David Kwong | They’ve Made Grinning Fools of Us All

by Joey Dalla Betta

HERMÈS   suit and shirt.

HERMÈS suit and shirt.

David Kwong is a cerebral magician, a “devious” cruciverbalist for the NY Times, producer of ABC’s Deception, consultant on such films as Now You See Me and The Imitation Game, developer on such films as How To Train Your Dragon and Boss Baby, author of Spellbound: Seven Principles of Illusion to Captivate Audiences and Unlock the Secrets of Success, Harvard alumnus, and TED Talker.

He is also very easy to interview. Unsolicited, he tells me what he considers to be the one through-line of his expansive array of work: “All my projects, they have a transparency to them. They are literally puzzles. I claim that all magic tricks are puzzles—these are things that can be broken down, they are based in science, they are based on being 1, 2, 3, 52 steps ahead of everybody else. I claim that the audience will enjoy magic more if you pull back the curtain, just a little bit, and let them learn about how some of these fundamental things work.”

Kwong says times have changed since entering the Information Age. “The paradigm we are in now is that magicians can’t get away with as much as they used to. No one now is making the Statue of Liberty disappear the way David Copperfield did in the early ’80s because, at any given moment, there are a hundred cameras on the Statue of Liberty. Magicians are now embracing transparency.”

There is no way to adequately summarize everything I learned in Kwong’s library, but I’ll share my favorite anecdote. It begins with him wondering if he can find me some pictures of white men impersonating Asian magicians, his favorite subject in the history of magic. This was his concentration at Harvard. He selects a book, exclaiming, “Probably in this pictorial history of conjurers…” His passionate expertise is both endearing and deeply impressive.

“So now I’ll regale you with this tale,” he says, and launches into the fascinating story of a Chinese magician named Ching Ling Foo, who performed at the Trans-Mississippi Exposition in 1898. It was a smash hit. Responding to his success, an American magician developed a (very racist) character he called Chung Ling Soo, even creating for him an accent/language, which his assistant would translate; Chung Ling would exclusively speak this gibberish. That is, until a trick went wrong and, meaning to catch a bullet in his fingers, he caught one in his lung. His last words, the first and last he spoke in English since adopting the persona: “Oh my God. Something’s happened. Lower the curtain.”

“I’m fascinated by Asian impersonation,”—Kwong points at a photo of Chung Ling—“because these magicians were embracing the East for its mysticism to enhance their shows, but at the same time they were mocking these ‘invasive immigrants.’ There’s a heavy air of racism, but at the same time this allowed them to pull off their miracles; there’s this remarkable tension of respect and scorn.”

Spending an hour with David Kwong, hearing stories like these, I come away understanding what a good performance is all about, and what a puzzle, at its best, does—expands your view of the possible, tests perceptions, entertains, and educates in equal measure. David Kwong happens to be a master at all of the above, and it’s all brought to bear, he informs me, in an upcoming performance series called The Enigmatist, taking place in early 2019 at The High Line Hotel in NYC. The experience will begin in an escape room (which guests will be required to solve their way through in order to enter the show) and continue in the hotel’s theatre; here, guests will spend an evening with Kwong, enjoying, as I did, an educational and entertaining engagement with a first-rate raconteur.

Photographed by Nolwen Cifuentes

Styled by Mui-Hai Chu

Fashion Assistant: Jake Harrison