J C Sum, Mega Illusionist
The Thinking Man’s Magician: J C Sum Interview

This interview was conducted by the editor of The Quantum Ring (TQR), Official Publication of the International Brotherhood of Magicians Singapore Ring 115 and is reproduced with full permission.

The interview was featured in the Aug 2007 issues of TQR, just prior to J C's successful 'The Impossible Teleportation'  mega illusion.


By Enrico Varella

The Thinking Man’s Magician: an apt term for J C Sum, stage illusionist, illusion builder and close-up magical entertainer! You may have seen him on a television special performing for heartlanders, or watch his image on a giant screen in the HDB Hub, or grace the cover of a magazine.

He is in contention as one of 42 entrepreneurs and businesspeople for the Singapore Enterprise Awards 2007. In terms of sheer numbers, years in business, scale of shows, and span of clientele, J C exceeds all local magicians in terms of growth and progression.

As a fellow club member in International Brotherhood of Magicians Singapore Ring 115 since the early 1990’s, I have watched J C grow and develop into the star he is today. I had the pleasure to with him on projects over the years; in fact, together with another local magician we worked on an exciting marketing project in 1998 that spanned 30 continuous days of close-up and parlour magic performances. He is friendly, highly opinionated about all things magic-related, ambitious, and deeply passionate about our Magical Art – you would conclude that he is a professional. He will listen to your opinion, consider it, and then challenge it if it is filled with holes. He intelligently argues his points; whether you agree with him or not, you can be sure he is learning and you can learn from him.

If you are still intrigued by this dynamic, young performer and clever businessperson here are some fast facts. J C began his magical education at 12 years of age, began performing professionally at 17, and turned professional during his undergraduate years in the National University of Singapore. He has never been a staff, and his business approach is honed by studying marketing and business books, and like his magic – he has worked in the trenches to polish his style and approach. He is a real Student of Magic, and he studies the magic books and Classics (in magic) assiduously, delves into Theatre seriously, and consults with professionals from dance, acting and music. Everything is planned and executed with precision and a meticulous-ness short of a clinical compulsion. You may say that, like his finely sewn costumes, he has his work cut out for him!  

Like one of his inspirations, David Copperfield, J C has a warehouse of secrets. It is packed with the latest illusions, and his many creations. With 3 best-selling illusion books to his now-household name, J C has penetrated and permeated the international illusion scene with his ideas. The last time I read from his website, J C is working out a new flying illusion. Well, his career is soaring as well as his many charges. He is also mentor to upcoming personalities in magic, grooming them in his stables like fine Arabian steeds. They will move fast and furious, yet well-groomed.

I have kept this interview, as is, as J C is an editor’s dream – I barely edited his words. I trust that you will enjoy this interview, as everything is left intact, verbatim, uttered in the inimitable style and voice of The Thinking Man’s Magician.

Explain the ‘Thinking Man Magician’. Was this inspired by Daryl’s moniker?

No. Daryl’s ‘Magician’s Magician’ moniker had nothing to do with it. The name came about in late 2002. My team was looking for a branding name that encapsulated my style, approach to magic and magic presentation. ‘The Thinking Man’s Magician’ fit very well. It was Shawn Chua (last year’s Ring 115 Parlour Champion) who came up with the name.

Who were you personal influences in magic?  

David Copperfield, David Williamson, Dai Vernon, John Carney, Jim Steinmeyer, The Pendragons, Paul Harris, Lance Burton, Wayne Dobson, John Cornelius, Michael Ammar, Frank Garcia and Franz Harary.

Not forgetting local magicians Richard Ang, Sai Thong and the late-Michael Lim who played a significant role in my fundamental grounding in magic.

What do you love most about magic?

The fact that it employs so many elements to create singular amazement and entertainment. Multiple theatrical art forms (music, movement, story telling, light, costuming, sets, props), scientific principles (optical, mechanical, design), psychology and physical technique (sleight of hand skills) are used in unison to create the magical experience for the audience.

Which is your first love: close-up, or illusions?

For the longest time, it was close-up. But lately, it has been illusions. I’m still very into close-up especially with all the ‘Street Magic’ content we developed for MediaCorp and SPHMBO in the last two years. However, now, instead of having a deck of cards in hand during idle time, I’m sketching illusion designs on a piece of paper. Also, 75% of my professional work is in the area of illusion performance or design.

What were your major achievements in your career?

If all goes well, the Impossible Teleportation mega illusion with SPH will be a major milestone. But looking in the past, the 2004 President’s Star Charity and 2006 ‘Top Fun’ TV segments did boost my career and elevated expectations on myself.

I’m also proud that I broke the glass ceiling for expectation and fees commanded for a Singapore magic/ illusion show. I raised the standard in the local industry to a level that has never been seen before and is comparable to international standards in the West.

One last small, but significant achievement to me, is the success of my illusion books in worldwide sales. I published my first illusion book in Jul 2004 and have written 2 other books since. The 3 books have sold hundreds of copies in 35 countries. Magicians from all over the world have built some of my designs and I’m happy to be the voice of cutting edge illusion design from Asia .

Describe your most memorable magical experiences?

By far, the life-changing magical experience for me was watching Copperfield’s Flying illusion on VHS tape in Charles Choo’s shop in 1993. I borrowed the tape and watched it another 20 times straight at home. Ironically, I had seen old Copperfield specials his Statue of Liberty and Walking Through the Great Wall of China, but I had never seen any of his then-recent work. My primary influence of magic at that time was videos of magic acts and local magicians. Watching Flying with all its theatrics, music, choreography and storytelling blew me away; not to mention the cutting edge illusion methods. That was a defining moment for me on how I wanted to approach my magic.  

Another experience but not magical per say was having breakfast with Franz Harary in Bangladesh . He shared his approach to the magic business. And it was inspiring and enlightening. Franz is virtually unknown to the mainstream public but he is one of the most in-demand magic producers in the world by certain industries.

How far do you think you will lead magic in Asia ?

That’s a bold statement. I think there are several prominent Asian magicians in this generation who are leading magic in different ways. At least for South East Asia , I think I’m in a leading position for high-end magic for the event industry. I’m generally on the very short list that gets the invitation when something magically big is required, whether it is a show, launch, conference or media project.

This has created a lot of opportunity for other magicians who may get spill off work when my schedule does not allow or the budget does not allow me to take up the event. It has also raised the standard of magic in the region in general, because event planners expect more and are now aware of what standard is available in this part of the world.

For the general public, I only started focusing on mainstream projects since 2005 so have only just began. As to how far it will go, I don’t see an end in sight anytime soon. The mega illusion is going to have a big impact, at the very least in Singapore . I am about to close the deal for a 2nd mega illusion with another organization to be staged in Dec 2007 and I have several other mega illusions conceived and designed.

What do you think about the exposure of magic on YouTube.com?

Honestly, I have no problem with it. It is just another medium where exposure of magic is taking place. Magic has faced exposure from the start. A decade ago, magicians thought that the Masked Magician would ruin magic. Ten years later, magic is still as strong, if not more popular than before with mainstream audiences. People who scour YouTube for magical content represent a very small niche market, most of who are magic enthusiasts anyway.

Which of your own illusions are you most proud of?

I have several. My favourite illusion method is the one used for my upcoming Impossible Teleportation mega illusion as it is unorthodox but highly effective.  

As a medium-to-large stage illusion, my Full Throttle Motorcycle Illusion has served me well over the last few years. It has evolved in presentation but in its current presentation form, it is a very strong illusion that can be performed in virtually any condition and packs efficiently for transport.

My latest favourite is a newly designed large-scale illusion that involves passing through a giant 8ft industrial fan. This is completely different in method and style to Jim Steinmeyer’s/ Andre Kole’s Windshear or Walking Through a Fan (created by Jim Steinmeyer and Performed by Steve Wyrick). Building for this illusion will be begin in Sept 2007.

Who are the local magicians do you think have made the most impact on magic in Singapore ?

There are several criteria that one can use to make that judgment. Overall, through time, the undisputed most influential magician in Singapore was The Great Wong. The Concept:Magic team recently did an article on The Continuing History of Magic in Singapore and have strong historical proof to back that statement.

In terms of mainstream impact, no Singapore magician has made it to public Asia-wide/ worldwide prominence yet. I think I’ve scratched the surface for local prominence and am confident that my upcoming projects will extend this overseas in the next yew years.

I think that interesting to note (regardless of whether they ultimately do good) is the large impact popular magic shop owners have on the magic community. Since magic shops are the breeding ground for new magicians (I was one of those bred!), magic shop owners, do in some way, play a role in developing the magic scene in Singapore .

What about magic annoys you most?

Pettiness, Jealously

What do you see your role in the next 3 - 5 years?

I will continue to strive to be at the forefront of the professional magic scene in this part of the world. I know that I played a great part in changing the perception of the local event industry here towards local magic talent. Now, it is time to elevate the art for the general public.

I also look forward to help new talent develop their full-time magic careers. Currently, magicians like Shawn and Ning are doing well full-time into magic and yet, they are only at the very beginning of their careers and full potential have yet to be realized.

What would you be doing if you stop performing magic?

Even if I stop performing, I will still be designing, writing and producing magic-related projects. I will also be most definitely involved in a marketing & consulting business.  

What keeps you motivated and ambitious about your profession?

The fact that I have yet reached the pinnacle of what I can offer the world. I’m also continually humbled by how much there is to learn when I see new magic effects or presentations.

What will we expect in the Mega-Illusion on 18 August?

You can expect a unique illusion that has never been performed anywhere in the world before at this scale. As far as I know, this method has not been employed for an illusion before. The mega illusion will be performed live and in real time. If all goes right, it will be the biggest single magic/ illusion live act in the history of South East Asia . Given the fact that the illusion is designed and will be presented by a Singapore magician, it is a pretty big deal – especially since SPH is the financial backer.  

For those interested, detailed info on the mega illusion and a trailer can be seen at www.jcsum.com/megaillusion.html

What would you want to be remembered for?

Hmmm… that’s a tough one. I would have to say for “being a pioneer and innovator and bringing Singapore magic to mainstream prominence in Asia or worldwide”.

What are the relevance of joining magic clubs and societies?

There are too many benefits to list. Here are just five reasons: 1) The opportunity to perform and share in a ‘safe’ environment. 2) The camaraderie between fellow magicians 3) The opportunity to perform at public events, competitions and attend lectures 4) The community support available to develop one’s magic growth. 5) The club offers a structured way to develop one’s magic, something that ad hoc and casual sessions cannot do.

I meet many new magicians who do not see the benefit of a club because they think that there is no one in the club who can teach them the current style of magic. However, I’ve come to realize that it is because they see it from the point of view of “How can the club help me?” and not from the point of view of “How can I grow with the club so that we can benefit each other?”.

I can safely say that if I did not join Ring 115, I will not be where I am today.

Who are your current mentors in magic?

I’ve got not real mentors so to speak. I’m continually learning from multiple sources at any one time. This has been the case for my entire magic career. But if I have to pin down one mentor now, it would probably be the Internet J It’s the first thing I turn to for answers.  

How would you describe your relationship with your crew?

It is a great relationship as I have a great team that supports me for shows, especially big ones. Most of my crew are also performers so working on the big shows give them exposure and experience that they can bring and apply to their own shows. I always demand high professional standards from them with the hope that they put the same demands on themselves when working their own shows.

You were the first ( Singapore ) professional magician to enjoy a major TV series. What are your thoughts about the emergence of other TV magicians, i.e. Kyle Ravin and Imran?  

I think it is great that other magicians are getting opportunities like this. Each of the two mentioned magicians cater to distinct and different target markets (Indian and Malay communities) so it is a great opportunity for them to build their fan base from there.  

Being the first is always the hardest, because no network/ channel wants to take the risk unless it has done before. One reason I inked the SPHMBO ‘Magic in Motion’ 24-episode deal was because of proven success with the MediaCorp projects (‘Top Fun’ and subsequent VCD/ DVD release)  

I sincerely hope that my future projects will also create opportunities for more magicians to shine!