This article is to introduce magicians and magic enthusiasts to the rich history of magic in Singapore. It honours the notable achievements, prominence and significance of local magicians from the past and present.
The beginning of Modern Magic in Singapore
It is the general consensus that modern magic in Singapore (post World War 2) began with the late-Ng Bo Oen AKA The Great Wong. Information on local magic pre-war is very scarce. The only information found has been on The Great Wong performing at the New World Amusement Park (then located at Kitchener Road) in the 1930s.
The Great Wong was born in 1908 in Shanton, a city of the Guangdong Province, China and immigrated to Singapore in 1933. He was the only professional magician of his time in Singapore and performed across South East Asia. He was known for his sharp stage magic, Linking Rings routine and Sword Basket illusion. He was also an expert craftsman who built all of his props by hand. He had the gift of figuring out the mechanics and methodology of magic props and fabricating them from scratch.
In 1962, The Great Wong made a significant contribution to the international magic community by publishing his famous linking rings routine with English script written by Tudor Brock. Davenports Magic in London distributes his manuscript to date. In 1982, he was invited by the Federation Internationale des Societes Magiques (FISM) to perform at the 15th World Congree of Magic in Lausanne, Switzerland.
(For more info on The Great Wong; refer to ‘The Great Wong Story’ in The International Brotherhood of Magicians Singapore Ring 115 The Quantum Ring Golden Jubilee Issue)
Another local magician who was instrumental in growing modern magic in Singapore during the beginning was the late-Tan Hock Chuan. He was a teacher by profession but performed for annual special events, charity shows and private parties. He was (and still is) internationally known for his magical inventions. His effects and ideas are still marketed dealer items today and have been published in countless publications (of that time) such as Gen, Spinx, Pentagram, New Pentagram, Swami Mantra, Abracadabra and even Tarbell’s Course in Magic. He is the first Asian magician to receive the Spinx Award (1936-37)
Both The Great Wong and Tan Hock Chuan were important influences to many of the first generation of Singapore modern-magicians who have paved the way for future generations.
It was only after the war and during the British Military Administration that magic in Singapore began its rise to where it is today. 1950 was the year that the Singapore Magician’s Club was formed by a group of amateur magicians, comprising of English-educated professionals.
In 1951 the Singapore Magician’s Club received their charter from The International Brotherhood of Magicians HQ in America and was from then on was officially known as The International Brotherhood of Magicians Singapore Ring 115. Founding members of the club at that time included Tan Ewe Chee (President), Yeo Soon Kian, Lim Kim Tian, Lim Hap Hin, J.H Stafford, L.A Joseph, J.W Jackson (Vice-President) and Tan Hock Chuan (Secretary).
The 50’s gave birth to Singapore’s first generation of modern magicians. Besides the founding members of the IBM Ring and The Great Wong (who joined the Ring in 1952 by invitation), some prominent first generation magicians included Lim Hap Hin, Tan Choon Tee, Tan Bah Chee, Yeo Soon Kian and his student Michael Lim.
The Great Wong operated the first magic shop from his home cum showroom/ workshop in Singapore at 255-A Jalan Besar where he sold his own handcrafted props as well as imported dealer items from Japan. (This home/ shop was destroyed in a fire in Dec 1988 causing him to lose most of his books and props)
During this period, magicians like The Great Wong, Tan Bah Chee, Lim Hap Hin and Tan Choon Tee conducted magic courses at the National Theatre Club and the YMCA. They were responsible for producing active magicians such as Charles Choo, Wong Fok Choy, Chia Hearn Jiang, Gwee Thiam Hock and the late-Vijeyacone.
The early 60s also saw the ‘Golden Age’ of magic with magicians performing at different venues across the country. Besides local magicians performing in night clubs, foreign magicians such as Socar performed a grand illusion show to a full house at the Capitol Theatre (along Stamford Road) and The Great Nicholas at the Sky Theater in The Great World Amusement Park at Kim Seng Road (Now, Great World City).
In the late 60s, Wee Peng Guan (Uncle of Charles Choo), opened the second magic shop in Singapore at a shop house along Robinson Road. Around that time, popular entertainer Victor Khoo’s father Khoo Teng Heng who was a magician, a ventriloquist and hypnotist opened his magic shop at Bras Basah. (where Carlton Hotel stands currently).
During this decade, Tan Choon Tee was making a name for himself in the international magic community in the field of Mentalism. He won several international Linking Ring Awards for his One-Man Parades and has two books published by Micky Hades. He was also a regular contributor to numerous international magic magazines such as Gen, New Pentagram, Magicgram, Magicana and The Linking Ring.
Overseas magicians whom passed through Singapore included Milo & Roger, Milbourne Christopher and Maurice Fogel.
The 1970s saw the birth of the second generation of Singapore magicians. Some well-known magicians who got started during this time included; The Great Wong’s son Ng Kee Chee, John Teo, Tang Sai Thong, Ng Seow Kiat, Tang Yeng Fun, Bob Chua, Eric Leong, Tan Teck Seng, Lawrence Tham, Tan Tuan Seng, Lawrence Khong and Andrew Kong.
The Singapore Association of Magicians was founded on 10 March 1973 in friendly ‘rivalry’ to the IBM Ring. The club was led by Tan Bah Chee with prominent founding members such as Lim Hap Hin, Tan Hock Chuan and Charles Choo.
Magic shops in Singapore began to spring up during the late seventies. Ng Kee Chee set up a magic stall at Yaohan in Plaza Singapura and Wang Leng opened his shop in Peninsula Plaza. Charles Choo opened his shop in August 1978 on the 6th floor of Far East Shopping Centre. (It would move several times to various malls but eventually returned back to Far East). His shop would soon become an institution where magicians would buy various magic products as well as meet up and learn from each other.
It was a variety haunt for many magicians in the years to come till the shop closed in the new millennium.
During this period, The Tropicana Night Club, which was situated at Pacific Plaza, was a venue that had regular magic performances. Several famous magicians also visited Singapore in the 70s. In 1970, John Calvert performed at the National Theatre. In 1972, Albert Goshman visited Ring 115 to give a lecture. In that same year, “The Professor” Dai Vernon also visited Singapore, lectured and interacted with local magicians. Other visiting magicians included Andre Kole, Billy McComb, and Ali Bongo.
By the 1980s, the local magic scene was flourishing with healthy memberships for the two main magic clubs as well as a surge in the number of performing magicians. Many of today’s veterans made their name in the 80s. Familiar names like Richard Ang, Patrick Wan, Patrick Ng Wang Lin, Tan Hai Yan AKA Gician, Paul Koh, AB Francis and Gordon Koh were performing regularly at public and private shows during this decade. Popular local venues for public magic shows by magic clubs held on a regular basis at that time included the Drama Centre and the National Museum Theatrette.
The popularity of magic shops also grew and in 1982, Chew Kin Song opened a Magic & Novelty Corner at the Chinese Book Section of Popular Book Co Pte Ltd on the 4th Floor of Bras Basah Complex. Gician Tan also opened up his first magic shop at Parkway Parade which subsequently moved to Marina Square and was managed by Richard Ang. Besides this main shop, he distributed magic items and sets through department stores
in Singapore and South East Asia.The Singapore audience was also exposed to world-class magic through several magic television shows and series that were aired on local TV including the David Copperfield specials, Magic Magic and The Best of Magic.
Foreign magicians who visited Singapore during this time included David Copperfield, Mark Wilson, Ben Harris, Paul Daniels and Gene Anderson.
The beginning of this decade saw the introduction of the country’s third generation magicians into the local magic scene. Prominent budding magicians included Enrico Varella, Sherman Tjiong, J C Sum, Joe Yu (Chan Ee Kang), Nique Tan Li Keong, Prakash Puru, Kiki Tay, Alex Tan and Jeremy Pei.
The local chapter of International Magicians Society was formed, founded by its President, Tan Bah Chee; although the club’s presence in Singapore was short-lived.
The late-1990s saw a huge surge in magic global popularity due to David Blaine’s street magic specials. Many people started to ‘get into’ magic and had new mediums to learn the craft such as the introduction of DVDs and the Internet.
A new magic shop, Magic Castle & Promotions, opened up by Vijay Kumar at Shaw Towers soon became ‘the place to be’ where new magicians would hang out and meet.
During this decade, Wang Leng’s shop in Peninsula Plaza was sold to Patrick Wan. The shop was subsequently sold to Richard Ang and is now well known as Ang House of Magic. Patrick Wan opened his new shop, Magic Wand, which has spawned into several outlets in various parts of Singapore. Steven Sim also opened Magic Supreme at Coronation Plaza which has subsequently moved to Park Mall.
The 90s was an exciting decade with many visits and performances by famous magicians. Apart from lectures by Michael & Hannah Ammar, Mark Leveridge and Wolfgang & Sonja Riebe there were also public theatre performances by the Pendragons, Princess Tenko, Andre Kole, Franz Harary, David Copperfield, Rudy Coby and Robert Gallop. Other visiting magicians included Larry Becker, Tim Ellis, Terry Seabrooke, Phil Cass and Albert Tham.
2000 – Present
Magic has continued to flourish at the local level in this decade. New opportunities and talents have emerged to elevate the art in Singapore. In May 2000, J C Sum staged the first ever local full-evening theatre show ‘Magic at the Theatre’ at Victoria Theatre. Just a month later, more than a dozen magicians from the US and Canada came down to Singapore as part of the Magic Festival organized by the Malls of Centrepoint. Magicians such as Robert Baxt, Rocco and Peter Gossamer performed multiple shows at various Centrepoint Malls for over a week.
In 2004, the Singapore Magic Circle (SMC) was created by Aloysius Yeo and with its on-line forum drew a new pool of magic enthusiasts together. SMC has since grown to over 1000 members and regularly organize gatherings, events as well as the recent Concept:Magic Micro MAGIC Convention in January 2007.
Through a large-scale theatre magic musical ‘Magic of Love’, Lawrence Khong, a pastor with Faith Community Baptist Church and his daughter Pricilla, spread the gospel message.
The multi-million dollar production has been staged many times over the years across the world to spread the word of Christ. Subsequently, the same team organized two International Festival of Magic conventions in 2003 & 2005. The first of its kind big magic events included competitions, lectures, a dealers’ room and performances. International performers such as Jeff McBride, Max Maven, Johnny Thomspon, The Pendragons, Lee Eun Gyeol and Tommy Wonder were booked to perform at the gala shows and lectures.
In recent years, J C Sum has become arguably the most prominent Singapore magician of this generation. His magic has been seen by millions through his live performances across Asia as well as his landmark mass media projects on MediaCorp Studio’s Ch 8 as well as subsequent ‘Street Illusions’ compilation DVD/ VCD.
His 24-episode ‘Magic in Motion’ series can currently be seen daily on Singapore Press Holdings MediaBoxOffice through 2007. In the international magic community, J C has also established himself as an elite illusion designer from Asia with the publication of his 3 critically acclaimed illusion books that have been sold in more than 30 countries to date.
Another talented award-winning magician, Jeremy Pei, is raising the profile of Singapore magic within the regional magic community with his theatre shows, organized lectures, workshops and active participation in magic conventions & competitions in Japan, Korea, China, Thailand and Australia. His distinctive North-Asian influence style of magic performance has garnered him a following with new budding magicians whom he teaches and guides. He has also released multiple original magic products which are available to magicians worldwide.
In another first, award-winning junior magician, Kyle Ravin secured a 13-episode weekly Street Magic series, “Maya” on MediaCorp Studios’ Vasantham Central. This 30min series saw him perform magic for the Indian community and celebrities across the country.
This decade has seen the introduction of even more magic shops and dealers run by young magicians to meet the demand of magic enthusiasts and magicians. These include new ‘brick & mortar’ magic shops such as Street Magic by Tan Wei Ping, Tricky Business by Jimmy Wong, The Magic Hall by Kenneth Peh as well as on-line shops like The Little Magic Shop by Ning.
Visiting magicians thus far for the new millennium have included Joshua Jay, Shoot Ogawa, Charles Gucci, Nicholas Einhorn.
And the Magic History of Singapore continues to be written…
J C Sum is the Creative Magic Producer and Founder of Concept:Magic, a production house that provides high-end magic-centric consultancy for events, television and live shows across Asia Pacific.
Situated at the southernmost tip of the Malay Peninsula with a land area of 685.4 km2, Singapore is an island-state with a 4.2 million population. It consists of one main island and 63 islets, some of the more well-known ones being: Pulau Tekong, Pulau Ubin, St John’s Island, Kusu Island, Pulau Hantu, Jurong Island. Pulau means “island” in Malay.
Modern Singapore was founded by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819 when it was little more than a swamp. Only until the “rightful” Johorean heir agreed to sell the island to the British that it became a colony. Widely known and recorded by many sojourners as Temasek – Sea Town – by the 14th century, Singapore was a thriving vassal state of the Sri Vijayan empire.
Legend has it that a Palembang prince called Sang Nila Utama was responsible for the present-day name, Singapura meaning Lion City. In Sanskrit and Malay, Singa = Lion + Pura = City. It was while seeking refuge from a storm with his entourage that Sang Nila Utama spotted a mousedeer – which he was told a lion. But lions’ natural habitat is the grassy plains or the savannah, not jungles.
As the British had ruled Singapore for about a hundred and forty years till 1963, one of the legacies is the English Legal System. As well as English which is the language of administration, business and instruction in schools from kindergarten upwards. In addition to Malay, Mandarin and Tamil that make up the official languages of the country.
Furthermore, Malay is the national language as enshrined in the Constitution. This is partly in recognition of the indigenous status of the Malays. The national coat of arms depicts a lion and a tiger, the latter indicating Singapore’s historical links to Malaysia. This is a visual reminder to Singaporeans that they cannot severe their ties with Malaysia. Even many Malaysian Malays still view Singapore as Malay territory till today.
What is more interesting is a Dutch economist who developed Singapore’s economic blueprint; helping the country to attain success. The late Dr Albert Winsemius, who passed away in 1996, was appointed as the country’s Chief Economic Advisor from 1961 to 1984.
There you have it, Singapore’s history in a nutshell.