IF ever there were a place for aspiring magicians to try out their skills, it is a busy bar on a Saturday night. With revellers in such a place at various stages of inebriation, the illusionists' tricks could be counted on to go swimmingly, earning rowdy applause from punters probably already seeing double. Perhaps hoping so, a handful of amateurs took the plunge and presented their well-rehearsed routines at the bar of the Fringe Club on a Saturday night. Cards were shuffled, coins vanished and reappeared, pens pierced banknotes which were later returned without a mark on them. However, the reception was lukewarm. Many of the drinkers were indifferent to the conjurors, and only a few asked 'How do you do it?' Cheers and sneers came in equal measure. Mak Shing-wan was among the troupe of would-be David Copperfields. He did well with tricks using cards and dominoes. His show-stopper entailed identifying cards an onlooker had chosen from a shuffled pack. 'Fewer people are into magic nowadays,' sighed Mr Mak, 74 and known as Mak Sir by his friends because of his pre-retirement incarnation as a police sergeant. 'Scepticism is growing.' Despite that, Hong Kong is host this week to an international magicians' meeting, gathering magic players from around the world to discuss the future of their art. Mr Mak should know a thing or two about the state of, and prospects for, conjuring. Having dabbled in magic for nearly three decades, he has trodden stages of all sizes, from the City Hall Theatre, where before sellout audiences he pulled rabbits from a hat, to hospital wards, performing gimmicky tricks for ill children. His skills, sadly, went unappreciated by quite a number of the Fringe merrymakers, whose responses typically ranged from, 'I know how he does it', to 'It's just a trick, isn't it?' Gary Chan Siu-lun was more fortunate. His act went without a hitch - partly helped by the fact that he was performing in the studio theatre next door, watched by a paying audience which lapped up his every trick. The last one he performed involved making one foam miniature rabbit turn into 10 - in the cupped hands of a volunteer. Wild applause was showered on him as he pulled it off. 'That was the first trick I learned, actually,' said Mr Chan, 26, afterwards. His routines were part of a performance organised by the Magicians' Association of Hong Kong, which included five other performers. But Mr Chan is unique among them in that he is not a full-time magician. He is a social worker - a job more related to facing the cruel facts of reality. 'It helps me to break the ice with my clients and makes it easier for them to remember me. My job involves working with mentally disabled children so by teaching them to do the tricks self-esteem can be instilled into them,' he said. His experience with people his age, however, is not so easy. 'Yes, some of them do condemn magic as something fraudulent,' he said. Among the detractors is his younger brother. 'He thinks magic does not have an effect on him as much as music,' he said. In an age where other entertainment fights to bombard the senses, and with digital technology bringing to life what was previously only in the realm of dreams, magicians have an uphill task to grab the public's imagination. Whereas audiences used to watch them wield their wands with awe and gasp at every daring trick, the overriding sentiment now is nonchalance at best and cynicism at worst. 'Magic is the continuance of dreams for human beings - for every object modern technology comes up with we lose a part of our fantasy,' said Mr Chan. 'The illusions computers come up with are flat and alienating - unlike magic, where you can get performers to communicate with the audience.' The advent of technology has not been kind to magicians and their art, but it is a change that the industry has foreseen for some time, according to Simon Ma, 43, veteran performer and vice-chairman of the Magicians' Association. 'It is indeed more difficult nowadays to impress audiences,' he said. 'It's like [cigarette] lighters: several decades ago you took a lighter out in front of native tribes in Africa and they would worship the thing like it was God; nowadays you bring fire out of nowhere and they think it is a lighter. 'Magicians nowadays have to face many challenges. The public's intelligence has risen significantly over the past few decades and exposure to magic tricks has lessened their interest in us.' Mr Ma and his colleagues are seething with fury about a television programme which exposes how magical routines are done. Mr Ma particularly dislikes the accusation that magicians are tricksters. 'Magic is all about shaping a world of fantasy and leading the audience into it, just like the myth of Santa Claus - it should not be taken as a mind game between the performer and the audience,' Mr Ma said. 'It is strange that nobody would ever challenge the reality of all these computerised special effects, but when a magician pulls a rabbit from his hat people instantly question whether it is a real animal or not.' But Mr Ma refuses to concede defeat - and the glowing reception the performers received from the crowd in the Fringe theatre does show that the art of magic is alive and well and not without its supporters. The key of a magician's performance, Mr Ma says, is not the technique with which the performer carries the routines through, but whether he can create an atmosphere that can mesmerise the audience into believing what they see. 'The live element is the essence for our performances,' he said. 'Pulling a pigeon out of a hat will still look stunning when you see it up real close, and the key is to give the audience that sense of anticipation. Unlike on television, for example, there is no room for failure or a second take - everything has to be perfect. That is the attraction.' Basking in glory after pulling off a tremendous stunt naturally sounds very appealing - but life as a magician is not as spellbinding as it seems. To your average magician, David Copperfield's lifestyle of flashy cars and model girlfriends are just as much a hallucination as his routines are. But, of course, his daredevil escapes from sealed water-tanks will always have a greater impact on an audience than card tricks. To be fair, the room afforded to people like Copperfield is barely available for local magicians like Mr Ma. At present, Hong Kong boasts about 10 professional magicians - about 30 of whom moonlight on a regular basis - and their main stomping grounds are private parties and variety shows organised by shopping arcades as well as the municipal councils. Their performances are sometimes sponsored by the Government to get civic messages across, such as for the Clean Hong Kong Campaign or the promotion of the Basic Law, in which the magicians design routines to fit the programmes. Without these projects, magicians would face a tough time. Some of the spots they used to claim as their own have gone: new entertainments in nightclubs such as karaoke and seedy shows, for example, have usurped the position of magic shows. Meanwhile, private firms with money to spend for their Christmas parties are more inclined to invite a famous singer to perform for them. Mr Ma is among the few magicians who flourish - and his livelihood depends in part on the shop he owns that sells props and accessories for magic enthusiasts. Compare his lot with his past career, when he used to share a stage with people like Anita Mui Yim-fong and Sandy Lam Yik-leen, who went on to become huge Cantopop icons. 'Doing magic is a job that will neither drive you to starvation nor make you a rich man,' he said. The future is not rosy for these miracle-workers. Mr Ma and his colleagues at the Magicians' Association are striving for magic to be recognised as an art form in itself. 'We have to shake off the stigma magicians have of being money-raking con artists - being a magician is actually itself a part of performing arts, as much as a stage actor is,' he said. A three-day International Magic Convention, presented by the association from November 19-21 at the Kowloon Panda Hotel, is another project that aims at pushing further the parameters of local as well as foreign magic enthusiasts. Titled Beyond 2000, the convention will host workshops, competitions and seminars, with top international specialists talking about how instead of worrying about technology usurping their role, performers can use state-of-the-art audio technology and stage set-ups to hone their acts. Along with the two gala performances at the Tsuen Wan Town Hall, these all aim to offer magicians the most up-to-date techniques. Bringing their craft to the community is another way to foster public recognition, Mr Ma says. Aside from organising voluntary teams to perform for the elderly and the ill, the association is also in charge of a programme that involves magicians passing on their skills to secondary school students. 'This will help allow students to look at magic in a more positive light - only then will they be able to appreciate our work and create their own,' he said. Much hope is pegged on the arrival of Disneyland. Enthusiasts believe the hype of the Magic Kingdom will encourage the population to embrace fantastical worlds yet again. 'The stage will be set, and opportunities are there for the taking,' Mr Ma said. 'It will be up to magicians to bring themselves to the challenge.'