Mixing magic and memory

And what do you get? A programme to help teenagers in personal development and character-building.

NINETEEN-year-old Christopher Cheong is a mentalist. He can make coins disappear right before your eyes or bend them into wonky shapes, seemingly at will.

With a wide, boyish smile which he wears when approaching unsuspecting passers-by, he lures strangers into a circle around him with his demonstrations of psychic magic.

If you are watching the spectacle, you will observe that one by one, the expressions of individuals in the crowd will begin to morph.

Curious smiles grow into gaping mouths while sceptics and the cautious will seem to relax their pursed lips into faces of bewildered amazement.

Cheong wasn’t always this way. There was a time when, for him, being at the centre of attention was unimaginable. “I didn’t have many friends, I would sit in the corner on my own during recess,” he says, recounting the early years of his primary school life in George Town, Penang.

What changed that was a Toys“R”Us magic set his parents bought him when he was eight.

He loved it and would practise his magic in the playground. Kids would come up and watch him, and before long he wasn’t sitting in the corner anymore; he would be all over the place, making friends, talking to kids and making a transformation from withdrawn caterpillar to social butterfly.

A blogger, Cheong was discovered by Telekom Malaysia when he was 15. He performed to his first live audience during one of the national tours organised by the telecommunications company. Since then he has made a living of it, acquiring a manager and appearing for shows at corporate events, clubs and parties. He has not only performed for audiences locally but around the region, too. The money, he admits, is pretty good.

In fact, he’s been so busy he’s decided to put his studies – a degree course in psychology at HELP University College – on hold for a year.

“I will be picking up where I left off soon, however,” he says. “I feel psychology is a very relevant subject to my career because mentalism is all about understanding how the mind works,” says Cheong.

It wasn’t easy to convince his parents, both graphic designers, that spending so much time on magic was the right thing to do.

“But over the years they have seen the result of my hard work, and they are beginning to be supportive of my choices now,” says the elder of two boys.

His ambition is to spread his passion across industries and bring magic to the masses. He has taken it to clubs, church groups, and now he’s trying to break into education.

The charm of magic

One of the things he loves about magic is that it’s like a universal language.

“It’s the perfect ice-breaker, you don’t have to go up to someone and try to create a topic; you just need to go to someone and say, ‘Hey, you wanna see something cool?’” he says.

Aside from its entertainment values, for Cheong there is more to “magic” than its mysterious intrigue and ability to inspire – much more. And he believes that the art which has made him the outgoing, confident individual he is today can do the same for others.

About three years ago he met another Malaysian with remarkable abilities, Asia memory record holder Lim Teck Hoe, 35.

Like Cheong’s magic, the memory techniques Lim picked up in order to study faster and more effectively to make more time for extra-curricular activities during his university days ended up changing his life.

He was always a good student, but the skills Lim learned through books about memory and how the brain works impressed him so much that upon graduation, he decided to forsake his study area of chemical engineering and open up a tuition centre teaching others the techniques.

Realising it would be good to build up some credibility for his tuition centre, Lim later pitted himself against world memory athletes at the 2002 World Memory Championships in London to prove his memory techniques. Aged 26, he bagged a silver medal and hasn’t looked back since.

Lim and Cheong met at a conference and soon became friends. Lim taught Cheong some memory improvement methods, which Cheong says helped improve the rhythm of his performances (easier to remember the steps to each new magic trick). He would also often perform at memory workshops organised by Lim.

As they got to know each other and learn about their respective disciplines, Cheong began thinking that the two could combine their skills to create a powerful tool for self-development – a programme designed to make the skills of magic and memory that have so benefited them accessible to others.

The duo then came up with Magic-A-Learning, a two-day workshop that teaches kids how to perform magic while developing their self-confidence, public speaking abilities, communication skills, psychological knowledge, creativity and innovation skills.

How can magic and memory techniques combine to do all that? Over coffee, Cheong elaborates.

Making it work

First of all, he says being a mentalist (a magician whose magical performance is made to seem like the result of mind control) is an art form that requires hard work, discipline and patience.

“Magicians don’t just go up to people and do a trick, it’s not as simple as that,” he says.

He explains there is a meticulous amount of planning needed, and learning how to master it is like a roller-coaster, self-help guide on self-development.

Magic, he says, has fascinated people for centuries but the basic formulas remain. For example, the popular disappearing coin trick can manifest itself in many different ways.

“You can make it reappear in someone’s pocket, in a cup, or at the top of Mid Valley,” he says, nodding skywards from his seat at a coffee joint in Mid Valley Megamall, Kuala Lumpur.

In other words, a lot of magic is based on the same old ideas injected with a fresh twist, and planning that twist involves developing certain qualities – innovation, creativity and resourcefulness.

Once you know your trick, it’s all about practice, practice, practice, as a lot of “magic” is achieved by sleight of hand, impeccable timing and theatrics.

Theatrics, he says, “is the everything as you really need to convince yourself, in order to convince other people that the magic has happened”.

For example, Cheong points out that if you just smile blankly and look at the coin while “using the power of your mind” to bend it, the whole performance isn’t going to be very convincing.

“It’s a bit like acting, you need to be absorbed in the role and use theatrics as a tool to manipulate people’s psychology.”

Cheong says aside from actually performing the trick, you must practise how you will approach people and what you will say. These are your “patters”.

“To ‘patter’ means to talk at length without saying anything significant, you need to put these together at home so you can build up a rapport with your potential audience.”

Typically, whenever he comes up with a new trick, Cheong will write down every “what if” scenario imaginable – what he would do if he makes a mistake or if people aren’t reacting the way you want them to, for example.

Then he prepares strategies to deal with them, including ways of diverting the audience’s attention.

In that sense, learning how to perform magic teaches you how to work under pressure and be resourceful; everyone has their own way of coping and dealing with unexpected situations and a live audience often forces you to dig deep into the creative side of your brain.

Combined forces

The workshop Cheong and Lim have created uses Lim’s accelerated learning techniques to help a person in memorising all the steps involved in a magic performance.

“Memory can’t stand alone,” Lim points out.

“You need association, you need memory hooks; for example, when you lose your keys and don’t remember where you’ve put them, the most common technique is to trace your way back through time and recreate that journey.

“So mnemonics act like memory hooks, they are things that help you to recall,” he explains.

Cheong says workshop participants can expect to learn about 20 tricks, which they will be encouraged to personalise, by getting creative and inserting their own style into their routine.

Depending on the trick, participants will also have to perform it amongst themselves or to strangers on the street, an essential element in the workshop’s confidence-building motives.

The final test will be individual performances in front of a large audience at the “graduation ceremony”, to which friends and families of the students will be invited.

Cheong is excited at the prospect of exploring how the craft that has helped to transform him into the confident young man he is today may be used to help other teenagers come out of their shells.

And, of course, it’s great for overcoming your fear of, well, talking to the ladies ... something Cheong discovered along the way!

The joint project, Lim says, is the first of its kind, and represents a fun, quirky way towards personal development and character-building.

The first Magic-A-Learning workshop, which was held in Petaling Jaya, Selangor, in mid-June started off with an intimate group of four. But they expect attendance to increase.

“We can go up to 30 participants for each session,” says Lim.

The workshop, with at least one planned a month, is targeted at teens aged 12 and above.

For more information on Magic-A-Learning workshop, e-mail magicalearning123@gmail.com, find them on Facebook or call Lim Teck Hoe at 016-332 3202.

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