The Story of Chung Ling Soo

The Story of Chung Ling Soo

We are just taking a little break from videos but fear not I will be back very soon with more great magic videos. In the meantime there is no reason why we can’t keep learning. I think this break gives us a brilliant opportunity to learn more about the history of magic. Im a big believer that in order to know where to go in the future you need to understand where we’ve already been. So I am going to also give a series of writings about famous magicians throughout history, this won’t be every week but just every now and again. Next week I have a brilliant mind reading trick for you.

Chung Ling Sooo

For the first in this series we are going to look at a magician who went by the name of Chung Ling Soo, this is a fascinating story that comes from a golden era of magic which saw huge development for the craft and a very competitive era which ultimately led to his death.

Chung Ling Soo was famous for many great illusions that he presented but maybe his biggest illusion was in fact his persona. Take a good close look at this picture of him opposite, Now take a look at the name at the bottom of the picture. You see he actually had two names!

Chung Ling Soo Real Pic

It may be hard to believe but the picture above is actually of the same person. If you look closely, mentally removing the moustache and hair, you'll see a resemblance. Chung Ling Soo was really William Ellsworth Robinson, a New Yorker who was born in 1861. He began his career as Robinson, the Man of Mystery but metamorphosed into Chung Ling Soo, Marvellous Chinese Conjuror in 1900. It's said that he modeled himself on a true Chinese conjuror, Ching Ling Foo, who brought his spellbinding traditional magic show to the United States in 1898.  here is the real Ching Ling Foo who William was so inspired by.

The story goes that Ching Ling Foo offered a $1000 reward (possibly as a publicity stunt) to anyone who could replicate his illusion of first producing a bowl of water from a piece of cloth, then a child from the bowl of water. Unfortunately there is no evidence remaining of this trick but boy I would love to see it.

Thomas Edison had a go at replicating this magic trick. The film above shows his attempt. I give him credit for using such a new medium at the time of video and this is a very early use of “camera tricks”. He doesn’t really perform the trick, if you watch it closely, the film is edited where they had to literally cut the film and stick different bits together (digital filming and editing is so much easier).

Unfortunately it seems Ching Ling Foo was a little worried when the already established magician William Ellsworth Robinson came forward to try it and rejected his attempt, William then decided to reinvent himself as Chung Ling Soo, relocated to London and built a new career as a mysterious conjuror from the East who spoke no English and communicated with journalists through an 'interpreter'. A genius move at the time that only generated loads more interest in him.

He did perform the appearing fish bowl trick which was just one trick that other magicians couldn’t figure out. Inspired by this The film “The Prestige” featured a magician based on Chung Ling Soo performing an appearing fish bowl trick where the secret is his entire life, his entire persona not the fish bowl. “Total devotion to his art” is the quote I like.

Sadly Chung Ling Soo died live on stage whilst performing the worlds most deadly trick of catching a bullet! This is not a trick for the feint of heart, this is not a trick I will personally go any where near and knowing that there is a young audience reading this, THIS IS NOT A TRICK TO ATTEMPT AT ANY TIME! IT’S A CRAZY TRICK THAT HAS KILLED MANY MAGICIANS! DO NOT DO IT!

In Chung Ling Soo’s version he caught two bullets in a porcelain plate held to his chest. Audience members who were familiar with firearms were invited to examine the weapons and mark the bullets before Soo's firing squad attempted to "execute" him. He performed the illusion successfully for twelve years until March 1918, when the trick went tragically wrong and Soo was shot dead onstage at the Wood Green Empire theatre. After this his biggest illusion, his fake life of a Chinese man completely unraveled. After he was shot, the facade finally slipped and Soo reverted to Robinson, calling out in English for the stage curtain to be lowered.

Inspired by Chung Ling Soo I have been working for the past few months on a brand new magic trick for my shows called GO FISH! I don’t have any video of it yet but it will feature me magically making fish appear, even giant fish and I have made the illusion below to be included in the routine.

Riddle of Chung Ling Soo available on Amazon (link)

Riddle of Chung Ling Soo available on Amazon (link)

I hope this has been interesting and I hope you can now see that you too could create a character to perform your own magic under. Creating a character is a lot of fun and it can also help you to create your own magic tricks. For instance if you create a character who is a pilot than all your magic will need to have a flying theme, you can make lots of items fly, items with wings, birds etc. The character dictates what you can do as a performer, you are only limited by your imagination. If you would like to find out more about this very clever magician than I can recommend the book opposite.