‘Ching Ling Foo: America’s First Chinese Superstar’

A magician more famous (and better-compensated) than Harry Houdini

Ching Ling Foo achieved what only the best sorcerer could: he passed from reality into fiction. The subject of a new biography, he was the inspiration for a character who enthralls the neophytes watching his show in Christopher Nolan’s 2006 movie The Prestige. In that homage to the art of deception set in nineteenth century London, Robert Angier (Hugh Jackman) and Alfred Borden (Christian Bale) witness a version of Ching Ling Foo produce a giant waterbowl with swimming fish in it, apparently from nowhere, and they then observe him afterward as a frail elderly man who hobbles and has to be helped into a carriage—the real act of course is the charade of appearing feeble at all times off-stage.

That was Foo. Born in Beijing, his repertoire included the Prestige’s crystal bowl, weighing just shy of a hundred pounds, sometimes containing even quacking ducks; breathing fire; tearing and restoring paper; endless fountains of water; pulling lengthy poles out his mouth; and beheading a boy who would walk off stage. Samuel D. Porteous provides a spectacular account of this artist with the subtitle “America’s First Chinese Superstar.”

Highly compensated (several multiples more than his contemporary Houdini), Foo was a Renaissance man. He made the earliest recordings of Chinese music; and the first documentary film in China, now lost. The special effects master of Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers credited him for demonstrating the potential of optical illusions.

Zhu Liankui toured the States in 1898, adopting the stage name of Ching Ling Foo “the Chinaman” as he and his troupe featuring women with bound feet packed the houses on tour. He even had a contract with the Zeigfeld Follies. We can associate the mania for Chinese dog breeds such as Pekinese and Chows with him. Owners referred to some kennel-club winners by his stage name.

Foo was not alone. Although Asian American masculinity has been stereotyped as a creepy blend of asexual and depraved, a century ago a handful of Asian stars commanded the stage and the screen — alongside African American vaudeville headliners such as Bert Williams. Sessue Hayakawa, for example, was a Japanese transplant to Hollywood. He was a romantic lead in silent film, before anti-Japanese sentiment surpassed his personal charisma; he had a late career comeback as Colonel Saito, the Japanese commandant of the prisoner of war camp in The Bridge on the River Kwai.

It’s difficult to imagine that a racist American society celebrated Foo. Maybe “Linsanity,” the rookie season of basketball phenomenon Jeremy Lin, is a counterpart. He survived childhood illness and overcame a stutter. His big break came at the Chinese Pavilion at the 1898 World’s Fair in Omaha, Nebraska. He then remained in San Francisco, fathering a son deemed a citizen by birth, though the U.S. deported Foo in 1899. Pro-immigration advocates pointed to him as an argument against excluding Asians.

Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of Foo’s career, however, was his ongoing feud with the similarly named Chung Ling Soo. In 1918 England as the Great War was coming to a close, Soo died when a bullet catch went wrong. As he claimed to have done for the Chinese Emperor, the performer had had his assistants, dressed as Chinese resistance fighters from the Boxer rebellion, aim two muzzles directly at his chest and fire. The results were not in the script.

The so-called Chinese conjurer uttered his last words in his native English as he called out for the curtain to come down. The audience thus learned the secret that he was a white New Yorker of Scottish ancestry, William Robinson, playing in “yellow face” and uttering gibberish. Each rival called the other an imposter. The irony is that in this instance the “Oriental” was the original; the Occidental, the knock-off. Soo’s wife Suee Suan was a fraud too. She was, in fact, Dot Robinson.

Faux Asian pedigrees have long been common for magicians as well as tricks. Carter the Great, another competitor of Foo and Soo, offered “the baffling Chinese mystery” of “the elongated maiden.” Sergei Diaghilev’s Parade ballet, with score by Satie and costumes by Picasso, featured a Chinese magician; it receives a sidebar crediting Foo as the model. Bartok’s Miraculous Mandarin of the same moment also could be cited. The author of a biography of Soo/Robinson contributes the foreword here. That reconciles them a century later.

The author’s extensive research is evident throughout. He displays it all with good humor. The chronicle covers all the travels of Foo in the New World and thence across the Atlantic Ocean. His arrival thrills Chinatowns everywhere. Porteus goes so deep as to mention the Chinese-American manager of the Chinese Village in Omaha as being unable to communicate in Chinese, having been born in America and never interacting with Chinese people.

The book is about a magician who happened to be Asian, not an Asian who happened to be a magician. Yet the appeal of the magician to non-Asian audiences was very much that he had come from a mysterious Far East. Foo and his promoters encouraged his portrayal as exotic. The press speculated about his overseas past, publishing embellishments about feuds with other Chinese persons. European and Asian relationships, whether nations or people, are mentioned because the context is necessary. After all, Foo was active during the heyday of “Yellow Peril” and when Great Britain acquired a 99 year lease on Hong Kong.

This definitive biography would be difficult to surpass. Porteous relays it all in an engaging manner befitting an entertainer, with pictures from the period.  It will please those who are even a bit curious about the behind-the-scenes story of illusions. As is true of any compelling narrative of an individual life, Foo’s, it is an engrossing depiction of a time and a place, the end of the Victorian era and the advent of modern globalization. This book restores a celebrity to earned fame. Everyone loves a successful magic trick.

Frank Wu

Frank H. Wu is a law professor at University of California Hastings College of the Law and the President Designate of Queens College. He wrote Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White.

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