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Conjuring Asia (Review)

Reviewed item: 

Chris Goto-Jones. 2016.
Conjuring Asia: Magic, Orientalism and the Making of the Modern World
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
ISBN 9781107433823

Chris Goto-Jones’s topic is very important in that his book confronts the themes of mass culture and orientalism and his protagonists are in many way predecessors of contemporary artists and entertainers who contend with the complex issues of globalism, cultural appropriation and multiculturalism or hybridity. However, this book unfortunately falls quite short of the mark in addressing these themes.

The first part of the work consists of a long and repetitive attempt at offering a ‘theory of modern magic’, and this reviewer hopes that he will be forgiven for thinking it not rewarding to read more than 90 strenuous pages to reach the conclusion that ‘modern magic = illusion + glamour’. 20 pages should have been more than enough. This chapter is followed by another arduous 50 pages where Goto-Jones explores professional magicians’ tensions between their pretention to be modern, their interest in Oriental civilizations and the ‘magical effectiveness of Oriental glamour’ (p. 132). These pages do have some interesting observation, but because of the narrow focus on entertainers’ feelings and ideas, they give the impression that audience, theatre managers, and commercial success did not play any role in the choices magicians made. It also seems to me that it would have been profitable to use, for example, the expansively available literature on minstrels and blackfaces to explore the relationship between entertainment and racial ideas. (Curiously, the only comparison made in this chapter is with Lawrence of Arabia, at p. 144.)

As for the second part of the book, the story of Indian, Chinese, and Japanese magicians and their Western imitators has a worrying flaw as it relies on a badly deficient analysis of sources. Goto-Jones affirms to take seriously what magicians wrote about themselves, but he simply takes their word at face value without ever considering the readership, the context for the production, the audience or the social function of these texts. There is not a hint of elementary source analysis. Moreover, Goto-Jones completely neglects other sources like newspapers or archives. It is especially regrettable because so much is nowadays available on line, which allows for a fruitful confrontation of sources.

For instance, according to Goto-Jones, the first performance of the magician William Robinson, aka Chung Ling Soo, one of the most famous examples of Western impersonation of a Chinese entertainer, in Paris, under the name Hop Sing Loo, was not a success. Goto-Jones relies on one short notice in the American journal Mahatma, a professional journal for magicians. Yet a review of this spectacle in Le Figaro (18 March 1900) affirms the exact opposite: his spectacle met with the greatest appreciation. It is possible that the review in Le Figaro was a paid advertisement in the guise of a critic but this French article, easily available on the French National Library’s website, Gallica,[i] proves beyond doubt that Soo presented himself successfully from the start as an authentic Chinese person, contrary to what Goto-Jones thinks. Another example of this reliance on a single biased source is offered by Goto-Jones’ description of Howard Thurston’s travel to Hong Kong, based on his autobiography. A quick internet search on the website of Hong Kong Public Libraries[ii] produces no less than three articles in the local English newspapers (Unfortunately I cannot add anything about Chinese sources due to my language limitations). Again, they offer a very different picture from what the magician said about his spectacles; for instance, one can read in the review published in the Hong Kong Daily Press the following sentence that shows that Thurston’s efforts to do Chinese magic in Hong Kong were not entirely successful: ‘Added to the stage effects employed to get a subtle atmosphere of mysticism is a suggestion of Oriental sumptuousness in the architecture of the auditorium of the theatre. The whole setting is reminiscent of the Arabian nights’.[iii]

The lack of interest shown by Goto-Jones for context and for the social and historical setting of the magicians is, for the Japanese magicians, the cause of a serious mistake. He writes that ‘Aside from the formal delegations, state-sanctioned troupes of performers left Japan in the 1860s’ (Goto-Jones misrepresents the results Frederik Schodt presented in his beautiful book Professor Risley and the Imperial Japanese Troupe, Berkeley: Stone Bridge Press, 2012). Nothing can be further from the truth: before the Meiji reform, the magician/ jugglers were hinin, members of a pariah class, and, for years, Japanese officials did their utmost to distance themselves and the official image of Japan from these migrant artists. Contrary to Goto-Jones, I would suggest the hypothesis that their professional descendants acquired some notoriety because of the modern skills they learned from American and European magicians; this new prestige then allowed these entertainers to overpass prejudices from the past and reinvent with new meanings old Japanese traditions of magic, which thus led to their official admission into Japanese cultural patrimony.

Goto-Jones’s book has merit in raising important questions, and it offers fascinating portraits of entertainers, but it should be read with some caution because of his very remiss treatment of historical sources and his lack of interest in the social and commercial history of spectacles.


[i] Spectacles & Concerts, Le Figaro, 18 March 1990, 5, http://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k285083k/f5.item, accessed 15 September 2017.

[ii] Multimedia Information System, https://mmis.hkpl.gov.hk/, accessed 15 September 2017.

[iii] To-Night’s Entertainment: ‘The Great Thurston’, Hong Kong Daily Press, 5 May 1906, p. 3.

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