I wanted to put this story down for posterity because I think it’s cool.
This story is about a guy I met who could do amazing mind tricks. He knew they’d be interesting to me, but he also didn’t seem to think they were particularly special. Otherwise, he’d be doing this for money!
Unfortunately, I don’t have any proof of it, as I was only a teenager and this was the nineties, before it was super easy to record things. But I don’t really care if you believe me or not. It’s worth noting down anyway. If you’re a friend of mine, or have other reason to believe me, then you will believe it.
Even if you don’t believe me — hopefully the following is a good yarn, and maybe one more cue to think that maybe there’s a little magic to this world.
Feel free to write to me to talk to me more about this. I’d love to hear other similar stories. Or explanations for it.
It was the 1990s. I was living in Canberra, Australia. Our house, on Badgery St in Macquarie, Belconnen, had a “granny flat” in the backyard, which is what Americans call an “in-law unit”. It was a shed that had been fitted with a kitchen, bathroom, and heating. We rented it out, and at one point it was rented to a Chinese guy who I just knew as Zhao.
This was before I learned Chinese (two decades later) and before I knew much about anything. I was a kid! I was 13 years old — smart, curious, and very skeptical.
Like most kids of the 1990s, I was interested in martial arts and fighting movies. Honestly, I was probably most obsessed with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I had a few fighting games on my computer (the kind where it’s a couple of people in side view).
At the time, Street Fighter II was out and looked like this. (I couldn’t afford to play it more than once or twice, but I liked looking at other people playing.)
Anyway, that was the context. Back to Zhao.
Looking back, Zhao didn’t know much English. But he knew enough to communicate with us kids.
Zhao had a simple life. At one point he worked in a chicken processing plant. At another, much more awesome point, he worked in a bakery, getting up at 3 or 4 am to go there. Every day after work, he came back home with a huge bag of the leftovers that didn’t sell — cinnamon scrolls, donuts, all kinds of delicious things! It was amazing.
He also had all kinds of unusual foods. One time, he cooked snake, and we ate it! I don’t even know where he got the snake. I thought maybe it was some kind of Chinese food until I went and lived in China decades later and didn’t even hear of snake once. It didn’t taste that good. Did he catch it? I’ll never know…
As kids, my brother Riaz and I used to play in our backyard. We would playfight. We did this thing where we’d use rolled-up newspapers as swords, and intersperse kicks and martial arts moves. Sometimes we’d use bamboo sticks as swords — bamboo grew in one part of our chaotic yard. It was all gentle, good fun.
One day Zhao came to show us some moves. Oh man. What moves! He had such grace. I don’t remember many, but I do remember one where he did a flying kick, high up into the air, landed on the ground, and spun back up.
I asked Zhao where he’d learned this stuff and he told us that he had studied martial arts for twelve years. He didn’t talk much about it, partly I think because his English wasn’t very good at the time.
Zhao regularly hung out in our house when we were kids. He’d eat with us, and talk with us. We got to know him and his girlfriend, Cherry, who later became his wife.
One day, hanging out, my brother and I were watching the movie Shaolin Temple together. I loved that movie. Turns out, looking it up now, that it starred a very young (but very capable) Jet Li.
I don’t remember what I liked about that film other than it was awesome.
But what I do remember very clearly is that as Zhao came past and saw what we were watching, he exclaimed: “I used to live there!” Zhao told us that he was a monk in a Shaolin temple for twelve years. But eventually he got tired of that life and that’s why he left to move to Australia.
The Shaolin Mind Trick
OK, now the meat of the story.
As I mentioned above, I’m a skeptic. Some may be dismayed to be reminded I don’t have a traditional belief in “God”, other than a general awareness that there’s definitely much more to the universe than is perceivable by me, a squishy bag of meat. But I definitely don’t believe in some kind of supernatural being that guides or punishes us, mostly because it’s too ridiculous to keep writing this sentence.
I don’t believe in anything, frankly. I’m not mystical, and every time someone tells me about some hocus-pocus trick, I quickly google it and tell them that it’s yet another hoax or trick or whatever.
So that’s me. Back to Zhao.
One day after dinner, we were all sitting around in our living room in the house in Canberra. Zhao asked me to write a word on a piece of paper, fold it up, and give it to him. So I did it. I don’t remember what the word was, but let’s say it was “apple”.
Zhao then held it in his hand and said: “Is it ‘apple’?”
Wait, wait. Wait. What just happened?
Another person, I think my mother from memory, tried it too. She wrote down a word on a small piece of paper and folded it up.
She gave it to Zhao. Again, without opening it up, Zhao read it out.
I was sure this was some kind of party trick. So I was determined to beat it. I asked Zhao if I could do it one more time.
To make sure there were no shenanigans, this time I went into my room at the other end of the house, and turned the lights off.
And to confound the situation further, I didn’t write down a “word” — I wrote down four random letters onto a piece of notepaper. Something like “W P X Z”.
I then scrunched that piece of paper into a tiny ball. I showed it to my mum and asked if she could see anything, even any ink on it, and she said “no”.
I gave it to Zhao. He closed his eyes and held the ball of paper to his forehead. Then his brow furrowed. He looked confused. “Aha, I’ve got him,” I thought.
Then he said “… W P X Z? That’s not a word.” He had read it out.
I was totally shocked. He had done it! I asked him how he did it, and he did the best he could to explain it:
“I make my mind blank, and then blank to everything except what’s written on the paper.”
To this day, I can’t really explain what happened. I know it did because I tested it to the degree I could with my own skeptical methods.
I do know that there is more to this world than we can understand, and we know very little about how the brain works.
There are many stories out there about mind tricks — telepathy, telekinesis, and so on. I have no idea if they’re true. I don’t even think that the existence of many stories is any indication that they’re true.
All I know is the one I saw. It’s enough to have made me believe, and I just wish more people could see something like that just once in their life. At least my mother, father, and brother Riaz were witnesses too.
There are a couple of tricks out there that mimic this, e.g. this one, that relies on a reflective surface. But I did my best to beat this trick. Again, all I have to go on is my memory here. But it’s indelibly etched in there!
Zhao stayed in our house for a while — years, I think. He and his wife Cherry eventually got married at a simple civil ceremony, with a reception in our backyard. My mum did all the arrangements. I think he still lives in Canberra, but I don’t know if he still does any kung fu. Hopefully a little.