When 34-year-old Ning Cai sat down with me and my colleagues for our interview, the first person who spoke was not any of us, but her.
"I want to show you something first," she said to me excitedly, brandishing a deck of poker cards.
I am quite a sceptical person by nature — I don't really believe in magic, and am always certain that there's a perfectly practical method behind every trick, as many past documentaries have shown.
So I'm asked to pick a card — it's a seven of hearts. It went back into the pile. She made a few dramatic movements and swishes, and fanned out the deck, to reveal a single face-up card.
A nine of diamonds. Not the card I picked. Noticing the unimpressed look on my face, Cai said quickly, "Well, 9 is an indicator of the number of cards I'm supposed to deal."
And so she placed the 9 card face-up on the castor-wheeled table between us, and promptly flipped up the digits of my mobile phone number in sequence, with the card immediately after the last one being the seven of hearts.
In this decisive fashion, at our first-ever time meeting each other, we were introduced to her brand-new persona: Ning, Mind Magic Mistress.
While my mind was racing to process what had just happened or how she could have learnt that information beforehand, it was also coming to recognise that Cai, who for several years went by the moniker Magic Babe Ning, is a woman who knows what she wants, and is crystal clear about what she wants to say.
She came to us a day before she was to fly to the UK for a comeback magic festival performance and lecture circuit, with a posse of public relations executives and her manager, one among a flurry of interviews she had already done over the past few days and was going to head off to after she was done with us.
The presence of three extra people in the room pressed an unnecessarily stifling hand on the conversation we had, which was regrettable given the fascinating life Cai has led up to this point — even stories she has told in her autobiography and talked about online before.
Nonetheless, we got to some very important issues, like what the next winning 4D numbers will be, and what's on the cards for her in this new stage of her magical career.
Who was Magic Babe Ning?
If you aren't all that interested in the magic scene in Singapore, you might not know Magic Babe Ning well — prior to her late-2014 retirement, Cai chalked up 15 years of performing death-defying, show-stopping tricks on stages, which include being suspended from ropes in the air with nothing to cushion an untimely fall, and submerged in sealed-from-the-outside tanks.
Mostly clad in corsets, bustiers, leather jackets and boots, skin-tight jeans and cleavage, and brandishing katanas and sais, she was also seen boring her way out of straitjackets suspended upside down and ate fire.
And also, on two FHM covers — the first in 2009, and the second in 2013:
Performing alongside another Singaporean magician, J C Sum, Cai was during her time, the first Singaporean female magician to strike it big in our local scene, and in the region, too — refusing to settle for the usual female role of magician's assistant, as she discovered was the case when she was first starting out.
As Magic Babe Ning, a younger Cai found a persona she could find authenticity with — being a self-professed tomboy by nature, Cai said she was comfortable in the "tomboy first, learn makeup later" caricature.
But yet, she told us that after 15 years, she evolved to a point where she isn't the same girl who took on the "Magic Babe" persona, and felt it was no longer realistic.
At the same time, she also struggled to distinguish the two people — Ning Cai, and Magic Babe Ning — the more dominatrix shoots and magazine photo spreads she did, the more tricks and stunts she practiced, the tougher she found it to tear herself away from the person who made up her entire career.
She also lets on that maybe, her sexy bombshell persona grew larger than herself — over the years, she also found herself being propositioned starring film roles that she turned down: like the role of a teacher who had sex with a student of hers, and at least two others, which she would only describe as "pretty crazy" and "even crazier". Their common thread: the characters' and films' plots all revolved around sex.
"I felt I was losing myself... because like 10, 15 years doing this character, after a while it kind of becomes you in a way? Because the ironic thing is that you are part of that character, but the character is not you. But later the lines kind of blur.
Because I was working so hard, too — I was travelling outside of Singapore so often... and minimally I’ll be based in China for like seven weeks, and then I’ll come back for maybe a week and a half, and you know, change luggage and I’m off, and then I’m like in Korea and everything. So it’s hard to have relationships as well..."
Calling it quits — and then returning
And so, she made the tough decision to put an end to what was increasingly becoming a farce — before it did, thankfully, and while her career was still on a high.
"No more magic", declared one headline, in the flurry of exit interviews she did in the wake of her announcement of her retirement in November 2014, while another said Cai was executing her "final disappearing act".
At the time, she said in an interview with Today that she had "no intention to perform magic professionally anymore", and a month later, with Razor TV, she said there would be "little chance" of a comeback.
More than two years later, after a wedding, three "fantastic" years of married life (and counting) and four books, Cai announced she's back because the calls to return were simply too great to ignore.
"It's crazy — like, I've been out of the scene for two and a half years, but then people were contacting me for shows — like the MNCs that I've done stuff for before, event partners, and also people like Mark Kalin (of Kalin and Jinger), producer for The Illusionist, a travelling show.
And then actually, if I'm not here talking to you guys, I would actually be in Vegas because I was actually asked by the producers of Penn and Teller: Fool Us to be on their show — but the thing is, as you know, I'm flying off tomorrow to the UK... so I told them, you know what, it's very cool — like, 'Singapore represent' — but probably next season."
The festival Cai blew off Penn and Teller for, the South Tyneside International Magic Festival, is a festival for magicians — it's also the first time its organisers decided to have an Asian magician headlining it.
She travelled there sans all her toys, which she said had been residing in "my little dungeon at home... with all the little implements and tools that I don't use out in public anymore". We decided not to probe further.
Going big on mentalism, her first love
Cai was excited talking about her plans for Mind Magic Mistress — mentalism (mind magic), she shared, had always been a first love of hers.
In fact, one of the first magic competitions she ever did (and won, how about that) involved her taking on a character modelled after Jean Grey, the powerful telepathic and telekinetic X-men superheroine, and in her final act, triggering spontaneous combustion of a piece of newspaper in front of the judges.
"While Magic Babe is very dynamic, I would say Mind Magic Mistress is dominant... when you think of a mentalist, you would think of Derren Brown from the UK; he's a fantastic performer and he does the whole psychologist persona with a three-piece suit — I don't do that, though... I'm still wearing my corsets, my leather... and I'm just owning the whole Asian woman thing. I'm an Asian female dominant and I'm very comfortable that I've got two X chromosomes and I'm not afraid to use it!"
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More recently, prior to Magic Babe Ning's retirement, Cai and Sum pulled off the impossible: historically predicting, accurately, the top prize of the 4D draw on January 27, 2010.
The video above tells the story — they guessed the winning number (5853), typed it out and printed it on paper, taped a lottery ticket to it and both of them, as well as the director of the Singapore Tote Board, signed against it with the date of their prediction (a week prior). In an angpow, they also placed a $10,000 cheque dated January 21, 2010, for the Children's Cancer Foundation, and it was later revealed that the lottery ticket they bought was for 0000, a number they knew would not possibly win.
"(We bought 0000) to show people that you know what, you have to work for your own keep lah. You cannot just rely on that (winning the lottery) cause I felt like while I wanted to show that this can be done, I wanted people to know that this is not the way to make a living."
In 2012, she also set a world record reading 100 minds in 60 minutes:
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Possibly a taste of what's to come in her new act? Cai said she did not have any public shows in Singapore scheduled just yet, but she hoped to have opportunities to show her new work with Singaporeans.
Back to that 4D prediction:
"People enjoy miracles, people enjoy suspension of disbelief, you know, and I always tell people it’s entertainment. Because after my 4D prediction, oh my goodness, I had so many people calling me on the office phone (saying) 'Ning can I get numbers from you??' okay, not just from Singapore but China as well. 'My grandmother is in the hospital', like, you know, and they ask for numbers, so I’m like dude, I’m not gonna start my own cult!"
We had to ask — so technically, she knows every combination of winning numbers and could just go buy the winning number ahead of every draw, right?
"I only want to use my powers for good," she says. But eventually, "It's possible, but I choose to be a nice girl about it... (also) with great power comes great responsibility."
Top photo by Chiew Teng