Today we take a look at Ching Ling Foo, a successful 19th century Chinese magician who came to America where he became a sensation thanks to many of his illusions which were unlike anything the American public had ever seen. Foo knew that his exotic allure was a strong selling point for his act so he milked the whole “foreign” thing as much as possible. He even had other members of his family take part in his act: his son was an acrobat and a juggler, his daughter was used as an assistant for many conjurations and illusions and his wife simply astonished audiences with her bound feet which was still common practice in China at the time.
Foo’s tricks might have been innovative, but this didn’t mean that other professionals were incapable of figuring out how they were performed. And this is where Foo made his mistake: in order to garner extra publicity, he promised $1,000 to anyone who could recreate a famous illusion of his where he conjured up a giant bowl of water using an empty cloth. A local magician called William Robinson gave it a shot and succeeded in recreating the trick, but Foo never had any plans to pay up. Angered by this deceit, Robinson found another way to make a lot more than $1,000 off Foo’s reputation – he became Chung Ling Soo.
That’s right. One day he is Brooklyn-native William Robinson, part-time magician known as Robinson, the Man of Mystery, and the next day he is Chung Ling Soo, the “Original Chinese Conjurer”. With this newfound persona, Soo was hoping to experience a new level of success based mostly on the previous success of Foo. To increase his chances, he took his act to Europe while Ching Ling Foo remained in America. Since the two handled two different territories, initially all was well between them. However, it would only be a matter of time until their paths crossed again. In 1905, both were performing in London at different theatres. This is really when their rivalry took off as each one started claiming to be the genuine article and calling the other an impostor.
Obviously, Ching Ling Foo had an advantage here since he was actually Chinese. However, Chung Ling Soo was a skilled magician in his own right and, in order to ensure that he maintained his reputation as a Chinese conjurer, he stayed in character whenever performing. He didn’t actually speak any Mandarin so he just mumbled gibberish when on-stage or when talking with the public and hoped nobody in the audience spoke Mandarin, either.
This feud between them lasted for over a decade, but came to a sudden halt on March 23, 1918. Chung Ling Soo was performing at the Wood Green Empire in London. He was getting ready to do his most dangerous trick where he caught bullets fired at him by attendants in the audience. Unfortunately, he had a bad habit of not unloading the guns properly after each performance. Consequently, unburned gunpowder residue had built up in the gun, enough so that one of the guns fired at him for real. Soo was struck in the chest and the people in the audience got to hear the only English words he ever spoke on stage in this persona: “Oh my God. Something’s happened. Lower the curtain.” He died the next day and he was ruled a case of “accidental death”.
Bonus: Here’s supposedly the only existing video footage of Chung Ling Soo, greeting WWI veterans.