This is one of those strange-but-true stories that I find really interesting. As I was browsing for historical information on Hoodoo, I found multiple sources dating back to the 1800s on the practice of magic as a kind of theatrical entertainment: staged illusions, seances, mesmerism/hypnosis acts, mind-reading shows, and so forth. I believe that these commercialized spectaculars were in some way linked to the new esoteric and metaphysical movements that swept through England and the United States at the turn of the century. This was the era of the first New Age: Spiritualism, occultism, Theosophy, the “discovery” of Eastern religions – even science was viewed as a kind of magic in the discourses of the time (amidst the cultural and social anxieties produced by this shifting psychic terrain, we also see the rise of Christian fundamentalism – but that is a different story). I provide this background in order to place my character into a well-defined setting. For this was a period when audiences wanted to see, and to believe, and to engage what was possible; and any and all things were possible. Into this world stepped a man who would become of the most famous stage magicians of his time. He called himself Chung Ling Soo, the Marvelous Chinese Conjurer. Now, one might expect that with such an impressive title, and an equally impressive career to match, we have a person whose presence in history lends credence to claims of racial exceptionalism – after all, how many successful and accomplished Asian performers can one find in the American magic entertainment industry in the early twentieth century? Turns out, actually, there were tons. With names like Long Tack Sam, and Han Ping Chien, and more than few Chung Lings, it appears that the character of the Chinese Magic Performer carried a lot of prestige on the vaudeville circuit and beyond. I have not been able to figure out why. And while most Chinese and Chinese Americans at this time toiled in the mines and railroads as low wage “coolie” laborers for wealthy national capitalists, our magician par excellent Chung Ling Soo made the most of his ethnic cachet, earning $5000 a week for his extraordinary displays of skill and daring, which included illusions and juggling acts, with Soo sometimes floating above the stage tethered by his excellent long braided ponytail. Mysterious and taciturn, Chung Ling Soo would rarely give interviews, as he never learned to speak English. On those rare occasions when he appeared, righteously inscrutable, he would pontificate in vernacular Chinese gibberish, which would be translated for the press by an interpreter. Only there was a problem. He was a racial faker. An ethnic fraud. A white man passing. Chung Ling Soo was actually William Robinson, a New Yorker of Scottish descent who was said to be “more talented and more of a showman” than the original Chung Ling Foo, the Pekinese illusionist whom Robinson styled himself after. It is a narrative that is fairly well known among professionals in the stage magic business, partly because the life of Chung Ling Soo/William Robinson came to an abrupt end in 1918 when he was accidentally shot onstage while doing Hermann’s famous Bullet Catch Trick. So here we have an example of yellowface minstrelsy in its finest form. It is problematic, not only in terms of the dubious ethics of self representation – i.e., Robinson’s conscious adoption of Asian stereotypes and racist artifacts – but in terms of racial construction, in which a white man closets himself while creating a public identity as a cultural other, and is clever enough to outperform the “true” racial other, the Real Chinese Magician. It’s a perfect example of love and theft, in which a distinctive “Asian talent” allowed whites to experience a delicious and fascinating kind of Orientalism without acknowledging its messy social realities and historical contradictions. But isn’t it ironic – particularly as when we look back during these politically charged, complicated, racialized moments in our history – that one of the most successful Chinese performance artists of his day was the one who shamelessly trafficked in a highly egregious style of racial counterfeiting? I also find it remarkable that Soo/Robinson anticipated the widespread (and lucrative) practice of racial mimesis so enthusiastically embraced by white entertainers who also dare to “pass” as oblique racial others for fun and profit. So consider: what better magic is there, than to actually become the object of one’s attraction and disdain? Today Soo/Robinson is commemorated in vintage art, immortalized on film and on stage, and viewed by aficionados of magic as a legendary figure – but never, ever, as a racist clown. Which he may or may not have been. (Lest you think I am picking on white men, one could also talk about gender “passing” on the part of African-American entertainers, from Flip Wilson to Eddie Murphy, reaching a zenith of race/gender parody with today’s “most popular black female comedienne,” Tyler Perry/Madea). As with so many stories entwined with race, magic, and other cosmic mysteries, we withhold judgment until history comes around to redeem us.
2 thoughts on “A Story of Conjuring, Magic, and a White guy named Chung”
Interesting. Thanks for writing this up. I’m loving your posts and they always make me think.
Now you got me thinking about “gender passing” and whether that is viewed as offensive (or one day will be).
What do you mean by “Hermann’s” bullet catch trick? I’m familiar with the trick (and I viewed your link) but not the association with “Hermann”.
Alexander Hermann, or Hermann the Great, was the most famous magician in America before Houdini came along in the 1800s. He apparently invented the bullet trick along with many other fun things! Thanks for your kind words, Kurt.