Conjuring a craze

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Conjuring a craze

"Magic is the world's second oldest profession," says Oh Eun-young, 27, Korea's foremost female magician, with a sly smile. "Druids, high priests and court magicians from ancient civilizations are the forefathers of magicians today."

Of course, magicians now are entertainers rather than spiritual leaders. But that has only delivered Ms. Oh a faithful following: Crowds pack her Magic Cafe Bagdad in western Seoul to see local wizards perform, they attend her slight-of-hand classes at the Bagdad Magic Academy and nearly 10,000 are registered on her Web site.

Magic is becoming so popular that scores of magic clubs have opened on college campuses over the past few years. Ditto for magic-themed cafes and bars. And a whole new generation of sorcerers' apprentices is taking classes in the dark arts at cultural centers, which normally teach courses in flower arranging, cooking and salsa.

"It's a great way to break the ice," says Kwon Yong-sun, 26, who began studying magic a month ago. Ms. Kwon has no intention of becoming the next David Copperfield; magic is merely a leisurely diversion.

At the center of it all is the Magic Cafe Bagdad. The cafe is behind the Grand Department Store in Sinchon, and serves as a haven for magician wanna-bes and people who want to see rabbits disappear. Inside, there is a bar, tables and even a small stage at the end of the room for magic shows.

The cafe is in the building's basement, which makes it a bit dim. And instead of being intoxicated by the aroma of herbs and mysterious potions, first timers are greeted by the smell fried food. Bagdad offers a variety of fried rice dishes, as well as soft drinks and beer. The walls are decorated with magic memorabilia, photos of Korea's most famous magicians (including Ms. Oh in stage dress) and a large framed photo of Lance Burton, one of the most popular illusionists in the United States. "I aspire to be just like him," says Ms. Oh, whose 100-seat cafe is somewhat smaller than Mr. Burton's 1,275-seat theater in Las Vegas.

Just like Mr. Burton, Ms. Oh visits her cafe almost nightly to perform for visitors. Patrons can ask to have magicians perform some prestidigitation at their tables, and there are seven waiters who also do magic for free. To reveal the secrets of the trade, guests have to pay 10,000 won ($8) per table. Fridays through Sundays, full-blown magic shows are staged at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m.

Lee Eun-sang, 27, brought his girlfriend to the cafe after seeing magic shows on the street. "We came here wanting to see more of it. It's quite exhilarating," says Mr. Lee's girlfriend, Kim Hyeon-im, 25.

Nearby, a couple men seated in business suits intently watch the cafe's manager, Hong Se-jeong, turn a few card tricks. As Hong shuffles the deck, one of the men, Yoo Jin-hyeong, says, "Magic provides vitality in my life. I've performed some of the tricks that I've learned here and people gasp with wonder and clap." Mr. Yoo and his friend work in the securities industry and find magic a pleasant way to relax after performing their own hocus-pocus with other peoples' money.

Next door, on the third floor of a commercial building, is the Bagdad Magic Academy, a school for aspiring magicians. A parrot sits on the shelf and white doves coo in cages. Top hats, brightly colored boxes and other magic paraphernalia litter the room. There are now about 150 students taking classes twice a week at the academy from 10 master magicians. Learning magic in the hour-long classes is a one-on-one process, costing 250,000 won a month for adults and 200,000 won for children.

Ms. Oh says learning magic has unexpected benefits, such as introverted children become more outgoing.

Two sisters, aged 10 and 8, say they have been learning magic personally from Ms. Oh during the summer. "I showed my dad a trick where a scarf popped out of the palm of my hand and he loved it. Now, I want to learn magic until I grow up," says Yoo Seul-gil, the elder sister. Currently there are nearly two dozen children under the age of 13 who are enrolled in classes at the academy.

Ms. Oh was not born with special powers or with a scar like Harry Potter. She was just born pretty. Enchanting?

She was a model while studying history at Hankuk University of Foreign Languages, and in 1995 she won a local beauty pageant.

One day, to make a dull conversation livelier, a classmate showed her a few magic tricks, using matches which seemed to disappear from his fingertips. At that moment, she was mesmerized with wonder and delight. "I realized that [magic] could elevate dejected moods," Ms. Oh says. "And once I started to learn a few tricks to show my friends, I suddenly found myself very popular."

She became a flight attendant with Asiana Airlines in 1997, but continued reading about magic and studying under Korea's pioneer magicians. Korea's first female magician, Jeong Eun-seon, taught Ms. Oh how to make water come out of newspapers, flip two cards so they turned into one and how to make objects disappear.

"I loved traveling to different countries as a flight attendant. But the more I learned about magic as a hobby, the more I wanted to become immersed in the world of magic," Ms. Oh says. "Magic was still unchartered territory in Korea. I felt this could very well become a profession for me." She resigned from Asiana after three years of service to become a full-time magician. Ms. Oh's parents opposed her decision, saying it was akin to having a "street clown" as a daughter.

Ms. Oh persevered and in April 2000 opened the Magic Cafe Bagdad with two fellow magicians. Yes, that's Bagdad -- without the "h" -- as in the capital of Iraq. "It's named after the 1988 movie, 'Bagdad Cafe,' which depicted the wonders of magic and its positive effects on society," says Ms. Oh of the spelling-challenged film.

With or without the "h," Cafe Bagdad has become a hit. Ms. Oh lectures about magic at cultural centers and business forums. She teaches tricks to new employees at the Samsung group's orientation programs. Earlier this year, Ms. Oh was designated as the official magician for the 2002 World Cup. Putting hexes on Korea's opponents was not part of the job description; performing magic for VIPs before important matches was.

Having exhausted most resources in Korea, Ms. Oh has been traveling abroad to learn from overseas masters. She met one of China's top female illusionists at a convention in Japan, then studied under her in Hong Kong for a month.

Ms. Oh hopes that magic's popularity will continue to spread in Korea. To do her part, she is opening a branch of the Magic Cafe Bagdad in Cheongju this November.

There is plenty of room to grow. There are only 20 professional magicians in Korea, while some 500 Japanese professionals make their living from conjuring tricks.

"Magic is not something anybody can do easily. You need to practice continually to set the mysterious tone, master timing and wear the flamboyant outfits needed to create visual impact," says Ms. Oh.

Her specialities are split-second clothing changes and making hundreds of flowers sprout from a hat. As a woman, Ms. Oh feels she must conform to certain limitations dictated by audience expectations: "For male magicians, you need strength, speed and charisma. For women, you need to project an image of subtleness, beauty and meekness. It just doesn't work for woman magicians to chop people's heads off."

This past summer, Ms. Oh attended the Society of American Magicians' convention in New York City. There she chatted up David Copperfield, who was surprised that there were female magicians in Korea.

Wherever Ms. Oh goes, she is thinking about her next big illusions. "My life revolves around magic," she says. "When I buy hairpins, I think of how I could use them as an accessory to my next act."



For more information visit www.bagdadmagic.net.

by Choi Jie-ho

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