Special to The Globe and Mail
June 27, 2008
Self-proclaimed Ambassador of Magic was a mentor to aspiring illusionists
A self-taught conjurer, he first tried his tricks out on customers at his family’s Beacon Cafe in Sidney, B.C. He later went on tour and astonished audiences across the U.S. and Canada
VICTORIA — Tony Eng astounded and astonished audiences for more than a half-century. A diminutive and engaging performer, Mr. Eng practised the venerable arts of hocus-pocus and legerdemain. He displayed a showman’s verve and a craftsman’s precision whether as a stage performer, a close-up magician or the proprietor of a magic emporium in downtown Victoria. The self-proclaimed Ambassador of Magic slipped watches from the wrists of the unsuspecting or conjured at will an ace of spades (or clubs, hearts, or diamonds) from the most unlikely places.
His illusions included hacking his wife in half with a saw, while his sleight of hand transformed a lousy $5 bill into a gleaming $100 bank note.
More often than not, witnesses were left slack-jawed.
Mr. Eng became a legend on the West Coast as a mentor to generations of magicians. Countless youngsters who were mesmerized by the tricks he performed from behind the counter at his store decided to turn a hobby into a vocation. In his hometown, he performed in venues as grand as the Empress Hotel ballroom and as plain as a Greek restaurant.
Mr. Eng incorporated his family into his act, which toured Canada and the United States. His wife endured all manner of staged indignities, not the least of which was having her body hacked, slashed and stacked in red boxes. Their daughters joined them on stage almost from the moment they could walk. Today, the oldest is a prominent Toronto magician.
Magic did not always cover the bills, although it always remained part of daily life. While working as a bartender, he sometimes appeared to shake a cocktail only to present – with a flourish – a glass in which the booze had been replaced by a bouquet.
It was an eighth-birthday gift from an uncle that turned young Tony into a magician. Presented a modest set of cups and balls, he soon mastered the classic disappearing illusion. “I could amuse and amaze my friends,” he once told me. “More importantly, I could amuse and amaze adults. Being able to pull the wool over adult eyes was quite the feat.”
The Eng family ran the Beacon Cafe in Sidney, patronized by passengers waiting to take the ferry to the San Juan Islands and to Washington state. When not peeling spuds, the boy worked the tables, offering illusions along with refills. His reward came in coins and in a chance to perfect his technique with a captive audience.
His father, Eddy Eng, an emigrant from Canton (Guangzhou), China, cooked at a lumber camp at Ocean Falls, B.C., before becoming head fry chef at the Empress. He did not appreciate Tony pestering customers.
“Why don’t you read some books and become a lawyer?” the father asked the son. “At worst, you can be a cook.”
The boy knew magic left his father unimpressed. “To him it was a total waste of time,” he said.
At 14, he found a mentor in a barber who also performed as a magician. Other older men shared in teaching the eager apprentice.
“I was so lucky to learn the stories, to see the routines. Not just how you do it, but why you do it and how you present it. I was learning from masters.”
His debut came before the local Kinsmen Club. Nervous about the pending performance, he packed his silks a full week early to avoid a last-minute mishap. By the time he plucked them out for his illusion, the silks were so wrinkled as to betray the trick; a discerning viewer could spot the differences in folds. He made $5 for the gig.
Stage disasters continued even as he became a popular act. Once, at a mall fashion show, his wife, the former Ann Lee, stepped into a box which he then sawed into three pieces. After shoving the middle section exposing her midriff to the side, it became stuck. Mr. Eng’s sweaty efforts to shove it back into place failed. The clock ticked, each second an agony for the magician.
“Finally, I had to forcibly open the doors. My wife ducked down and got out. We bowed and everybody applauded anyway.”
The couple met on a blind date. He invited her to be his beautiful stage assistant and, soon after, they wed in 1968. Their daughters joined them in performances long before they ever entered a classroom.
His work as a bartender allowed him to perfect the techniques of close-up magic while expanding his repertoire of tricks and illusions. When he could no longer stand the cigarette smoke that came with working in a bar, he opened the Premier School of Bartending. He also taught bartending courses at Camosun College on Foul Bay Road. In 1980, he was hired to perform after Sunday dinner service at the Japanese Village Restaurant on Broughton Street in Victoria, a weekly gig that lasted 20 years.
An accomplished practical joker, one of Mr. Eng’s more memorable capers involved a dinner with a friend. The magician warned the restaurant staff beforehand that his guest was a kleptomaniac. As the diners left the table after their meal, Mr. Eng placed a hand on his guest’s shoulder while offering an apology to the waiting staff. He then reached into the puzzled man’s pockets, from which he produced an embarrassing amount of purportedly purloined silverware.
The purchase of a downtown novelties outlet reinforced Mr. Eng’s reputation as the region’s top magician. Tony’s Trick and Joke Shop on Broughton Street became a landmark stop for touring performers. The store stocked such supplies as a Vanishing Champagne Bottle (at $78, it cost more than a Veuve Clicquot) and The Arm Chopper (a $250 custom-built, aluminum-and-wood guillotine which at that price cost a leg, too). It also had quantities of itching and sneezing powder, fake blood stains and faux doggie doo, as well as whoopee cushions and remote-control flatulence machines.
He sold the shop to a fellow magician in 2005, although he continued to perform. He also indulged his passion for racquetball and fly-fishing.
In October, he was diagnosed with a rare form of skin cancer called Markel cell carcinoma and with chronic lymphocytic leukemia. He soon after launched a blog offering updates on his condition. His death was announced by the family at http://www.tonyengshealth.blogspot.com.