Anson Chen has been busy the past few years. Having inherited Bund 18, the landmark Shanghai shopping mall with panoramic views of the Pudong district skyline and a rooftop bar deemed one of the "World's Best," he did some renovating. In came renowned French chef Joël Robuchon to update Bund 18's flagship restaurant. Then a new sushi bar was added, along with an outpost of Michelin-starred Cantonese restaurant Hakkasan.
But once all that was seen to, the enterprising Chen decided it was time for a new challenge. He opened Blackstone Magic Bar, China's first magic bar and one of the world's only dedicated close-up magic theatres.
Hidden behind a pillar in Da Tong Mill, a recently revamped underground space in the city's Jing'an neighbourhood, there is a mirrored storefront. In the centre of the reflective surface is a drawing of a light bulb floating inside a birdcage. This is the entrance to Blackstone Magic Bar.
Blackstone's logo is a hat-tip to Harry Blackstone Sr., the first magician to saw a woman in half and regarded by many as one of the godfathers of magic. Born in 1885, one of his most famous tricks was to make a light bulb float above the heads of his audience. (Thomas Edison made him a personally customised bulb with no wires.)
Chen was a magician long before being hailed by the Chinese editions of Vogue, Elle, and Forbes as one of China's new real estate super-moguls. He may only be 24 but has been performing magic for 15 years. The idea to open a magic bar came about after long chats with his teacher, the American magician Armando Lucero, who dreamed of creating a close-up magic theatre.
"But Shanghai, it's not ready for a stand-alone theatre," Chen tells me. "We don't have much experience of magic in China, except what you might see on TV, so I thought we should customise the space to be both a bar and a close-up theatre."
Indeed when you walk into Blackstone, it looks like an ordinary bar—albeit one with a vast velvet curtain at one end. But behind this curtain is a 30-seat theatre, designed specifically with close-up magic in mind.
"Most of the time when you see the world's greatest close-up magicians, it's in a party or at some event. They're a sideshow," says Chen. "Most of the art is lost. I did this because I want to elevate this kind of magic, because it really is an art."
Chen has travelled the world learning from some of the best magicians working today, including Spanish cardician Juan Tamariz and Bob Kohler, who performs in Las Vegas. He spent nine months working in the 12 O'Clock magic bar in Tokyo, performing six days a week for up to ten hours a stint. This is not just a rich kid with a hobby, but a seasoned magician who happens to have the funds to materialise his vision.
The six magicians working at Blackstone are of a similarly high calibre. Each has at least ten years' experience and they all perform hour-long sets on Fridays and Saturdays, as well as taking turns to do tricks behind the bar every night.
"This is a special place," says Sean, a Canadian magician who moved from Hong Kong just to be part of Chen's project. Having the magicians work together night after night helps hone their performances.
But a bar is nothing without drinks, and this is where Blackstone takes things to another level. The bar, a huge black granite slab set back to allow space for the performers, is the preserve of Chris Xi, an award-winning bartender who specialises in molecular cocktails.
Keeping with the magic theme, Xi has designed a series of signature cocktails. The Milk Can, in which coconut cream and sago trap a serving of turmeric-infused gin, evokes Houdini's famous escapology tricks—you have to stir the drink thoroughly to get the gin free. The Mexican Joe is inspired by a card cheat. It looks sweet on the outside—a light pink drink with fruit on the rim—but packs a hefty hit of mezcal.
Then there's the Birdcage, inspired by another Harry Blackstone Sr.'s trick that saw both a bird and its cage magically disappear. The drink is an actual birdcage with an egg nesting inside. When you peel away the shell, it reveals a vodka jelly-based drink that must be eaten with a spoon.
Blackstone is a daring concept, especially in China, where magic and magicians are nowhere near as popular as in the West.
"The most important thing for me is to create a space for the magicians and for people who might be interested in what we're doing," says Chen. "Ultimately, what gives me the energy to do this is that every night is that when everyone has gone, I sit around with some of the best magicians I know and we go over our routines, and we help each improve."
As such, a trip to Blackstone may well be an early glimpse at the next generation of international magic superstars. Or, at the very least, a decidedly fun night out.
"It's a magic place with a bar," says Chen.
Welcome to Chinese food week on MUNCHIES! Every day this week, we'll be exploring the stories that make up this diverse cuisine, from mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong to the bustling Chinatowns of major Western cities and the potsticker-filled kitchens of Chinese home cooks living across the world. We hope you're hungry. Click here to read more.