I’m afraid I did an injustice to Long Tack Sam in my book No Applause, implying that he was just one of a whole line of copycats of Ching Ling Foo. A more accurate reading would be this: Ching started a craze in the U.S. for Chinese magicians. Long (unlike many) was a legitimate Chinese magician who’d been practicing the ancient art in his native China since the age of nine and had performed in many countries with his own large company prior to arriving in the U.S., so it would be hard to accuse him of jumping on any bandwagon.
Born Lung Te Shan in 1885, he was a member of the Tian-Kwian troupe touring Europe when the first Chinese Revolution (the Republican one as opposed to the Communist one) hit in 1911. The troupe folded, so Long started his own and came to the U.S. He was a smash, thanks to famous illusions like the goldfish bowl trick, in which he (with nothing in his hands) would do a somersault at the end of which he’d be holding a twenty pound bowl full of water and live goldfish. Houdini is rumored to have appropriated Long’s trick of pulling a long thread full of sharp needles out of his mouth, and patenting the stunt as his own.
Long was primarily based in the U.S. throughout the nineteen-teens, and he was a Big Time vaudeville and post-vaudeville staple here at least through the 1940s. But the world was truly his home, for reasons both good and bad. The good: like all non-verbal variety acts, language was not a barrier, so he could perform literally everywhere. And they loved him everywhere–from China to Australia to South America to the U.S. to Europe. But the 20th century was a troubled century. As rich as he was (his career indeed made him rich) and as he well loved as he was, the fact that he was Chinese and that his wife was Austrian, made life a series of family separations, refugee flights and expulsions. He was cut off from his family during World War One. Thereafter his wife and kids traveled with him as part of the act, which caused complications a few decades later. During the Nazi years, they had to leave Austria because Long was Chinese; and then the Allied countries because his wife was Austrian! Then he lived in China for awhile until the Communist takeover made that impossible. He spent his last few years retired with his wife back in Austria and passed away in 1961.
The go-to book on all things Long Tack Sam is the charming 2007 book The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam, written by his great-granddaughter Ann Marie Fleming, based on her documentary film of the same name. She did an astounding amount of detective work, criss-crossing the globe almost as many times as Long had. Long had left a substantial material legacy but in only a few decades it had been scattered to the four winds, to museums, private collections, and in the hands of family members. And one of the experts she interviewed was our old friend Mark Mitton!
To learn more about vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.