How did a children magician ended up performing in DPRK, more commonly known as North Korea?
I became very interested in Korea history and culture after a visit to DMZ around year 2000. The more I read about it, the more curious I became. Hence when got to know about this festival from my magician friend, Mamada from Thailand, I asked him many about it.
I felt that this was the perfect time to go there with the warming ties with all the countries. (Year: 2018)
I sent in my videos and profile via my embassy. I specifically told them that I specialise in performing magic for children (although I can perform magic for adults.). I wanted to challenge myself; if I could perform magic in a country which speaks a different language with very different cultural background, I can perform anywhere around the world.
I also hope to inspire children using magic.
It has to do with my character, Mr Bottle.
“Once upon a time, there was a very shy child. So shy that he did not dare to talk to anyone in school. One day, his father bought a bottle of magic for him. “In it, is a potion that will make you grow brave and strong.”
Every morning, he would open the bottle for some magic. Day by day, he began to make more friends.
Many years later, he discovered that the bottle was actually an empty bottle. Believing in the magic has changed his life. This child is none other than Mr Bottle the Magician, who believes that nothing is impossible.”
So if you watch the videos of my performances, you will notice every action and reason has to do with philosophy of the character and how children are being empowered. For instance, in my ‘recycling in fun’ routine, when I take coins from the child, he has all the coins. I get increasingly surprise as I keep finding them on them. In another example, when the break-away wand breaks, I get a shock as though he had the power to break my wand and it is not supposed to happen.
About the April Spring Friendship Festival.
After several weeks, I received the air ticket!
The international April Spring Friendship Festival happens once every 2 years to ‘promote independence, peace and friendship’ and has been happening since 1982. Since this year is the 31st international edition, there is a ‘domestic’ one next year. This festival, held in conjunction with the Founder, Kim Il Sung’s birthday, used to be once a year, but changed probably due to the sanctions.
Performers from all over the world will descent on the city. This year, there were about 600 from 19 countries this year, from Lao, Russia, Cuba, France, Japan, etc. The type of arts included music, dance, acrobats and of course, magic. One of the most prominent troops was the Central Ballet troop from China. This year, the only magicians were from Thailand and Singapore.
There were 6 theatres used for this festival. Posters were all over the country. Tickets were free (accordingly to my guide) for the locals. Tourists who came during this time could request from their guides on how to get the tickets. Each show lasted about 1hr 15min and I had to perform one show a day from 12-16 April.
Times of all the shows in the theatre were the same. In other words, if today’s showtime was 4pm; all the shows at the different theatres were also 4pm. There was an exception because this year, there was a last minute additional for the ballet (as President Xi Jinping gifted the Ballet Performance during the DPRK-China talks) so this was in the evening. I got to see DPRK’s Leader Kim Jong Un at the ballet show. I have talked to a few regular tourists, but it was the first time they saw the leader.
One word: Amazing!
I was the only delegate from Singapore but I am glad Singapore was represented in this festival. I didn’t know what to expect. All the delegates paraded from about 50m away from the theatre. Two rows of ladies in traditional costumes welcome us. I saw and heard them saying “Singapore”. They were excited when I wave to them. Being treated like a star felt good!
When we reached the end of the welcome team, there were array of performers showing their stuff; marching bands, children dancing, acrobatics, REALLY young children on unicycle performing, etc. The children there were trained very well in their arts.
We were treated to an emotional performance in the theatre including local dance, traditional instruments and choir. The show was sharp. The Koreans were extremely organised and professional in handling the sequencing, the pace, and logistic and change over.
About My Show
My show was at the Pyongyang Circus Theatre (My guide says it is the Acrobat Theatre, I think it is a matter of translation) with aerial acts, juggling, circus acts and magic by mostly Russian teams and individuals, as well as performers from Belarus, Thailand and of course Singapore.
The director found out what our acts were when we arrived (maybe they wanted to be sure it is the same as the video what you sent in) and put them together on the spot. All technical riders were discussed, rehearsed on the spot and refined. I speak a little Korean so I thought I could ask for a microphone to speak during the crucial parts. In the end, I adapted to a non-verbal act because it seemed they had some problems getting a spare microphone.
I was amazed with the crew’s professionalism. I had a personal dressing room with drinks and snacks everyday. Everyone was polite and treated us with respect. Although there were a lot of waiting time during rehearsal, everyone was very professional.
Every show went like clockwork. All the crew were always there when needed to and the music cues were always right. They even got me children so I can rehearse with them!
I was little apprehensive for my 1st show, BUT not nervous, (since I have done this show thousands of times) because I wasn’t sure how the audience would react to my show because of the culture differences!
Because of my costume, actions and facial expressions, I was already getting laughs from the very beginning when they were just introducing all the acts. Restoring “Mr Bottle” poster got the reactions I wanted! Once I got the child up on stage, it was just laughter all the way! What a relieved! In fact, I decided to even milked it a little more when I knew it was working out great! By the time it was over, I was relieved! I was getting all the reactions which I wanted, only better.
At the end of the show, they made everyone feel like a star by presenting flower bouquets to us.
Performing in DPRK
- Understand their culture – Every country has different cultures and boundaries. Be sensitive and show respect to their culture.
- Publications –My miser’s dream routine is based on concept of recycling, in which I have a newspaper restoration portion. The DPRK customs do check your luggage for publications like newspapers for propaganda materials so I decided not to bring newspapers just in case. Tearing their newspaper is very sensitive. Hence I decided to use a Mr Bottle poster (using Tony Stevens’ no tear method) for my act there.
- Bring extra – There are some restrictions getting around in Pyongyang so bring extra supplies and everything needed for your show like glue, bring duct tape and tools which you may need to fix stuff.
- Instrumental music– The director requested that I used an instrumental music, instead my original which has singing in English for my needle through balloon act. I complied.
- Visual magic – Most Koreans do not speak English so choose something visual, rather than working with a translator. I have worked in China a lot where English speaking magicians request for a translator. Speaking both Chinese and English, I realised how funny that it is almost always lost in translation (especially the jokes) and it slows down the pace. If you use translator, he should not translate word for word, but rather come in at crucial points. Encourage him to come up with own jokes which may be more in context.
- Street magic – You cannot venture anywhere without your guide so you cannot just perform on the streets if you wanted to. In fact, I requested to my guide to perform at orphanages and schools as well as close-up magic and make balloons outside the theatre before the show starts but these are kindly declined, which is totally understandable. Michael Spavor, the CEO of Paektu Cultural Exchange, who brought Dennis Rodman to the DPRK, told me that at one time he had heard that even David Blaine and other famous magicians were keen to come here to perform; we both felt that this might actually be the perfect time.
That didn’t stop me from performing more.
In fact, on the plane, a Russian delegate, who hardly spoke English, got to know that I am a magician so he asked me to perform. Why not? The Koreans sitting behind was astonished. Russians loved it. Magic really transcends language and culture.
At the hotel on the first day, I decided to hang out at the bar with the Portugal delegates. While chatting, some friends joined in. Talk went into magic. Word spread and I started entertaining a crowd, including waitresses, tourists, reporters, guides and manager at the bar. Oh, and I am teetotaller so I hardly even drink beer!
Later, waitresses from a different shift even knew whom I was because they heard about me from their colleagues and wanted to see some magic too. I was getting recognised in the lift. This reporter from Associate Press in Hong Kong asked if I am the Singaporean magician because he heard the commotion when he was having his meal.
At the theatre, while waiting for the bus, I would make balloons sculptures for kids if there were any around. After several days, the crew and guides started asking me for balloon sculptures. On the last day, even the emcee and director asked for one. I felt the barrier broke down once I made that connection using magic and balloons.
Future for North Korea
It was quite an experience for me in Pyongyang. The people were really friendly and the whole experience was surreal.
Most Koreans from DPRK don’t have a chance to travel out of their country. By interacting and showing our art to them, we can create that friendship and present them with positivity. They may be wary of foreigners because of what happened in the past but we can all make a difference in our own small ways. Magic is a simple and great way to make them open their hearts to us.
I hope to recommend more magicians from different countries to the next ASFAF. I have also discussed with the embassy as well as Michael from Paektu Cultural Exchange about the possibility of organising an international magic festival. The ambassador promised to discuss with the culture minister when he returns to his country.
Nothing is Impossible
Over the days, my guide began to opened up a little about his past depression and girlfriend wanting him to be a diplomat with UN, which he said was impossible. “Nothing is Impossible,” I told him. “I’ll try,” he replied. “No! Don’t say you try. Say ‘you can’,” I retorted!
Before I left the city, I wrote him a letter to encourage him that everyone can change things and make dreams happen no matter how small we may be. I gave an example how my children asked their friends to donate some money in lieu of presents for their birthday parties. In the end, they collected enough to build a toilet for a rural village in Nepal.
Nothing is going to change overnight, hopefully this will give him some food for thought and bring about positive change for the future.
Since my trip there, I have been interviewed on BBC (http://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-asia-43890630/why-i-performed-magic-in-north-korea ) as well as local newspapers and radio stations. You can email ‘Mr Bottle’ at firstname.lastname@example.org