Toward the end of magician Shin Lim’s “Dream Act” routine, his hands slowly rise to his head, palms up. Just as the accompanying dramatic orchestral music swells, he opens his mouth, expelling a cloud of smoke and revealing a folded playing card that had been inexplicably moving between both of his hands and his vest pocket.
Fellow magician Don Greenberg watched Lim, then 23, perform this act in July 2015 in Jacksonville, Florida, as part of a competition run by the International Brotherhood of Magicians. Greenberg had helped organize similar events for the brotherhood in the past, but this time he was there as a spectator. He and his wife, Sharon, were part of a group of more than two dozen audience members and two contest judges gathered in a Hyatt conference room to watch Lim. Greenberg had seen Lim perform in national competitions for years and had always thought he had good hands. But he was struck by this routine — Lim’s precise movements, his intensity, the crescendos of the music. It was cinematic. At the moment that Lim put his hands to his head, released the smoke, and revealed the card, Greenberg looked over at his wife. Her eyes were welling up with tears. Oh, my God, he thought, she’s crying. How the hell did that happen? You don’t expect someone to make your wife tear up with a just deck of cards.
When Lim finished, the small crowd stood for an ovation. He would take first place in the contest’s Close-Up category — broadly defined as sleight-of-hand magic, performed a short distance from the audience. The victory was part of a career-making week for him: Only a few days earlier, he had been named champion of Close-Up Card Magic at the convention of the Federation Internationale des Societes Magiques (FISM), the so-called “Olympics of magic,” held every three years. Two days after the Jacksonville competition, his performance on Penn and Teller’s CW show Fool Us — where up-and-coming magicians try to dupe the duo — would air nationally, with Lim winning plaudits from the veteran magicians and an opening spot in one of their Vegas shows.
The magic trophies solidified his standing among his peers, but being on Fool Us (he made a second appearance on the show last month) brought sudden recognition from the outside world. That the show played a vital role in propelling Lim’s career is ironic, though: “I’m not trying to fool anybody,” he says. He doesn’t want his audiences simply to be deceived by his card play. He wants them to react to his performance the way they would react to great film or great art.
He wants them to be emotionally affected, like Don Greenberg’s wife was. He wants them to cry.
Lim had evoked this kind of emotional response in audiences even before he took up magic. He was a delayed piano prodigy of sorts, a few years of lessons finally clicking at age 15. “The piano was the first thing that kind of, I was like, ‘Oh, wow, I’m able to express my emotions,’ ” says Lim. Even practice sessions would make his teachers tear up, his mother, Mabel, says.
Piano wasn’t his parents’ first choice. When he was 6, his grandmother had bought Lim — the middle son in a trio — a violin; his father required at least 15 minutes of daily practice. One day, his father returned to their Acton home to find his son’s violin broken on the floor. Lim later admitted he had smashed it. “I just didn’t want to play it anymore,” he said.
As a teenager, Lim began to beat his own path. At highly competitive Acton-Boxborough High School, Lim showed little interest in the GPA chase. “I didn’t listen to anybody, especially my teachers. I never listened to instructions,” Lim says. His mother didn’t push too much. “I’m quite laissez-faire as an Asian mother,” she says. The family had moved from Singapore when Shin was 11, and Mabel had always hated the stress its educational system put on the children, deciding to home-school hers. “I saw that most kids by 12 — you know, the light in their eyes was gone,” she says.
Once Lim arrived in the United States, even the basic structures of education frustrated him. “Every time I was taking a test, I was like, ‘Why do I have to, like, answer the question this way?’ ” he says. “I could never actually read a question and then answer properly. Because I always felt like there would be another answer to it.” He approached piano the same way, ignoring a composition’s calls for pianissimo (softly) or forte (loudly). Execution would depend on his mood. “I would play it how I feel, and — through that — people could feel what I’m feeling.”
By the time he reached junior high school, piano had become the plan. Lim wasn’t much for practice, though, and that summer was a lazy one. One day his older brother, Yi, showed him a YouTube clip that explained a slip force magic trick — a basic sleight-of-hand maneuver that involves using the thumb to slide a card from the top of the deck to the middle of a split deck. It was a revelation. “I was like, ‘This is so amazing. Like, I can learn sorcery,’ ” Lim says. Before that, he had thought magic was some unknowable, mystic trade. “And then I went on YouTube and I am figuring out all these tricks,” he says. He was obsessed, practicing eight hours a day.
It was an obsession, but it remained a hobby. Music was still the path. After high school, he enrolled at the School of Music at Lee University, a liberal arts Christian college in Tennessee. In the late spring of 2011, near the end of his first year, he woke up one morning with two numb hands and was diagnosed with carpal tunnel syndrome. He had felt it coming in his senior year of high school — a periodic stabbing in the wrists. But the curriculum at Lee required 20 hours a week of piano practice, a dramatic increase from his typical near zero. The doctor was blunt: You can’t do both music and magic — it’s too much stress on the hands and wrists. You have to pick one.
Magic was his passion, but for all his distrust of authority and indifference toward expectations, Lim was practical. Could he actually make a living off this? At that point, just four years after learning his first trick, he didn’t have a sense of the industry. “I thought it was, like, ‘OK, either you’re David Copperfield or you’re not. You’re either David Blaine or you’re not David Blaine,’ ” he says. “I’d never actually seen, like, magicians at, you know, indie theaters.” But he was learning there was a lucrative market for technicians, the people who engineer the tricks and sell the tutorials to the next generation of rising magicians. The free stuff you can find on YouTube is for beginners, Lim says — you generally have to pay to learn the advanced material. Lim sold his first trick in the fall of 2011, a few months after requesting a medical sabbatical from Lee (he eventually dropped out). Selling that first trick, says Lim, made a future in magic feel real. The people selling tricks online were the celebrities of the magic world to Lim, and now he was one of them. Even if his magic act didn’t take off, he thought, this could be a fallback.
But he was a performer. It was something he heard from every piano teacher he ever had. When he competed at smaller magic events, he always felt as if he was a level better than his peers. He just needed a serious challenge — something to prove to himself that he could perform with the best. He found it in July 2012, at the magic “Olympics” — the triennial world championships held by FISM. The competition took place in Blackpool, England, and Lim’s goal was to finish in the top three. He finished sixth. Again, he questioned his professional future. “How am I going to make a career out of this?” he asked himself. It was a tough period: Lim was 21, living in his parents’ basement, directionless and depressed. He was selling a few tricks, but he had never performed for a paying audience, and his prospects looked dim.
So when a tour organizer called in the summer of 2013, inviting Lim to join a 23-city tour through China, it was a shock. The organizer, who had seen Lim at FISM the year before, asked if he had 20 minutes’ worth of material. “Sure,” Lim told him, knowing it meant adding 13 minutes to his current routine. In addition to being a huge break, the tour forced a reconsideration of his act. Up to that point, he had spoken to the audience throughout his performance to guide the action. But without Chinese fluency, he had to rethink the approach. In the two weeks he had to prepare for this first-ever tour, Lim totally reconfigured his routine, eliminating all talking, which essentially left him performing card tricks set to music. “I had been following a traditional path,” says Lim, and this was a departure. From that point forward, Lim wouldn’t speak during his performances.
On the China tour, Lim shared the bill with three other magicians; each venue would hold about 2,000. Lim acclimated quickly, learning things like audience management and stage lighting while sharpening his routine. The four-act bill had a pecking order: The second-best act went first, the third-best went second, the worst went third, and the best went fourth — the thought being that the audience is more likely to stick around for the big finale even if the acts prior are a bit of a slog. For most of the tour, Lim — the youngest of the four performers by decades — was third. By the final performance in Beijing, he was the finale. “Standing ovation,” Lim says.
Lim is recounting this history while folded on a black leather couch in a two-family house on a tree-lined street on Waltham’s south side. He bought the house three years ago with his older brother, and the living room is sparsely decorated, with little furniture beyond the couch, a coffee table, and a flat-screen TV. The down payment on the house, he says, mostly came from his income selling tricks. Lim is slight, and his hair is in a constant state of meticulously uneven gravitational revolt, typically sweeping up and to the right. His mother, Mabel, who acts as his manager, sits on one of the couches in front of her laptop, chiming in with date corrections and fact checking. (She would later e-mail to clarify that the house was purchased through a special first-time home buyers program that allowed them to put only 5 percent down.)
When he appeared on Penn and Teller’s show the first time, Lim performed his “Dream Act” — the same one that drove Don Greenberg’s wife to tears. That appearance paved the way for more coveted stages, which recently included a three-month stint at the House of Magic in Macau — what Lim calls “the best gig in magic.”
“A lot of people do card tricks,” Penn Jillette (the taller, talkative half of the duo) told Lim at the end of the act, which has been viewed more than 39 million times on YouTube. “The idea of doing card tricks — which are silly at their very core — really seriously and really, really importantly is wonderful.” Indeed, Lim works the stage like a conductor, maintaining an unwavering countenance while his hands perform a graceful dance in time to stringed arrangements — sounding like equal parts Liszt and Coldplay — that build slowly to dramatic climaxes. It’s as close to ballet as magic could ever come.
The effect is intentional, and the music is integral to it. “If you watch like a really, really good movie, the music in it is what makes the movie. And a good composer is able to compose the score in such a way that they can make it flow with whatever is happening in the movie,” Lim says. “It’s the same exact route in my magic. It’s kind of creating an emotion with the music.” Suspenseful scenes might have a halting, one-note violin sound, he says; sad scenes are soundtracked by pianissimo.
Lim defines his approach to magic using three films: Birdman, Inception, and Transformers. The last is the catnip-for-the-masses stuff — sawing the woman in half, that type of thing — and it’s a very small part of his act. “Slapstick magic,” Lim says. Birdman occupies the other pole. “A perfectly shot film,” he says, but not necessarily great for the general public. There are lots of magicians who are just technicians, perfecting tricks and techniques that will only be fully appreciated by like-minded artists. Nothing wrong with that, Lim says — it helps build useful industry cred.
And then there’s Inception. It’s the middle ground — a movie not only with mass appeal but also acclaimed for its complexity and depth. The kind of movie that can make people feel something. That’s the analog for his act.
“Not a lot of magicians have crossed that barrier, and that was my goal,” he says. “And I feel like I’ve done that. I got enough response from people that were like, ‘Wow! It almost felt like I wasn’t watching magic. It was almost like I was watching a piece of art or almost like a piece of film.’ They didn’t even feel like it was a card trick anymore.”
Reached on his way to his Vegas show in late May, Jillette says that Lim is part of a third wave of magic: There were the big spectacle types — your Siegfried & Roys and David Copperfields and Doug Hennings. Then, Jillette says, there was the generation ushered in by David Blaine “and bad copies of him.” “Now there’s this new breed coming along that we’re seeing a lot of — and Shin is one of the best — who are actually doing tricks that require a huge amount of skill and are beautiful,” he says. “What I love about it is there’s a lack of irony. I am so sick of irony. I like things to be direct and honest.” There’s no wink in Lim’s act, Jillette says. No giggle, and no apology. “I love that the Siegfried & Roy, David Copperfield, Doug Henning era is over. I love that the David Blaine and his clones era is over. I love that there’s this era of magic that is pure and honest and direct and sweet and beautiful.”
On a mid-June evening, Lim is again on his living room couch, but this time he’s looking into the future. He’s a bit fuzzy, still recovering from jet lag after returning from a 12-day stint in Iceland. In a week, he’s off to Germany; another three-month stint at the House of Magic in Macau follows closely after that.
He wants to be more strategic about touring, minimizing time-zone shifts. “When you pass the six-hour difference, that’s when it really messes with your head,” Lim says. “I don’t want to burn out.” Says his mother: “His health is more important, because without good health, you can’t perform, and you’re not at your peak of performance.” The strategy has meant turning down a lot of offers. “We realized that we say ‘No’ now more than ‘Yes,’ ” says Lim.
He also wants to expand his act, maybe to around 40 minutes. He might try and find another magician for a team act. “Someone who is kind of a contrast to me. So not cards, definitely. Not close-up,” he says. “So definitely illusions, big-scale, and has the same style as I do, has the same outlook on magic, you know? Nothing too cheesy — modern, fresh, hip, cool, quick, visual — all these different categories that I always look for in my tricks. Then hopefully we can make something happen together.”
Lim fidgets with a deck of cards, mindlessly moving them between his fingers, occasionally shooting one between his hands.
“I think if you do just a one-hour show, make it kind of like a roller coaster ride. . . . It’s a duo act, so it’s two magicians kind of competing against each other. People like seeing that.”
Yeah, that’s just one idea, he says. There are a lot of other ones.
He starts performing a few tricks. His hands are steady, but they move cards between spaces in impossible ways. A queen of spades he had tucked under my notebook appears in his hand, 3 feet away; the card under my notebook is now the joker he was spinning a few moments ago. Then a series of moves where the graphic face of the joker seems to disappear, leaving a blank white card behind, only to reappear, its face restored, in some unlikely spot. “It’s about moving the ink,” he says.
He presses the queen of spades to his chest, and when he pulls it away, the card is blank. Then, pulling the neck of his shirt down, he reveals the image of a queen of spades on his upper left chest, the tattoo sitting just above his heart.