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Tricks up his sleeve

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Enterprising DB student Leo Bartu-Hong is spreading a little much needed magic, two kids at a time. Elizabeth Kerr reports

About 30 minutes into a suitably socially distanced chat with young Discovery Bay magician Leo Bartu-Hong, he performs a trick involving my ‘favourite’ playing card. I choose
the queen of clubs — because she’s queen. Leo absently glances around, saying the card name to himself as he shuffles, and asking for certainty on my part. He fans the standard looking deck of bicycles, face up, and on second fanning a single card is face down.

He gently waves the deck at me, hinting I pull it out. Indeed, it’s the queen of clubs. He repeats the trick, this time with the five of hearts, to the same result. His hands have been visible the whole time. It’s baffling.

Leo, 11, has been purveying his card and visual tricks since 2018, when he became what has to be one of Hong Kong’s youngest business owners with Kiddy Magic (www.kiddymagic.org). He may not be registered with the Inland Revenue Department yet, but Leo has business cards, and with his long shaggy hair he’s the picture of a hipster entrepreneur.

“I’ve always been active that way,” he says of the origins of Kiddy Magic. “Not really for traditional business, more for enterprise.” He can’t really explain why, and his taste for commerce is even more curious given Swiss mum is a meditation instructor and his Taiwanese dad is a mathematician. Leo started ‘working’ at around six, by selling lemonade, books and compost water outside his house, and later home-made iced lollies at the beach. Still, he’s more Bill Gates than Jeff Bezos. Kiddy Magic runs on a pay-what-you-can donation model.

“It doesn’t feel right to demand HK$300 dollars from another kid for a show, and I don’t want people who are less wealthy to feel like they’re missing out,” Leo explains.
“Those who can afford it pay more, and those who can’t pay what they can. It’s worked out pretty well.”

Leo has a repertoire of 30 individual tricks. Photo by Col Sim

Using his illusions
Indeed it has. The Discovery Bay International School (DBIS) student has come a long way, in a short time, from performing ‘street tricks’ around DB Plaza and his first official performance, a show at a birthday party, which he admits was a bit of a flop. “It was really bad. I learnt never to do card tricks for children. They were so bored,” he deadpans, before breaking into a chuckle.

But Leo plugged on, kept practising, and found himself a mentor – well-established DB magician César Rocher, 13. Also a student at DBIS, César (@cesar_magician) has been growing his reputation as a kids’ entertainer in DB since 2017, and he’s been happy to share his art – and his client base – with magic buddy Leo. The boys continue to perform
together from time to time, most recently at a couple of outdoor shows earlier this year. Leo scored his first paid solo show aged nine on the heels of some good old-fashioned word-of-mouth. A friend of his mum’s was fretting over cancelled entertainment for a party and Kiddy Magic stepped in. That was a success.

“I got paid a lot. It was, like, HK$1,000!” Leo recalls enthusiastically. “A thousand dollars and a free cookie for half an hour? I thought my life was sorted.”

Born in Hong Kong and a resident of DB his entire life (except for the first few months which he spent Kowloon-side), Leo is shockingly mature and adjusted, but still 11. He was bitten by the magic bug at age four, after his godmother bought him a magic set (a deck of cards and a wand). He lost interest as he got older, but magic clips on YouTube prompted him to dig the kit out of storage. His ‘earnings’ from Kiddy Magic – right now consisting mostly of small-group workshops for kids aged five to nine – go right back into the business.

Leo has a repertoire of 30 individual tricks, and three flowing, interconnected routines rather than a series of gags. A show can run up to two hours. And there’s more to it than sleight of hand, Leo has clearly worked out what it takes to be an entertainer. “At the start of a show I ask everyone’s name,” he says. “They forget my name, but when I throw out a ‘Hey Greg,’ they’re always amazed. You need to have that connection with your audience.”

One of the many slightly novel things about Leo is that he doesn’t have a mobile phone – and doesn’t really care. “You don’t need a phone to do this kind of stuff. I do want one but my mum doesn’t want me getting addicted to it – it’s happened to other kids – and she wants to keep my screen time down. I think she’s right. I use her phone to WhatsApp friends, and I send emails.” So he hasn’t been tempted by Apple’s new ‘affordable’ iPhone SE? Nope. “It has a price that’s just so high,” he says. “It’s crazy.”

Another novelty? Leo loves documentary films. His normal weekend viewing comprises a Marvel 616 film on Saturdays – the ones that take the Marvel (DC Comics) stories and put them into historical, cultural and societal context. And then on Sundays, he enjoys a doc chaser, something like Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things or Netflix’s snarky social experiment 100 Humans: Life’s Questions. Answered. Well, he’s mostly 11.

Admittedly the COVID-19 lockdown has been challenging and if Leo had his way, he’d be in class rather than in front of a computer screen. He spent some of the winter lockdown in Taiwan, where he brushed up on his magic in Mandarin (on top of French and English), but he admits to missing the ‘normal’ school day. “I didn’t like the [online learning] hours; it was about eight every day. It’s too many hours online. It’s too much,” he states of the disrupted school year.

At the time of writing, (we meet in the middle of August), Leo has no idea what the new school year will bring. He might even be heading to Zurich to stay with the uncle who
taught him his earliest magic tricks.

Magic powers
After Leo packs up his magic kit, now a considerably more extensive affair which comes with its own silver hardcase, his mum picks him up at the café; she’s the third person and so not allowed to join us. It’s easy to see where he gets his sense of egalitarianism, as she notes that however flawed conventional education may be, take it away and kids suffer, creatively or developmentally. Filling the gap where school should be is vital, and she hopes her son is helping to do that.

Ask me and I’d say that’s exactly what he’s doing. Leo loves to hear from clients who go home thinking, “Wow.” He also prides himself on the ‘angry’ emails he receives from
parents who can’t get their kids to stop practising after a show or workshop.

A look at the reviews on Leo’s website more than confirms his mastery of magic and just as importantly, his ability to entertain. “Leo is one of the best kid magicians I have ever known. Book him now to have the best magical time of your life,” reads one. Another: “Leo is a natural entertainer. His passion for magic and laughter is contagious!” And: “Leo came to our place in DB for a private show and workshop. He managed to keep the 10 kids (three to five-years-old) entertained for one hour! He is a great entertainer, magician and teacher. We all learned three cool tricks.”

All that being said, magic is likely to remain a hobby for Leo, or at least a side line. Though he’s just heading to secondary school, he already has bold career ambitions. “I want to create a solution to the climate crisis,” he finishes. “I haven’t done a lot of science in school yet, but I’d love to create a truly biodegradable material.” Talk about a magic trick.


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