Choi Hyun-woo poses at a cafe in southern Seoul on July 20. (Park Hyun-koo/The Korea Herald)
When Choi Hyun-woo, 41, began to learn magic in high school, he did it to overcome his shyness and impress girls. Choi didn’t get a girlfriend, but he became captivated by the wonders of magic.
There weren’t many young Korean magicians back then, but he saw David Copperfield perform when the world’s most famous magician visited Korea in 1995. He was immediately shocked and eventually mesmerized.
“I went to Copperfield’s house last year and I found the poster of the Korean performance there, so I took a photo in front of it. That was the first magic show I went to,” Choi told The Korea Herald on July 20 in Seoul.
Now, Choi is himself one of the most famous magicians in the world, and the first Asian to win the competition for close-up parlor magic, at the 2009 triennial magic Olympics hosted by the International Federation of Magic Societies.
Choi’s stage name internationally is “Charming Choi.”
“In 2002, I won an award in America but the announcer couldn’t pronounce my name correctly. I couldn’t get the award because I thought I wasn’t called. That was a big shock so I thought to change my name to something impactful and came up with ‘Charming Choi,’ which embarrasses me now,” said Choi.
Magic trends are changing rapidly around the world. Shows with the once-common beautiful assistants or featuring the cutting-off of body parts are disappearing, replaced by mind reading, for example. The older generation imagines magic as the conjuring of pigeons from thin air, while people in their 30s and 40s think of David Copperfield’s shows. Now the younger generation thinks those magic tricks are somewhat outdated, according to Choi.
“In order to satisfy the Korean audience, all the elements of magic for each generation need to be squeezed into a show like bibimbap,” said Choi. “Also, the Korean audience doubts a lot. Part of the amazement in magic comes from these doubts, but some Korean audience members talk in loud voices at offline shows and have discussions among themselves. That’s not appropriate manners.”
After COVID-19 closed down all performances, Choi decided to start his own YouTube channel. He aims to be the first Korean magician with 1 million YouTube subscribers.
Poster for Choi Hyun-woo’s online show, “Contact” (Raon Play)
Choi is also starting an open run online magic show, “Contact,” on Aug. 4, which will be the first attempt at an online magic show in Korea.
“The show ‘Contact’ was made because of COVID-19. It’s interesting because by using the videoconference platform Zoom, I meet the audience through the screen and read their minds,” said Choi. “There have been many successful cases of magicians around the world doing this, but it has yet to be done in Korea.”
As the COVID-19 situation draws out, Choi felt having an online show was worth a shot, as people have become more accustomed to online lectures and meetings. Since this is Choi’s first attempt at an online show, he is uncertain what challenges the show will bring. He provides instructions prior to the performance to all participants in order to minimize interruption, but whether that is enough remains to be seen.
Twenty people can watch the show each night. When patrons buy a ticket, a package containing magic paraphernalia to be used during the show is sent to the buyer. On the day of the show, the audience members set up webcams and microphones in advance to enjoy the show.
“The biggest advantage of having a performance online is that when I show magic on television or in a performance with over 2,000 people and pick a random person to read his mind, many people think the chosen person was planted in advance or was compromised because they weren’t picked themselves,” said Choi. “With only 20 people in each show, everyone will have a chance to be involved and experience magic, which will reduce such speculations.”
Another advantage of an online show, according to Choi, is that the tempo of the magic can be faster. In an offline concert, if he needs to show a card the audience needs to see him once then look at the screen again because of the distance. In an online performance, he can immediately show the card to the camera. Additionally, some people have a hard time coming up on stage in front of hundreds of people. However, he feels that that won’t be an issue online, as participants are actually in the comfort of their own homes.
Choi thinks that magic has a potential for online success because of the ability to communicate with each individual audience member. He also hopes online performances may become a way for fellow magicians, who have been struggling to earn income since COVID-19, to generate revenue.
Although Korea was able to compete at a high level in magic competitions in the past, the magic industry in Korea is not as strong as it used to be.
In the early 2000s, many colleges had magic clubs, which Choi visited to offer encouragement. However, as more and more students only join club activities that will enhance their resumes, like English clubs, performing arts clubs have been dwindling in number, with less than 10 such magic clubs remaining.
“It’s unfortunate. Magic is actually an intellectual form of entertainment for adults, and it can be a lifelong hobby. If people study magic a little in school and go on to companies with the hobby, it can be very beneficial to amateur magicians,” said Choi.
Choi also stressed the importance of reading.
“People these days don’t read books! Magicians and young people need to learn from books to develop their own perspectives and philosophy, but they just try to learn from videos now. I think learning through a video fixes the image in the brain, so that there is less room available for imagination and thinking about the material,” said Choi.
Choi Hyun-woo poses in front of a poster of David Copperfield’s 1995 Seoul show. (Instagram)