For Tony Eng, parlour tricks are more than a game — to him, they’re a way of life
By TOM HAWTHORN
Wednesday, July 13, 2005 Page S1
Special to The Globe and Mail
VICTORIA — Tony Eng dazzled a small crowd at his magic shop yesterday with a humorous display of sleight of hand.
“Did you bring some money with you? Did you bring a bill I could borrow?” Mr. Eng asked 14-year-old Jacob Kadziola. “See if you can weasel one out of your dad.” A fiver was handed over.
“Do you have any idea what these bills are made from?”
“Paper,” Jacob said.
“Silk fibres. Spell the word silk,” Mr. Eng instructed.
“And what do cows drink?”
“Milk,” the teenager replied.
“Water, water. Stay with me,” Mr. Eng said as the other adults laughed.
“It’s only five bucks. I’m going to roll it up into a tube like this and give it two taps. One hot . . .” He tapped the roll. “One cold.” He tapped again.
“Now I’m going to fold this for you four times,” he said, folding the bill into a tight wad.
“I simply blow on it and instantly it changes into a one-hundred dollar bill!”
The adults muttered mild oaths of surprise under their breath. As he handed the bill back to the boy, Mr. Eng replaced the brown Robert Borden for a blue Wilfrid Laurier faster than the eye could see. Jacob did not hide his disappointment.
When not performing one of his 200 annual shows, Mr. Eng can be found practising the sly arts of prestidigitation at his Tony’s Trick and Joke Shop. The store, in downtown Victoria, is an emporium of the amazing, the bizarre and the grotesque.
Mr. Eng’s hands and digits remain nimble after a lifetime of legerdemain.
At 59, though, he feels it will soon be time to hang up his Loopy Loop Endless Chain. The 50-year show-biz run by a restaurateur’s son is coming to an end.
“I’m in the twilight of my performing days,” he acknowledges.
He has even sold his store to a fellow magician and, as of January, will no longer perform his spontaneous one-man shows for customers.
Until then, he still gets a kick from the oohs and aahs to be had by beguiling tourists with his skills. He is particularly adept at causing cash to vanish. Though an honest man, Mr. Eng’s slippery fingers make him someone to avoid at the poker table.
The shelves of his store are filled with enough decks of crooked cards to warm the heart of the cruellest card cheat. He has magic paraphernalia to last a decade of children’s birthday parties. He has a wide assortment of Billy Bob Teeth, including such models as Jethro, Big Cletus and Austin Powers.
He also sells a 75-cent pair of dice and a $250 custom-built, aluminum-and-wood guillotine whose name — The Arm Chopper — says it all.
At $78, his Vanishing Champagne Bottle costs as much as a nice Veuve Clicquot, although it is debatable which disappearing act would be more fun.
He also has itching powder and sneezing powder, fake spilled ink and fake blood stains, faux vomit and faux doggie doo, not to mention a selection of whoopie cushions and remote-control flatulence machines to please the most discerning of scatological clients.
Novelties provide income, but magic is his raison d’être.
Mr. Eng, who takes part in international magic conventions, has come a long way for a boy who once coaxed tips from patrons at the family restaurant by performing tableside card tricks.
Anthony Wayne Eng was born in Victoria on his mother’s 24th birthday in the spring of 1946. At the age of 8, an uncle bought him a modest Cups and Balls set. The boy quickly mastered the classic disappearing illusion.
“I could amuse and amaze my friends,” he recalled. “More importantly, I could amuse and amaze adults. Being able to pull the wool over adult eyes was quite the feat.”
His parents ran the Beacon Cafe in Sidney, a landmark at Third Street and Beacon Avenue patronized by passengers queuing for the ferry to the San Juan Islands and Anacortes, Wash. The boy was soon working the tables for tips when not peeling spuds. The café’s patrons enjoyed the act far more than his parents.
“They were thinking, ‘Don’t bother the customers.’ ”
His father, an immigrant from China who cooked at a lumber camp at Ocean Falls, B.C., before becoming head fry chef at the grand Empress Hotel, failed to appreciate his youngest child’s hobby.
“To him it was a total waste of time. ‘Why don’t you read some books and become a lawyer. At worst, you can be a cook,’ ” Mr. Eng remembers his father saying.
At 14, the boy found a mentor in Bill Weatherill, a barber who moonlighted as a magician. Two others, Art Curtis and Lon Dingwell, completed his tutelage.
“I was so lucky to learn the stories, to see the routines,” Mr. Eng said. “Not just how you do it, but why you do it, and how you present it. I was learning from masters.”
He made his debut at the local Kinsmen Club, a near-fiasco because he had packed his silks a week early to avoid last-minute mishaps. By the time he pulled them out for illusions, they were wrinkled beyond belief and a discerning eye would have been able to spot his switches. He made $5 for the gig.
Stage disasters come with the act. Once, during a mall fashion show, he sawed his wife, Ann, in three pieces. He shoved the box holding her midriff to the side, but was then unable to get it to return to place.
The struggle with the broken apparatus lasted seconds, but felt like an eternity.
“Finally, I had to forcibly open the doors. My wife ducked down and got out. We bowed and everybody applauded anyway.”
He had met his beautiful assistant on a blind date. She became a part of his act before they married in 1968.
Their daughters, Julie and Sandra, were incorporated into the act not long after they could walk.
“I always thought to have them in the show would be a cheap way to get applause,” he said. “People just adored them.”
Today, Sandra, 32, is an architect in New York, while Julie, 33, is a full-time magician based in Toronto. His looming retirement is made easier with the knowledge that a half-century of tricks of the trade have been passed on to another generation.
Back in his shop, the self-described Ambassador of Magic gave a 20-minute lesson to a boy. He was no less bedazzled than the gape-jawed adults surrounding him. In fact, one was particularly struck by the money-changing trick.
“I’ve got some more fives,” the father said.