Long Tack Sam's Magical Fame and Mysterious Vanishing Act

A poster of a man wearing a silky garment
The World Renown Long Tack Sam / Adolph Friedlander / 1919 / National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution / Acquisition made possible through the Federal support from the Asian Pacific American Initiatives Pool / Administered by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center

The Chinese-born acrobat and magician Long Tack Sam (1884–1961) once figured among the most famous performers in the world. From 1911 through the 1930s, he dominated the American vaudeville circuit and made numerous international tours with his troupe, traveling to South America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. An indication of Long’s global reach and cosmopolitanism is provided by this poster, made by a German lithography firm for English-speaking audiences and boasting of the magician's “world renown.”

Long’s unique combination of acrobatics and illusion delighted audiences far and wide . He performed a mid-air somersault and landed with a bowl full of water miraculously materialized in his hands. He defied anatomy with his “Needle Swallowing Trick,” attracting the attention of Harry Houdini—who promptly co-opted the routine. Magic was not the only entertainment offered by Long’s company, which also included jugglers, singers, tumblers, contortionists, and dancers. But there was no question of the troupe’s principal attraction. An Australian newspaper reported in 1923

It is smiling, chaffing, lovable Long Tack Sam himself who wins the hearts and the responsive laughter of his audience. For he makes his act a continuous fusillade of jokes and quips, sotto voice imitations, parodies, and grotesque foolery. He can pucker his face into the quizzical fussiness of a Londoner as he speaks in pure English of Piccadilly, and of a Yankee when he sees a joke. He is irresistibly droll. 

As a Chinese illusionist performing in the United States, Long Tack Sam followed a trail first blazed by Ching Ling Foo, a magician from Beijing, who dazzled audiences at the 1898 Trans-Mississippi and International Exposition in Omaha, Nebraska. The novelty of Ching’s Asian heritage as much as his masterful sleight of hand sustained a profitable decade-long vaudeville run and inspired a slew of American imitators in yellowface. William Ellsworth Robinson as “Chung Ling Soo,” Juan José Pablo Jesorum as “Li Ho Chang,” and Theodore Tobias Bamberg as “Okito” were among the performers who used make-up, wigs, costumes, and fake Chinese names to capitalize on the fad for Asian magicians.

As a Chinese man competing against pseudo-Asians in yellowface, Long Tack Sam was in a paradoxical position. He wrote newspaper articles correcting Western misconceptions of his homeland and refused invitations to appear in early Hollywood films featuring negatively stereotyped Chinese opium addicts, criminals, and laundry workers.  At the same time, he made conscious use of luxuriously embroidered silk costumes and stage sets featuring pagodas and temples that enhanced his mystique and capitalized on Western notions of the mysterious “Orient.” These accoutrements contributed to the appeal of Long and his troupe. Reviews, such as one published in Variety magazine in 1917, invariably mentioned “the gorgeous costumes” with their “beautiful needlework . . . valued at a small fortune.”

In his heyday, Long Tack Sam socialized with Hollywood royalty, performed with the Marx Brothers, and taught magic tricks to Orson Welles. His present-day obscurity inspired his great-granddaughter, filmmaker Ann Marie Fleming, to create The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam (2003), a whimsical documentary film that ponders the question of how someone once so famous has been lost to history.