Thursday, October 11

The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam

An Illustrated Memoir
by Ann Marie Fleming
Riverhead Books / Penguin 2007

Ann Marie Fleming's great-grandfather was Long Tack Sam, one of the great international magicians of the late 19th and early 20th century. Growing up Marie had heard many casual references to her great-grandfather but there was little real information to go on. With members of her family spread across the world she would glean bits here and there until finally she decided to find out who he was and document the process in video.

This book is an outgrowth of that process, what Penguin calls a "graphic memoir," that on the cynical side could be seen as a very creative movie-tie in for the Fleming's award-winning documentary. I wasn't aware of it's origins when I started, and it isn't necessary to know that going in either, but I mention it because the reviews I have seen for the book only refer to it as a graphic novel. That was my initial reason for searching it out. I'm not so sure I agree with that label, but I'm pressing on with the review anyway.

If you've seen any magic in your life, chances are good you've seen something with Long Tack Sam's influence stamped into it. Seen anyone pull an endless strand of threaded needles from their mouth after having swallowed the needle and thread separately? How about a magician who could form ice from a bowl of tap water? Perhaps you saw that movie The Prestige about a pair of maniacal, battling magicians? There's a scene which mis-characterizes a famous trick where a Chinese magician makes a full goldfish bowl magically appear. All that comes from Long Tack Sam.

Fleming takes her time building the story, her stick figures standing in for herself as she makes her inquiries, with the majority of the book profusely illustrated with stills from her film and the various paper ephemera she dug up in the process. Interviewing family members and respected magicians and the keepers of their history Fleming manages to piece together no fewer that three official stories about her great-grandfather's early days. In one he was traded by his poor parents essentially for a sack of beans; another has him running away rather than face his father after shaming the family name. As the pieces come together what becomes clear is that, above all, Long Tack Sam was a born showman, a storyteller, a modern day shaman.

Snapshots from various family albums and handbills help paint the vaudeville era, which I'm beginning to see come more into vogue in children's non-fiction. (I hope to eventually review a picture book called Footwork that covers the same period as Long Tack Sam but follows the early days of Fred Astaire and his sister Adele.) Sam's travels take him around the world, eventually to Austria where he meets his wife. But Sam doesn't settle down, he keeps to the road, eventually deciding to incorporate his wife and daughters into his act in order to keep them together. Sam continues to wow audiences and becomes an official cultural ambassador for China. Sam and his family make friends in Hollywood, a place where many former vaudevillians are making big money. Sam's daughter screen test for the movie adaptation of The Good Earth but Sam puts his foot down, refusing to allow his daughters to tarnish the image he had spent many years building of beautiful, athletic Chinese people and culture; Hollywood was more interested in showcasing Chinese as dope smoking, murderous criminals. Mao seizes his chain of theatres in China as part of the reformation against Western influences. Racism and bigotry follow Sam and his family wherever they go; having married an Austrian forced them to leave behind their family home when the Nazis came to power. They flee to Italy under fascism scares them to America, then their visas expire and they are forced to go to Shanghai until the Japanese invade and...

If Long Tack Sam hadn't been as famous as he was he would never have lived this incredible globetrotting life. That said, the Long family endured what many around them endured -- the prejudices, the stereotypes, the demise of their livelihood as vaudeville was replaced by other media -- so that in an odd way The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam comes to be both a biography and a mirrored history of the early 20th century, an entirely fascinating document.

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