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Pinky Loo is the face behind this ancient Chinese art performance.

Words Alexandra Wong Photos SooPhye

In a fierce painted mask, flowing cape and dramatic headgear, the performer looks imposing, scary even. As operatic music swells in the background, suddenly, with a split-second flourish of arms and a snap that cracks the air like a whip, the face metamorphoses to display a different mask. The performer changes masks again and again -– all in the blink of an eye, right before the enraptured audience – before finally revealing the visage of a smiling young lady.

Sans costume, it’s hard to believe that baby-faced Pinky Loo has been a bianlian performer – literally mask-changer – for 12 of her 30 years.

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Loo watched her first live bianlian performance when she was 15 years old. Hailing from a family in Malaysia’s entertainment industry, Loo was already a budding magician who loved picking up new skills. Though enthralled, she had no illusions about learning bianlian, a 300-year-old art unique to Sichuan opera. At that time, circa 2004-2005, bianlian was a fiercely guarded national heritage that was registered with China’s State Secrets Bureau and rarely taught to outsiders.

Then fate intervened. The following year, her father, a show promoter, brought in acrobatic acts from China for a local show. The mask-changer had problems getting his assistant through immigration, so Loo was roped in as an assistant. The sifu (master) eventually agreed to accept her as an apprentice. Loo immediately travelled to Hebei, where her sifu taught at an acrobatic school, to learn the art.

After just about a month of practice, Loo took to the stage, only to falter in her first performance. “I was worried that my tall headgear would fall off, so I pressed it on too tight, causing the inner mechanics to malfunction,” she shares ruefully. “I tried to save the performance by strutting dramatically around the stage. Fortunately, the audience didn’t realise that the masks had not changed!”

From a near-disastrous debut, Loo went on to become a celebrated mask changer. Her beguiling combination of youth, good looks and showmanship made her a natural media darling. Career highlights include demonstrating the art before Public Bank founder Teh Hong Piow, who was delighted when Loo changed to a mask of Teh’s face. Together with her business and life partner, fellow magician Mark Yong, Loo set up talent company Vivas Magic Entertainment, and they have performed in over 30 countries.

One reason Loo’s audience keeps coming back for more is she continually introduces innovation to her routine. She designs and sews her own costumes and masks to incorporate more personal touches; one of her suits has a contemporary harlequin look as well as ultraviolet special effects! Another unique gimmick in her repertoire: after revealing her real face, she can “rewind” to show one of the earlier masks. “This is a harder skill. Your hands must be fast and your brain must be alert. You cannot bungle up the sequence!”

Understandably, Loo won’t reveal her trade secrets but accedes that “in mask changing, you must be very clear about the sequence of the masks from the innermost to the outermost.” She also acknowledges that the costume is linked to the masks and “a lot of body skills and hidden physical movements are involved.”

Not content to be a one-trick pony, Loo recently introduced costume-changing into her repertoire. Applying some of the principles she learned from bianlian, Loo can change into multiple outfits in a matter of seconds; she is listed in the Malaysian Book of Records 2012 for achieving the most costumes changed (14) within one minute, a record she has since broken informally.

“There is no enchantment or witchcraft involved,” she smiles. “It’s just a matter of the hand being faster than the eye. Magic is the art of defying expectations and springing the element of surprise – you have to keep the audience guessing!”

Pinky Loo

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