Chinese Vaudeville, Yellowface and Silent Film Magic.

Chinese performers were no strangers to the vaudeville theatres, travelling carnivals and assorted entertainment halls of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They performed magic acts, burlesque dances, comedy routines (with exaggerated, self-deprecating Asian-ness) and acrobatics, dazzling audiences from San Francisco to Paris.

Some of these Chinese stars were the genuine item. Others, not so much. While the Blackface tradition and minstrel shows are more well known, Yellowface was a thriving (and equally dubious) enterprise as well. Alongside Chinese magicians were the enterprising impostors, such as Chung Ling Soo AKA William Elmsworth Robinson – who, by the way, died when he literally caught the bullet in his famous ‘bullet catch’ trick.

Georges Melies, prior to achieving fame as a director of silent films like A Trip to the Moon and The Impossible Voyage, was a stage magician. In the 1904 film below, he relives his days as a magician, playing the role of Tchin-Chao, The Chinese Conjurer.