WHEN THE FIRST book on magic, Discoverie of Witchcraft, was printed in 1584, its purpose was to argue against the persecution of witches and charlatans. For many, the unexplainable was simply the Devil’s work.
In the centuries that followed, Harry Houdini and David Copperfield continued to beguile, leaving audiences pondering what was real and what was fake. While Hollywood movies like The Prestige and Now You See Me have aided in bringing magic into the mainstream, street magicians like David Blaine and Kris Angel have brought the art of prestidigitation into people’s homes.
In a quiet café in District 2, Vietnamese- Australian Petey Majik (aka Peter Nguyen), 34, expertly shuffles a deck of cards. With each motion, there’s a flash of card suits tattooed on his inner wrists. He asks me to pick a card, look at it and put it back in the deck. A bit of shuffling later, he reveals my card. Perhaps it’s because he recognizes the tired look of indifference on my face that he asks me to pick another card. This time, I slip it in the middle of the deck, but there’s no shuffling. He flips over the top card and it’s mine. “The less the magician touches the props, the more magic there is,” he says with a smile.
In the four years since moving to Vietnam, Petey has a television series, regularly gets booked for gigs and has been in movies. He’s currently shooting one right now, playing a pickpocket/con artist in what he calls a “Vietnamese version of Ocean’s Thirteen.” Despite being born in Australia, his Vietnamese is good which allows him to engage with his television audience, often random people on the street. “[Back in Australia], my parents told my younger sister and me that ‘when you’re home, you have to speak Vietnamese.’ It was mainly normal conversations. Here [in Vietnam], I had to learn formal stuff for on stage. I didn’t even know how to say ‘ladies and gentlemen.’ It was more like ‘hello, moi nguoi’ (everyone)!”
Petey’s interest in magic started in his early teens with seeing David Copperfield on television (“I still have his specials on VHS at home”), but it wasn’t until seeing street magician David Blaine perform that he really began to get into it. “It just seemed more real, and a good way to pick up girls,” he laughs. (Blaine has famously been romantically linked to celebrities, the likes of Madonna, Daryl Hannah and Fiona Apple.)
Street magic is intimate. talk of a time something didn’t go as planned.
There’s always the problem of someone in the crowd, like a heckler or a skeptic. They’re like scrutinizing the deck, asking to shuffle it. Over time, though, you’re able to see and control the audience a bit more. With experience, the performer becomes a more believable, confident person.
I had one gig for a wedding where we did a trick called “Trust me.” The groom sits on a chair with the bride standing in front. We have two cups and I pour water in each cup. The bride and I hold the cups above our heads and I say that we’re going to do something together and then I’m going to do an extra action, which you have to copy. We rotate on the spot, but when we turn, I only pretend to turn and quickly drink my water. The audience sees it, but no one says anything. The secret to the trick is that it’s a gag. Her cup has a particular powder in it called slush powder which turns the water into gel. The weight is still there, but nothing comes out. I mime throwing my glass onto his head, but she’s like, “I can’t do it!” The groom yells, “C’mon honey, I trust you!” But instead of pouring it over his head, she splashed him in the face! The slush broke up and fell into pieces. But people clapped and it worked out in the end.
How did your parents react to you becoming a performer?
Now? They’re normal. But when I first got into it, I think Dad was more strict. I graduated from marketing/advertising, and was working for a company but doing magic on the side for extra money. Dad was the one who said it wasn’t easy to go into entertainment. He said, “1. No one knows who you are. 2. You’re Asian.” Not to be racist, but in Australia, the percentage of Asians in entertainment is very low. He said that if I pushed hard, it’d take at least two to three years. He was right. It took two and a half years to be known as a wedding magician in the Vietnamese community, and then I found myself here.
In 2011, a mate suggested that I come and do some shows here. A network owner came to a gig I did for Mercedes, and that show landed me a TV contract. It went to air, and I started getting invited to events and casting for movies.
What’s the magic scene like in Vietnam?
Magic is very Old School here. They’re still doing traditional stage magic with doves, a top hat, using really old props… They still do things like make flowers appear, but it’s cheesy because they’re plastic flowers. It’s the younger generation that are doing all the modern stuff that they see on YouTube. It’s school kids in [flip flops] but doing amazing things with their hands because they have time to do it. But there isn’t really a local magician that does their own Vegas-style show. It’s more at privately booked events, product launches or mini festivals.
How do Vietnamese react to your illusions?
The countryside Viets are scared of even simple card tricks. Or else, they’ll go: “We have to make money off of this. I want to gamble!” [Laughs]. The younger generation are like: “Wow! How do you do that?” The older generation sometimes don’t have any reaction at all. I know they’re thinking something, though. It’s funny, when we were shooting Street Wizard, no one knew who I was. Even if we were shooting in front of a lady selling stuff, she’d get angry. A lot of the locals thought I was busking or something. I had to tell them it was free.
What is it like to be Petey’s friend?
I’m as normal as it gets. I still go and play basketball with local friends, ride my bike… I jam with some local magicians here and there. When you’re hanging around with experienced magicians, they’re really reserved on what they know. Maybe they’ll say, “Hey, can you tell me what you think of this?” And if you don’t see [how they did the trick], obviously, that means they’ve mastered it. Others will trade off with you, like “I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.”
When I see regular friends, though, they’ll usually bring someone new and go, “Hey, can you show them some magic?” For me it’s normal. It’s just extra practice.
Breaking the Magician’s Code caused a lot of controversy when it aired. as a magician, how did you feel about it?
I actually agree with the reasons behind Breaking the Magician’s Code. The original masked magician wanted people to do new stuff, wanted to get magicians to start thinking outside the box again. I think magic has evolved into more than the trick; it’s about the connection now. It’s about the delivery.
There’s a lot of politics with magicians. There are a lot of effects out there available to everyone. The thing that you cannot do is copy someone’s act word for word, using this music and that joke. That’s a no-no. Back in the ‘90s, Copperfield had a really strong marketing team, including contracted magic creators. He didn’t think of all his illusions. He had ideas, and they’d think of the illusion. After a time, those illusions then go to conventions where people can pay to learn the secret.
Do you believe there really is a realm of magic, one that is unexplainable?
I had an experience the first time I came back to Vietnam when I was 15. Our family did a séance for my grandfather who had passed away. Before we called the lady, the spirit medium, or whatever, in, we were like: “No one tell her anything! No names, no ages, nothing!” Then she rocked up, lit some incense, and it was like Granddad’s spirit went into her. She looked at my first uncle and said his whole name aloud. Then she gets to my family (my mom is number eight out of 10), and said my parents’ names. Then, “Where’s Peter and Julie?” I was like, how does she know? I was there firsthand and I don’t know if it was real or not. Today, I think if it’s real, it’s real. Or maybe someone in the family set it up so that we would feel some closure.
It’s sort of like that with the person I’m doing an illusion for. It’s like, how did it get there? A bit of misdirection. The closer you look, the less you see. One of the reasons I love doing it is to get people’s minds all boggled .
Interview over, we sip cappuccinos in the late morning sun. But Petey has one trick left up his proverbial sleeve. He asks me to take out my phone and says he’ll try and guess my passcode. He has me open up the calculator and input my birth date, followed by a string of numbers and seemingly random calculations. Finally, he asks me to shout out the passcode in my head. I know where this is going, but I can’t seem to stop the inevitable conclusion, no matter how improbable. He looks me in the eye, takes my phone, and on the first try, unlocks my phone. He then tells me he’s working on his next trick where he’ll call someone at home, ask them to choose a card from their own deck, and over the phone, tell them which card they chose. It seems impossible, but I’m now a believer.