Today is the birthday of William Ellsworth Robinson, better known as Chung Ling Soo. But to properly appreciate who he was, we must first discuss his illustrious predecessor…Ching Ling Foo…
CHING LING FOO
How ironic that in a time when Chinese were being deported and turned away at U.S. borders by the thousands, and when the ones that remained were coolies working on the railroad for mere pennies, it was actually so fashionable to be a Chinese magician that numerous non-Chinese went to great lengths to seem one.
The craze was started by a man calling himself “Ching Ling Foo, Court Conjurer to the Empress of China”. His real name was Chee Ling Qua and he made a big splash at the Trans-Mississippi Exhibition in Omaha in 1898. You’d make a splash too if you performed his tricks. His speciality was materializing large containers of liquid from under a cloth: a 90 lb. bowl of water, a barrel-sized container of milk, an enormous tub of water in which ducks were floating. From his mysterious “Foo Can” he would pour an endless stream of water. He could also blow smoke from his mouth that turned into streamers and even a nine foot pole, introduced “torn and restored paper” and conjured up his 3 year old daughter Chee Toy.
Ching played the exhibition for four months, then took vaudeville bookings on the Keith circuit.
Here he is with Houdini:
After a year, he was so wildly successful that countless imitators sprang up with similar names and acts. Among them were: Tung Pin Soo, Long Talk Sam, Han Pin Chien, Li Ho Chang, Rush Ling Toy, Chin Sun Loo and more than one of each of the following: Chung Ling Sen, Chung Ling Hee, and Chung Ling Fee. But the grandaddy of all these was…
CHUNG LING SOO, “The Celestial Chinese Conjurer”
As the similarity of his name to Ching’s suggests, Chung Ling Soo was one of the most shameless copycats of all time, and one of the most successful, up there with Billy West, the silent film comedian who looked, dressed and acted like Charlie Chaplin or the Great Boudini, one of scores of Houdini rip-offs. As someone once said, “Sometimes what matters is not who comes in first, it’s who comes in second.”
Chung was really William Elsworth Robinson. He would have been just a footnote in this history like all of those other Ching Ling Foo imitators, but for one small detail: he was actually a better magician than Ching! Robinson had started performing magic at age 14 and had apprenticed with Harry Kellar and Herrman the Great, before becoming Achmed Ben Ali with an act he’d stolen from a magician in Germany named Ben Ali Bey. Sure, Arabia if pretty mysterious and pretty eastern, but you don’t get more mysterious-eastern than China and in 1900, Robinson (Ben Ali) decided to lift a page from Ching’s book, and, then, what the hell, lift the whole book. In short order, Chung became better known than Ching, and it must have begun to eat into Ching’s business, for it prompted him to issue a public challenge, offering $1,000 to any magician who could do Ching’s tricks. In his hubris, Ching hadn’t counted on one thing…Chung could do Ching’s tricks better than Ching could. When Chung did so publicly during his act, he went by Keith’s Union Square theatre where Ching was performing to collect – and found the door barred. In short, Ching welched.
While Ching may have been the real McCoy (or should I say the real Chee Toy?), Chung was the superior showman, more “Chinese” than an actual Chinese person, because he knew just what the mostly-white audience’s biases were. He gave them the dime-store Chinaman they wanted, something an actual Chinese person could never hope to fathom. In vaudeville, phony tended to play better than authentic. Chung made his entrance from the ceiling suspended by his Manchurian pigtail. Ching would never do any such thing for the simple reason that his pigtail was real! Chung went the whole nine yards, even speaking only in mock Chinese and conducting press interviews through an interpreter.
When Chung followed Ching to London, he started outdrawing him again. Ching was forced to issue another challenge: 1,000 pounds if he could 10 of his 20 tricks. When Chung did so, Ching once again failed to appear.
Over the years, Chung continued to enhance his act. In 1909, he toured Australia. In one trick, he threw dead animals into a boiling cauldron, from which they subsequently emerged alive. In an illusion called “The Birth of the Pearl”, he materialized an assistant from a large oyster shell. A trick he did in 1912 was called “The Dream of Wealth”. In it, heated milk turned into a shower of silver coins, then bank notes.
But Ching must have put some kind of a Chinese curse on him, for in 1918, W.E. Robinson a.k.a Chung Ling Soo died onstage in a freak accident. Have you ever watched a magician catch a bullet shot from a gun, and ask yourself, “How does he do that? Isn’t that dangerous?” The answer is, yes. Yes, it is. Chung’s trick gun fired a real bullet into his chest at the Wood Green Empire theatre in London. Cosmic justice of a sort, wouldn’t you say?
To learn about the roots of variety entertainment, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.