Charlie Cheuk entertains audiences with her colourful brand of illusions, but entering the profession was tough Dressed in smart jeans, a sweater and stylish street shoes, at first glance Charlie Cheuk Wai-ling resembles thousands of other successful career women out and about on their day off. She is happy just to blend in with the crowd and go unnoticed, something which would never happen at work. As the only woman working locally as a professional magician, Ms Cheuk has closets jam-packed with colourful outfits and elaborate accessories. Each one of them ensures that she will not only stand out and be the centre of attention, but also that each encounter will be memorable. One day, she may dress as a carnival clown, and the next as a Chinese mythological character. Later in the week, she might show up as Charlie Chaplin or a monkey, or be rigged out as a chef in a five-star hotel. 'All these characters have evolved over time,' Ms Cheuk said. 'Hong Kong is so small, it is important to perform in different characters and adjust the magic tricks to each role, so the show is always relevant and contemporary, and the audience excited.' On any given day, she might be performing in a hotel ballroom, a shopping mall, at a big corporate event or on a television show, in one of her many guises. But what gives her one of the biggest thrills is doing shows for children. Wearing a silver-sequinned black tailcoat, she will captivate a roomful of ordinarily boisterous 10-year-olds with her own brand of magic. Changing the colour of bank notes with the tap of a wand, making a baseball appear out of thin air, or twisting balloons into the shape of favourite cartoon characters, she creates an unbounded sense of excitement and wonder. 'I particularly like performing for children because they give the most genuine reactions,' she said. Having performed as a magician for more than 20 years, Ms Cheuk has witnessed several changes in her profession. As a pioneer, she admits that things were not always easy in the early days, as she tried to break into a closed-knit, male-only fraternity. Meeting resistance, though, steeled her ambition and made her more determined to succeed through hard work and dedication. 'It was a lot of pressure being the first woman, but now the [profession] is much more open and accessible,' she said. 'Thanks to cyberspace, anyone can learn magic tricks if they go online.' She said there were significant costs in breaking into the business, and these did not necessarily diminish. Costumes, props and accessories could cost thousands of dollars. Ms Cheuk initially kept her expenses down by making her own outfits, sewing on beads and sequins, and making less complicated props. For her performances, she makes a point of weaving a sense of feminine poise and grace into each show. 'You can really stamp your own mark through movement, costume and the assortment of tricks,' she said. 'Also, I think women are much more detail-oriented by nature, and this is reflected in the shows.' In recent years, Ms Cheuk has been sharing some of her secrets with kindergarten children, teenagers and disabled students. She also takes on apprentices, and is passionate about continuing this type of mentoring as it was how she got her lucky break. In the early 1980s, she met a professional magician through her landlord. At the time, she was working in housekeeping at a hotel and was looking for a way out of the monotonous job. 'He invited me to see his show. Soon after that, I began learning from him because he felt I had the right attributes, being lively, creative, outgoing and animated enough to be a magician.' The first three years were tough. She cleaned hotel rooms by day, learned from her mentor, practised every spare minute, and gradually started doing solo evening performances. 'I didn't quit my full-time job until I could see the income from the magic shows exceeded what I was earning from the hotel,' she said. 'Initially, I was worried about cash flow, but with the growing number of jobs, I became confident that this could really be a career. Returning to my hotel job was always a backup plan if things didn't work out, but I knew I had to give magic a go. It was now or never.' Ms Cheuk was left at Po Leung Kuk orphanage when she was just seven days old and she never knew her parents. But while growing up there, one experience stuck with her. 'I remember feeling so happy whenever magicians came to perform for us at the orphanage, but I never dreamt I would become one someday. 'Magic has exceeded all my expectations. Beyond financial security, it's taught me so much, given me so many experiences including the opportunity to meet so many different people, and it's made my life so varied and colourful.' This is the fourth in our 16-part series on women and men who have entered career paths traditionally dominated by the opposite sex. Clowning around A busy day for Charlie Cheuk can mean performing in four different shows back to back. For the first show, she usually arrives one hour before to set up and change. This involves putting on her makeup - an eye-catching combination of clown face blusher, bright eye shadow, dark eyeliner and red lipstick - and donning a colourful wig to go with her classic one-piece clown costume, either with candy stripes or polka dots. The look has proved a big hit over the years with audiences - and with MTR commuters, as she dashes off to her other appointments. 'I felt so embarrassed and self-conscious the first few times with all the passengers staring at me, but now I've got used to it as it's just part of the job. After all, people can see I'm obviously a performer, so I don't mind any more.'