Cuba: 90 miles from Florida, fifty years in the past. Once an illicit playground for Hollywood stars and mobsters, it now stands as a forbidden island of socialist revolution.
That’s how Americans see it, at least.
Cut off from the United States since the Eisenhower administration, Cuba has gained a mythic status in the American imagination through the hard truth of history and the soft lies of cinema. When we look at it we see Tropicana dancers and rum, fine cigars and linen suits, classic cars and secret missile bases. Revolutionaries storming into Havana as Michael Corleone grabs his brother and gives him the kiss of death.
Say it with me now:
I know it was you, Fredo… you broke my heart!
What you don’t imagine when you think “Cuba” is magic.
But that may change if John Rose has his way. For the last few months he’s been working on an event that will not only give American magicians perhaps their only shot at visiting Cuba, but may reinvent the entire concept of what a magic conference can do.
After all, this is Cuba—it would be a waste to do something less than revolutionary.
“I’m looking forward to bringing people to [Havana] and showing them something really special,” says Rose, outlining his concept for MagiCuba.
At most magic conferences, he says, people spend a lot of time inside watching panels or performances. They mill around vendor tables and compare gaff decks. Maybe they hang out at the bar later at night, showing off tricks or swapping stories.
Which is all well and good, and MagiCuba will have that. But he’s also designing the event to show off the best of Cuban culture and Havana’s unique historical center.
“We didn’t want to have people come to Cuba and put them into conference rooms,” he says. “The idea was to get people to experience Havana at the same time.”
The event has unprecedented access to historical venues. Attendees will stay at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, famous as the site of the mafia’s 1946 Havana Conference, depicted in The Godfather Part II. There, attendees can walk in the footsteps of famous guests like Churchill and Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. The grounds contain a tunnel system from the Cold War, complete with a periscope Cuban intelligence used for espionage activities.
When conference sessions are over for the day, attendees will spill out on the hotel’s colonnaded terrace for an afternoon “Magic and Mojitos” event. It’s not to be missed—particularly since the bar at the Hotel Nacional still serves mojitos in the old style preferred by American mobsters. And even there, the show won’t stop.
“You’ll see magic behind the bar and magic out in the garden,” says Rose. “We’re going to use the environment to create something special.”
And the magic will continue far past the grounds of the hotel.
Rose envisions an event with all Havana as a stage. Attendees can opt to visit a cigar factory, where women still hand-roll tobacco leaves to the sound of a speaker-amplified employee reading a classic novel. In another option, they’ll tour plazas amidst the Spanish colonial architecture of old Havana, watching pop-up magic performances along the way. On each night, guest magicians will perform at the massive, 3,000 seat Teatro Nacional de Cuba (National Theatre), which sits on plaza where Fidel Castro delivered his legendary multi-hour speeches.
This kind of access to Havana is unprecedented. Though locally organized events sometimes take over the city, this is the first time the government has partnered with a private group to put on any sort of event. (The very concept had to be approved by the Castro regime.) But once Rose secured government backing, he found himself able to book venues—and local assets—that would never be possible in another country.
Dealing with this kind of stuff is Rose’s specialty. While working for a Boston marketing agency in 1984, he got the assignment to go to Moscow and start the first advertising agency in the Soviet Union. 33 years and one fallen wall later, his own marketing agency, the self-titled “Rose,” handles the Eastern European market for clients as diverse as Lufthansa and Starbucks. It made sense, then, for Rose to be the first to open Cuba up to modern event promotion.
But there was no reason it had to be magic—that was Rose’s idea. A former magician who worked at a magic shop in high school, he considers MagiCuba a way of fusing his two longtime passions. He’s already recruited a group of headliners including John Archer, Jorge Blass, Mike Caveney, and Michael Goudeau to take part.
But in Rose’s mind the headliner will always be Cuba, and he’s excited to provide an insider tour to the city he’s been visiting for over a decade.
“I love Havana, it’s become like a second home to me,” he says. “It’s not like I just spun the globe and put a pin in it and booked a hotel. It’s different for me. I’ve learned a lot about the nation and I want to bring people there and expose them to it.”
Part of that exposure will come from the event’s partnership with the Ministry of Culture, which has assigned two local groups—the Cuban Circus, and the Union of Artists and Writers of Cuba—to collaborate with event. Shows will heavily feature Cuban performers, and guest magicians will, for the first time in Cuban history, share the stage with local performers, especially at the nightclubs.
Every night when the big shows at the National Theater let out, attendees will trickle into late-night shows at Havana’s smoky cabaret nightclubs. There they’ll find smaller 100-150 seat theaters that offer more intimate shows. These performances will weave magic in with cabaret dancers and one of Cuba’s greatest points of cultural heritage—its music.
In fact, most of MagiCuba’s acts will have some form of musical accompaniment, which is increasingly rare in North America, where the cost of hiring bands and licensing venues have skyrocketed.
But in Cuba, musicians are on nearly every street corner, so access to musicians is no problem. “In certain parts of Havana it’s like the whole island is swaying to a Cuban beat. There’s live music everywhere.”
Taken together, this blend of visiting and local magicians, circus performers, and musical acts positions MagiCuba to be a cultural exchange event unprecedented in the magic community. And when the shows are done, attendees will be able to mingle with Cuban performers at after-hours events, opening conversations and bridging political gulfs in a way never attempted at a magic conference.
But that exchange also brings with it the opportunity to help Cuba’s magical community, which has been cut off from magical knowledge for over 50 years.
Explaining the US trade embargo against Cuba would take far more time than we have, but here’s the postcard version: When Castro overthrew Cuba’s right-wing dictator in 1959, the Eisenhower administration suspected him of being a secret Communist and refused to sell his new government arms. Ironically, this caused Castro to increasingly turn to the Soviet Union as a patron. Eisenhower punished this realignment by cancelling Cuban sugar exports to the US in hopes of squeezing Cuba’s fragile economy, and Castro retaliated by nationalizing $6 billion worth of US businesses and personal property in Cuba, without providing compensation. In 1960, Eisenhower answered with an economic embargo, forbidding any shipments to Cuba other than food or medicine. Despite annual votes of condemnation at the UN, that embargo remains in place today.
The embargo has shaped almost every aspect of Cuba, from the way people watch movies to the beauty of its unspoiled reefs. But it’s also ensured that the Cuban magic scene exists in a time capsule.
“Like much of Cuba, there’s a bit of a time warp,” says Rose. “There are lots of exceptions, but much of the magic we’ve seen is a bit retro.”
In addition to new cars or iPhones, the embargo cut Cuban magicians off from magical knowledge. It’s impossible to get magic books or equipment, and internet access isn’t widespread or strong enough to access how-to videos or tap into the community of illusionists online. Visiting magicians have brought a little knowledge here and there, but many acts—particularly at the resorts, who like to play up Cuba’s retro appeal—recall the floorshows of 20 to 40 years ago.
Exacerbating the problem is the country’s low per-capita income (less than $100 a month, according to some estimates), which bars local magicians from building or purchasing the “big box” illusions many audiences have grown accustomed to. As a result, there’s been more evolution on the close-up magic side, where props are cheap and knowledge of a trick can spread from magician to magician.
But that doesn’t mean Cuban magicians reject outside knowledge—in fact, they’re hungry for it. And to help them out, Rose and the Ministry of Culture have designed a sort of conference-in-a-conference to spread magical knowledge among local performers.
“We’re going to create at least one day that offers special sessions—either for free or very little money—for the Cubans,” he says. That way, even if local magicians can’t attend the paid side of the conference, they can at least get training from Spanish-speaking guest performers who’ve flown in for the event.
It’s part of a multi-pronged, international outreach effort to assist the magic community in Cuba.
MagiCuba organizers also plan to pay travel expenses for any Cuban performer picked for the conference, and Rose is arranging for magic dealers to donate books, tricks, and other magical tools to local magicians that need a leg up. Every major performance at the National Theater will provide low-cost seats for locals.
“Half the house we’re selling to tourists and so forth,” says Rose. “But the other half is open for Cubans. Any Cuban magician that wants to come in will be able to see all those performances basically for free.”
With its mix of culture, shows, and social mission, MagiCuba sounds like a once-in-a-lifetime event—and unfortunately, that may be the case.
MagiCuba was born during the “Cuban Thaw” of the Obama administration, when the US was in the midst of softening its position toward the Castro regime. Tourism became less restricted. Direct flights resumed. A deluge of curious American visitors spilled off cruise ships and boarding ramps.
But earlier this month the Trump administration reset travel restrictions to the pre-Obama standard. For many Americans, the dream of a Havana vacation withered on the vine. To obtain a visa, Americans once again need to travel under government-approved cultural exchange programs.
“But MagiCuba satisfies that requirement,” says Rose, with a hint of satisfaction. “This is now one of the few legal ways for Americans to go to Cuba. If you’re into magic, this is the only show in town.”
It also, he says, may be the last show in town. Between the new travel restrictions and the legwork required to set up the event, MagiCuba may turn out to be a completely unique experience.
“It may be the only time this is ever done. This might be your one chance to come to Havana and experience magic with all this official support. You’ll get to see things that you’d never be able to see, have access to facilities you’d never be able to use… it’s special.”
Walk down the lantern-hung streets of Hoi An, Vietnam and you’ll come upon the Tan Ky House. Though now it’s a tourist attraction, the timber home has been the seat of a Vietnamese merchant family since the town’s 18th century heyday, when it was at the center of Asia’s ceramics trade. Back then, Hoi An was home to both Japanese and Chinese merchant firms. Portuguese Jesuits mingled with Indonesian traders. Local Vietnamese shipped products as far away as Egypt.
And those trade links, they say, brought the Cup of Confucius to Tan Ky House. The museum claims it was gifted to the house’s original owner around two centuries ago. They’re unsure how old it is, or how many hands it passed through before coming to them, but the style of the porcelain and quality of the blue dye indicates Chinese manufacture. Outwardly it’s a normal vessel, little different from any fine teacup of the period apart from the figurine standing inside.
But this cup has a mystical feature: you can’t fill it all the way to the top. If you try, it all drains away. Every drop runs out the bottom.
It’s an incredibly poor design for a drinking vessel—but an incredibly smart one for a magic trick used to teach Confucian principles.
If it’s been awhile since your last world history course, Confucius (a latinization of Kong Fuzi, or “Grand Master Kong”) was born in 551 BCE in Lu state, Kingdom of Zhou. He spent decades as a talented administrator, but when his reforms met resistance, he went into self-imposed exile to travel and refine his philosophies. Fourteen years later he returned to Lu in order to teach all he had learned. There, he gathered disciples and laid the groundwork for numerous books. These works, the Analects, lay out how to create a humane society, instill government ethics, and cultivate a virtuous populace. These were largely collections of Confucius’ lectures and proverbs, which often conveyed meaning via inference and innuendo—meaning not all of them were clear.
One confusing passage in the Analects referred to a principle called the “Doctrine of the Mean,” but failed to define the doctrine itself. Students found this so perplexing that Confucius’ grandson later authored a book explaining that the Doctrine of the Mean was a call for self-moderation. A superior man, it argued, was temperate, objective, self-reflective, and sincere. In other words, practicing constant self-control in order to avoid extremes.
And according to legend, that’s where the cup comes in.
During his year of travel, the story goes, Confucius became lost in a desert. Dehydrated and starving, he came upon a man who led him to a spring and loaned him a drinking bowl. But when Confucius raised the bowl to his lips, he found it empty. He scooped another bowlful of water but, again, found the cup dry—the water was running out a hidden hole in the bottom. Yet the man who saved him drank from it without trouble.
After experimenting, Confucius realized that the mystical cup could only be filled three-quarters full, or the contents would drain out through the secret hole. This, the story goes, planted the idea for the Doctrine of the Mean—that a man who wants everything will end up with nothing. Thus, a village trickster and his magic cup changed the world.
The Cup of Confucius isn’t a common item, but you occasionally come across them in Asia. According to the Tan Ky House, scholars used it as a visual way to teach students ephemeral concepts like the doctrine of the Mean. It was especially instructive when teaching the responsible use of alcohol, since it would literally drain someone’s glass if they were prone to overfilling it. However, it’s just as likely that the item was symbolic—meant to sit on a scholar’s desk or family table as a reminder not to go to extremes.
But the cup’s abilities aren’t mystical, they’re physics. Every Cup of Confucius contains a protrusion or bump in the middle of the vessel—in the Tan Ky cup, it’s the figurine—that conceals an internal siphon. A small hole at the base of the protrusion is actually a pipe that rises up inside the protrusion before turning downward in a U-bend and exiting out the cup’s base. Liquid will stay in the cup provided it doesn’t rise above the highest point of that U-bend, but any more than that and it spills over into the downward section, reducing pressure at the top of the tube and allowing the weight of the water to force the rest of the liquid through.
What makes the vessel seem so mystical is that the cup empties entirely. In fact, the siphoning action is so perfect it even works with dense liquids like mercury.
These trick cups, it should be noted, are not unique to China. Visit the Greek island of Samos and you’ll see them being sold to tourists under the name Pythagoras Cups or Pythagorean Cups, along with a different origin. According to this version, the famous mathematician Pythagoras of Samos invented it as a wine cup to frustrate drunken laborers and greedy students.
It’s unclear where the cup originated. It could’ve spread across the Silk Road, or it may have been a case of simultaneous invention. Either way, it’s interesting that both Greek and Chinese folklore interpreted it as a lesson in moderation.
Apart from its Greek clone though, the Cup of Confucius is largely obscure in the west. In fact, the only reference to it comes from an unlikely source: the 1937 mystery novella The Cup of Confucius, published in The Shadow Magazine. In it, The Shadow breaks up a plot to steal the cup from a private collector, who bought the artifact from anti-Japanese guerillas in China. But the cup described in the novel is more like a Chinese holy grail—a jade vessel covered in precious stones, with no hidden siphon or connection to Confucian philosophy.
Though he knew What Evil Lurks in the Hearts of Men, The Shadow apparently didn’t know much about Chinese folklore.
Today, the Cup of Confucius is a novelty item, mostly used by science teachers and educational channels on YouTube. It’s an ideal visual tool for explaining the difficult-to-grasp physics of siphons.
And that makes it part of an odd category. It’s a magic trick that exists in order to be exposed and explained, thereby enlightening the audience. It’s an illusion that imparts knowledge.
Which is, ironically, the same role it played for centuries in China—and still plays in the Tan Ky House today.