly with his team at Lai Chi Kok Amusement Park. His team was nicknamed Plum Blossom, Orchid, Bamboo and Chrysanthemum, also known as the ‘four gentlemen among flowers’ in local Hong Kong culture. They were definitely memorable icons of that period of time.”

Though inaccessible to most, Chu’s Magic props were unique in their time and specific to Hong Kong. The dagger boxes, wrist choppers and sliding dice boxes all feature distinctive Chinese patterns and prints, making them special across the world. “Chu’s Magic was located in To Kwa Wan. On the same street were ironsmiths and manufacturers of altars and furniture, who are experts in oriental crafts and pattern design. These seemingly [disparate] industries contributed to a special chain of production that created the distinctive Chu’s props,” explains Micky. Sadly, these manufacturers have ceased to exist. Chu’s Magic itself is out of operation, following a clearance sale last August, marking the end of an enchanting era of magic in Hong Kong.

For better or worse, with the advent of the Internet, the veneer of mystery surrounding magic is slowly being peeled away. Aspiring young magicians across the world can now learn tricks from each other on YouTube. Search ‘cheap magic props’ on Google and there are numerous options within a range of budgets. This new mode of learning is producing a pool of young magicians, eager to find their own stages. It’s of little surprise that street magic has soared in popularity, giving rise to popular TV magic shows like The Magic Ring and The Street Sorcerers (街頭魔法王). Many universities across Hong Kong now have their own magic society, bringing together young minds keen to excel in the art of magic.

But with so much information readily available these days, the props and the tricks are no longer the secret. Showmanship is. “Real magic is about the connection. The feeling of astonishment,” enthuses Harry. He explains: “[British magician] Tommy Cooper failed at almost all his tricks on purpose, but the audience loved him. He died of a heart attack live on national television [in 1984]; his crew dragged him back and closed the curtain after he fell, leaving only his feet poking outside the curtains. The audience thought it was a joke and thoroughly enjoyed themselves. Showmanship is a big part of good magic.”


Harry Wong at 2016's Art with the Disabled Association gala

Following the popularisation of magic, one might ask, what next? To Harry and Micky, the answer lies in empowerment. “Magic has to leave the stage in order to better benefit the society. I was first inspired by Breathe Magic in the UK in 2013,” explains Harry. “They have developed magic programmes to help kids with hemiplegia – the paralysis of half the body due to a stroke at a young age. These kids have problems performing very simple movements, and as a result, develop low self-esteem. By learning to do simple magic tricks, they discover that they can also do wonders and surprise others. A lot of the time, the real challenge lies in them opening the prop box and taking out the props, rather than performing the tricks themselves. Yet the children don’t realise that by persisting with the tricks, they have actually accomplished something bigger in terms of mobility rehabilitation. That is an absolute wonder,” marvels Harry. Coincidentally, the champion of 2015’s Hong Kong Open Close-Up Magic Championships, Armando Cheung, was a social worker by day. Separately inspired by Breathe Magic, Harry and Micky seized the opportunity to collaborate with Cheung to create a new venture that they hope will bring magic healing closer to user groups. Named Imagicnation, the new venture is due to launch in 2017 and has already secured great attention.

The development of magic closely mirrors that of other performing arts in recent decades – from elitism to alternative therapeutic applications. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the United States’ Congress has recognized magic as ‘a rare and valuable art form and national treasure’. “In Hong Kong, you still find magic books listed under hobby and entertainment in libraries, rather than the arts. It makes booking a room hard at LCSD venues,” jokes Micky. Clearly, the magicians are keen to see a lot more change than they have already.

Magic at the Fringe Jun 1, 8.30pm, Fringe Club, 2 Lower Albert Rd, Central, 2521 7521. Tickets: $200 (adv), $230 (door); hkticketing.com.

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