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1898: A Chinese Magician's Tragedy (and Triumph) in Omaha

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On August 1, 1898, during the World Fair in Omaha, a Chinese magician who would become famous suffered a personal tragedy.  His 10 year-old son died without warning.  Despite the tears in his eyes he gave his regular performance that day.  "The hearts of the Chinese performers are filled with sorrow for the little athlete..." (1)

The magician was Ching Ling Foo, whose real name was Zhu Lianhui 朱连魁.  In 1899 he was interviewed through an interpreter for a New York show-business newspaper.  Zhu told the reporter that he had been born in Beijing in 1854.  He had begun to study magic as an amateur while working for a large mercantile firm with branches in Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, and San Francisco.  He did not turn professional until 1897 when, during a business trip to San Francisco, he agreed to join a group of Chinese performers who were going to the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in Omaha.  This must have been when he adopted Ching Ling Foo as a stage name. 

Zhu/Ching performed at the Exposition for several months.  During that time he was noticed and signed up by an agent for New York's prestigious Vaudeville theater circuit, which featured magicians as well as actors, acrobats, and other performers.  His growing fame protected him from the Immigration Service.  "Shortly after the Omaha fair was over the authorities tried to have Ching and his company sent back to China under the Exclusion Act, but it was proven that he and his companions were artists and not laborers, and they were allowed to remain. Ching says he will remain in America for good, as he likes the country and the people very much."  (2)

Zhu/Ching became an international star.  He toured European and U.S cities many times over the next two decades. The great magician Houdini was a colleague and admirer.  With reference to Zhu/Ching's magic acts, Houdini commented on the "subtle artistry that marks all the work of this super-magician." (3)

(1) Omaha Public Library: http://www.omaha.lib.ne.us/transmiss/bee/august1.html
(2) New York Dramatic Mirror, June 3, 1899; http://www.illusionata.com/mpt/view.php?id=73&type=articles
see also http://hk.geocities.com/chinesemagichistory/chinglingfoo
(3) Harry Houdini, The Miracle Mongers: http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext96/mmong10.txt