Chung Ling Soo, the Marvelous Chinese Conjurer

At the turn of the 20th century an exotic Chung Ling Soo was enchanting Western audiences with the  mysteries of the East.

Chung Ling Soo, with the lovely “slant eyed maiden” Suee Seen were a smash captivating crowds with smoke and mirrors.

But behind the veil of fame and mystery a different truth could be discovered.

For behind the Orientalist facade lurked William Ellsworth Robinson ( 1861-1918), the Asian beauty by his side?, his wife Dottie.

In May of 1900, William E. Robinson took up the persona of Chung Ling Soo, so sincere was he in maintaining this charade that apparently he never spoke in English again. At least not until his last words, but we’ll get to that…

Quite a ‘stache he had to sacrifice for chinoiserie splendor!

The decision to adopt the stage name Chung Ling Soo was quite deliberate.

At the time there was an actual Chinaman, a renown magician, Ching Ling Foo (1854-1922)

ca.1898

So great was the fame of Ching Ling Foo, the REAL Chinaman ( I know it is terribly confusing), that Thomas Edison felt the need to expose his trickery.

Perhaps part of Robinson/Chung Ling’s plan was to “coat-tail” on Ching’s genuine fame. I don’t know, but a rivalry was set across Europe.

Both seemed to benefit from the competition, Chung Ling Soo engaging in flashier and flashier acts.

One such act was a macabre twist on the Boxer Rebellion.

Boxer

ca.1900

Johannes Hermanus Barend Koekkoek

1840-1912

 

The final performance of this bizarre trick would be at London’s Wood Green Empire, March 23rd 1918.

Something went terribly awry, instead of the trick giving the allusion of a gun shot, an actual bullet escape.

This ended Chung Ling Soo’s vow to not betray his true identity; his last words in his mother tongue:

“Oh my God. Something happened. Lower the curtain.”

A true showman to the end!

Much of the myth around Chung Ling Soo is difficult to verify, I was unable to gather info concerning Dottie the “slant eyed maiden” ( I can’t believe they got away with saying that!) for example. But I did stumble upon this silly clip narrated by the wonderful Boris Karloff, it’s great fun.

I hope you have enjoyed this post, my dear friend Madame Pamita, Sideshow Entertainer Extraordinaire suggested i might find Chung Ling Soo of interest.

She was correct.

Thank you Madame Pamita.

 

Pirate Jenny… I mean Madame Pamita.

Thank you, enjoy the week.

Respectfully submitted,

Babylon Baroque


 

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14 Responses to “Chung Ling Soo, the Marvelous Chinese Conjurer”

  1. Ooh, this is delightful! The lovely Madame Pamita knows of my interest in side show sensations!

  2. Gotta love a good side show attraction,
    & she is quite the gal!
    LG

  3. I have a book written by Jim Steinmeyer (I think that’s his name) all about Chung Ling Soo that I need to give to you. It’s a biography that reads like a cliffhanger novel. that and my CD will have to make their way into your hands soon.

    They made allusion to Chung Ling Soo in the movie “The Prestige” – there’s a “chinese” performer who Michael Caine’s character points out and discusses. If you haven’t seen The Prestige – run don’t walk to netflix and rent it today. One of my favorite movies and 1000x better than the novel. So good and so many twists and turns you’ll have to see it twice to truly appreciate it and the victorian art direction is impeccable.

    Thanks so much for posting this – you always turn up the most interesting visual artifacts – things that I have never seen before – and i’ve seen a lot, mister! 🙂

  4. Grand praise from a grand lady!
    Thank you, and no i have not seen the Prestige and I meant to, with such an endorsement, i will.
    LG

  5. Since you’re taking requests like a late night DJ 🙂 (or at least getting inspired by your fans’ posts), may I humbly submit the following: where is your piece on Dandyism? Or have you done one already and I just haven’t seen it? I’m a little kookoo for fellas who care too much about clothes (that’s why I’m going out with one!)

  6. Well funny you mention that, I am attending a 2 day lecture series @ UCLA this Friday and Saturday, the topic being the Decadent Movement, as Wilde is a featured topic, I am certain peacockery will be brought up.
    I will gather info, when I do we will add your pretty boy to the line up.
    LG
    BTW if interested the link to the series is on the recent post I made concerning the Decadent Movement, it’s cheap, 20 bucks.

  7. A fascinating little vignette.

  8. babylonbaroque Says:

    great fun

  9. […] The busiest day of the year was November 17th with 570 views. The most popular post that day was Chung Ling Soo, the Marvelous Chinese Conjurer. […]

  10. Hi Leonard,

    My name is Layal and I work as a visual researcher for “Treasure Trader”, a Canadian documentary series. One of the episodes includes a short factoid on Chung Ling Soo and we are hoping to include some of the images posted here. Do you know if they fall within public domain and if not, any idea where you originally found them?

    Any help you could give would be greatly appreciated!
    Thanks so much, Layal

    layal.haidari@gmail.com

    • babylonbaroque Says:

      Hello Layal,
      I believe they are all public domain. I posted this quite some time ago, when I was ignorant about proper identification , unfortunately I do not have links to the sources , sorry about that. I would be interested to see your final piece. He was a fascinating character.
      Take care,
      Leonard

  11. The name of the book about “The Double Life of William Robinson, aka, Chung Ling Soo the “Marveleous Chinese Conjurer”” by Jim Steinmeyer is “The Glorious Deception”, Carroll &Graf Publishers, 2005. It is an indepth 451 page research work that reads like a novel. Your blog has added delightful color images of posters which were not included in the book. The author, Jim Steinmeyer, has invented many of the famous illusions used by leading magicians, including David Copperfield’s vanishing of the Statue of Liberty. Thank you babylonbaroque and Madame Pamita (for the idea) for sharing these wonderful images and including the Boris Karloff clip.

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