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Chinese Troupe Goes In for the Skill : Since the 1800s, Revue Has Dazzled Audiences With Magic, Acrobatics and Martial Arts

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Until recently, it was almost a given that any child born into the Hai family would soon be performing acrobatic stunts and other visual marvels for the Chinese Magic Revue.

Since the late 1800s, four generations of Hais have carried the troupe’s banner. Barely out of their mothers’ arms, Hai sons and daughters began their training as young as 4 and waited for their turn to replace their elders on stage.

But things have changed a little since Hai Ken Tsai, the group’s patriarch and director along with brothers Hai Ken Fou and Hai Ken Hsi, immigrated to the United States in 1985 and became an American citizen.

“I asked him about his kids (and their futures), and he was quick to mention the importance of college,” said Don Hughes, who has produced the revue’s shows for 17 years and brings its latest production to Fullerton’s Plummer Auditorium tonight.

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“I talked to one of the daughters, and she right away said she was going to college. It just points out that everyone realizes the opportunities and that things change.

“But really, I don’t think it will have a big effect (on the revue) in the long run; there are plenty of kids” who want to carry on the tradition.

That tradition goes back to when the revue performed for the Chinese emperor and other heads of state before the Communist revolution. After fleeing to Taiwan, the troupe eventually branched out on an international scale.

Since the early ‘70s, the 18-member company (ranging in age from 12 to 48 years), has toured Africa, Israel, South America, Europe, Canada, Australia and the United States several times, offering a mix of folk dancing, magic, comedy and general spectacle centering on its display of martial arts, balancing and acrobatics.

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Reviews for the group have tended to be ecstatic, usually focusing on the skill required for the stunts. Hughes said that’s due to the intensive training of youngsters.

“First off, when they expose children at such a young age to it all, that tends to make them fearless, which kids are naturally anyway,” he said.

“Furthermore, it all looks so natural to them that it feels natural when they start to train.

“And as they get a little older, they start to improve on what they see. One boy (may see an adult) balancing 10 spinning plates and decide to do it better, to balance 15 spinning plates. I’ve seen that happen for the past 17 years and am constantly surprised by it.”

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In fact, Hughes’ relationship with the Hai family is more than the usual between a producer and a client. Hughes said he was instrumental in acquiring U.S. citizenship for a few of the family members and feels closer to them than anyone he has represented.

He pointed out that the revue actually helped rescue his career during a run of bad luck in Africa. In 1973, Hughes said, he brought a production of Stephen Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music” on tour of Africa, but the show died during its run in South Africa.

“I had the biggest flop ever in that country but still had all these theaters to fill,” he explained. “This little man (Hai) came up to me and said he could bring people in with his show. I booked them into all the theaters (instead of ‘A Little Night Music’) and they sold out every night. It was a godsend, and we’ve been together since.”

Although Hughes wouldn’t characterize the revue as superior to any other acrobatic or circus group (“America has some marvelous, really unique performers,” he said), it does provide an unusual, distinctly Asian brand of entertainment, he said.

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For one thing, the traditional costumes provide a colorful accent to the athletic feats--ranging from leaps through an array of knives to aerial contortions on a precarious 30-foot stack of chairs. He added that the seemingly effortless way in which they are presented also impresses an audience.

“I’ve found that people are amazed by the ease of the revue as much as anything,” Hughes said.

“It’s almost good when they make mistakes and have to repeat a stunt, because then you can see that it’s not as easy as it may look.”

The Chinese Magic Revue performs tonight at 8 at Plummer Auditorium, 201 E. Chapman Ave., Fullerton. Tickets: $12.50 to $17.50. Information: (714) 773-3371.

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