In a Sea of Top Hats
Cheltenham Ladies College, Cheltenham
What on the BLT19.co.uk website inspired you?
Upon reading the article in The Wizard under the heading “The Magical Circle”, I was inspired by its accounts of a travelling troupe of Chinese magicians. Long-distance travel and potential immigration during the Victorian era stuck me as somewhat awe inspiring, seeing as the distance they would have had to travel was beyond the scale of modern comprehension. I found the comparison and perhaps two-sided metaphor of the work of a magician and that of an immigrant to be rather intriguing. If the work of a magician is to lie, then is the work of an immigrant to lie to oneself about themselves, if one does not know the truth of their nationality and identity to begin with – to don the same mask a magician has, as a way to perform that work? If one were to give up their belonging and their culture, would it be easier to fit in, like a magician removing his coat and dressing as an audience member. In doing so, one loses the real work as an immigrant – that of continuing one’s culture and story. Just as a magician’s world is grounded in reality, every culture exists on the same planet, created by the same species of animal. Normal society lacks the vision an immigrant or a magician possesses, and hence, normal society is educated through their stories. That is the real work. The characters used were real individuals who lived during the era, as noted by “The Wizard”, as well as the troupe. However, apart from their names, not much more was historically accurate in terms of character.
We had arrived in England six months ago, ferried by a wizened seaman across the channel. He pressed a dozen shillings into my hand roughly and hastened away before I could offer to buy him a drink. Mister Morgan scoffed, to which I responded with a lift of an eyebrow at his meagre fifty-odd francs, and told him to purchase a pint in an English pub. Jugglers, magicians, illusionists and the like were welcomed by the greater London crowd. Travelling about the city under the alias of the Tan Kwai troupe, we managed to excite ourselves a crowd every other night, enough for temporary lodgings under a dainty old landlady on the outskirts of town. Upon our calling, she had observed us carefully through a semi-open window facing the lamplit alley, eying up each of our complexions before landing on Mister Morgan. She inquired after our purpose, which Mister Morgan responded in broken English before throwing me a dissatisfied blush.
I hastened to introduce myself – Mister Ling, interpreter of our company – and to explain that the other gentleman was both my boss and very German.
“Magicians?” she asked.
She offered us a rent fee of thirty shillings per week, all the while eying up the coins in my breast pocket. Later, Mister Morgan tried to scold me for draining our spending money. I simply pointed at the attic floor – there was no bed – and suggested he and the others rest.
There are those among our company who enrolled to seek adventure and new land, engrossed by the false promise of better wages, better people and better lives. There are those who seek escape from reality, trapped by the confines of their miserable existence – always running, hand in hand with denial. They run, clever men, faster than the idle passer-by on his evening stroll, just because they can. We have outpaced our youth, crossed continents on horseback with only the clothes on our backs and the cards in our hands. But all I seek is food on my plate and a bed for the night.
Tonight, we are due to perform at a new venue, close to the south bank of the Thames. The act had been rebranded, so as to attract a wider audience, but the performance itself remains deceptively similar. That is the secret of magic. Each time it is a different story, told by the same characters, much like the individual letters that result in words that tell a tale. And heaven forbid those words be in a different language; not German, not Indian, not Chinese. The noise in the cramped attic increases tenfold as the brothers shuffle around, preparing for the evening. The work is rumoured to be brutal – a rough crowd in a rough part of town, who likely wouldn’t be too kind to our foreign presence. Tricksters and frauds, they call us. Return to whence you came, they tell us.
The fact that we are magicians helps not our case – liars in tall jackets, paid to deceive. The irony is palpable. We are meant to fill our audience with wonder, to tie a blindfold over willing eyes and elevate the mind. In doing so, we lie. I lie to earn a living. I lie because you need me to. I lie because you pay me to. Then am I not lying when I look in the mirror? The haggard face, those spiritless eyes nestled between the high rising peaks of dry skin and cheekbone, like a cork, no longer fitted to its bottle. Because that face is a mask, worn by those who no longer know who they are, who have been seized and wrenched from the Earth, leaving their roots gripping onto thin air. The pounds you pay me are like the land on which I stand, and the lies I tell on stage are the same ones I tell myself. Magician, immigrant, controlled both by the strings of fortune, like lives dealt by a deck. Is it not my life’s work to lie, if I myself know not the truth of who I am?
“Ling?” I turn around abruptly. Mister Morgan was standing there, arm extended. He handed me my waistcoat, which I accepted and drew over my hunched shoulders.
“I’ll hail a cab”, I spoke, though not to any individual in particular.
As our band of workers hobbled out onto the bustling London streets, blinking owlishly on the lamplit terrace, I took a moment to observe. The sidewalk pulsed like blood in a vein, ebbing and flowing with passers-by, swathed in dress robes and top hats bobbing up and down the pavement. What estranged members of society we must look like to them, in our colourful attire and assortments. Yet when we rid ourselves of our dress, could we just as easily melt into the undulating sea of men and women and top hats? Would fitting into this society and this nation be even marginally more bearable than being ridiculed as an outsider?
No. Because if the cost of acceptance is the loss of identity, then the one who gains acceptance is no more than a shell of a man. Being a fraud to oneself leaves not happiness and fulfilment in its wake. It would be a magician giving up his stage and his coat to be one with his audience. It would be giving up my work. I didn’t wear a mask to run away. I removed it not in search of forgiveness.
A cab was hired.
An immigrant is himself a magician. We seek to educate you about a world which you perceive to be so different and estranged from your own, and yet it surprises you to know that our worlds are built on the same fundamentals. A penny falls in your world as it does on my stage. The blinds of a curtain and a handkerchief’s gripper use the same string. The air we breathe and the ground upon which we stand are one and the same. Yet, these fundamentals don’t seem to be visible to you. So, we tell stories of other worlds. My work is to keep my world alive through its culture, stories and practices. Who we are and the questions of identity lie not as roots in the ground, but with the branches overhead, growing ever further from its origin yet never growing away.
Even if only the magician truly understands his culture at the end of the day, the story is still one worth telling. To work – I tell myself. And so we marched on into that bitter night.