This post has been written by one of our readers, Maosheng Hu, who is a postdoctoral scholar at the Shakespeare Institute, part of the University of Birmingham.
The enigma revolving around Ching Ling Foo and Chung Ling Soo still remains as one of the most controversial in the world of magic; with overwhelmingly sensational coverage from various news media, the ultimate identity of the two conjurers does not cease to baffle readers of "The Linking Ring" and Edwardian lovers of music halls. However, when both of the legendary conjurers paid tribute to Shakespeare at his Birthplace and signed their names on the Visitors Book, the enigma unveiled itself as to who forswore before the English public and the whole world.
Newspaper reports around 1905 were inclined to believe that Ching Ling Foo the Chinaman offered a reward of 1,000 pounds if his rival, Chung Ling Soo, could perform ten of his (Ching’s) twenty tricks. They fixed the date and the place but Ching did not appear. Therefore, it came to the point where newspapers started to explode. Different versions of the story were made by professionals in the media. The Hull based Daily Mail reported amusingly on 10th January, 1905 that Chung “made his rival invisible”:
“But Chung, the Mandarin of the One Button, waited in vain for Ching. The longer Ching remained away the broader grew the smile of Chung. Ha! ha! he laughed. He had done the impossible. He had made his rival invisible. ”
All the London newspapers seemed to side with Chung Ling Soo. The Weekly Dispatch pushed the story even further by interrogating: “did Foo fool Soo?”, or “can Soo sue Foo?” English readers who were already mixed up with the confusing names of Ching and Chung would find these enquiries rather entertaining. A great sensation arose out of the tongue twister between Ching Ling Foo and Chung Ling Soo, whereas in their Chinese equivalences they are two easily discernible names, 金林福（or 金陵福）and 程連稣 as they are. Ching Ling Foo is the stage name used by “this Mongolian”, “of colossal stature and elephantine grace”, “one of the greatest conjurers in the world”, depicted by the Sunderland Daily Echo on 30th, March, 1903. Ching’s real name is 朱連魁, or Chee Ling Qua. Interestingly, Chung Ling Soo is also a Chinese stage name used by William Robinson.
Ironically, Ching Ling Foo first made his fortune in New York, America, where Chung Ling Soo was born. His performance at Keith’s Union-square Theatre shocked American audiences by his mystifying feats. The London based The Era covered his performances from the outset to the end in the year 1899. In a September story the newspaper remarked highly of Ching’s show:
“Ching Ling Foo, the Chinese juggler and magician, still heads the programme at Keith’s Union-square Theatre …His whole ‘bag of tricks’ are extremely mystifying, and the house has been packed to the doors during his engagement.”
Ching’s “bags of tricks” include breathing smoke and fire, passing of a sharp knife blade right through his nose, and tossing a large shawl in the air and then onto the floor to show a weighty bowl of water (said to be ninety pounds) with an apple on it (sometimes a child), etc. These familiar feats have been popular in China for more than 1000 years, and they were performed in the different yards (Goulan, 勾欄，勾阑 or構欄 in Chinese) of playhouses (Washe, 瓦舍 in Chinese) in Song Dynasty (960AD-1279AD), simultaneously with shows in other yards of the same playhouse, such as Zaju (雜劇, a dramatic form in Song Dynasty), acrobatics, shadow puppet, swords play etc. Artists in this line of profession, together with actors of traditional Chinese drama, have to receive hard and systematic training ever since childhood, and throughout their career they have to observe rather rigid disciplines, which place honesty and pride as among the first principles. Ching Ling Foo grows up in such a professional milieu, and he hates frauds and fakes. It partially explains why he hastened to initiate a combat of honour and truism with Chung Ling Soo.
Chung, the American, whose real name is William Robinson, claimed to the public that he was Chinese, and to create such an image he wore Chinese costumes of the Ch’ing Empire in public; he even employed an English interpreter for various social occasions because he publicised his inability to speak English. By all these means Chung Ling Soo seemed to have convinced the whole Europe of his identity as a Chinese, and he succeeded in his career as “the Original Chinese Conjurer”.
When Ching arrived at the Empire, a hundred yards away from Hippodrome, where Chung started to perform, both magicians advertised themselves as “the Original Chinese Conjurer”, with posters of similar names; the contest escalated into a public combat.
As newspapers published around 1905 criticized the absence of Ching Ling Foo on the day of combat, The Evening News on 30th December, 1904 might reverse public opinion with its rather thought-provoking story:
“Chung Ling Soo, the Chinese magician at the Hippodrome, declines the challenge of a public competition of Ching Ling Foo, the magician who is to appear at the Empire, on the ground that his dignity is too sublime.”
So, Chung refused the challenge before the combat, which would naturally lead to an absence of his. Who is perjured if Chung did not show up for his “sublime dignity”? Then the story continues.
Hopefully, recent evidences from the author show that Chung Ling Soo, the self-styled “the Original Chinese Conjurer” perjured himself in the claims of being Chinese. On his visit to Shakespeare’s Birthplace on 5th October, 1904, he did not even know how to write his Chinese name, with the family name barely a Chinese character, and one of the first names in horrible error. In contrast, Ching Ling Foo’s signature around ten years later (dated 31st July, 1914) on the Visitors Book credits him with a surer Chinese identity. It is the hand of “the Original Chinese Conjurer”, who is also said to be Empress Dowager Cixi’s Conjurer.