Almost everyone in Cambodia loves magic tricks. They also want to learn a few tricks to impress their classmates or colleagues, or give performances at parties. But when Cambodians are asked who their favourite magician or illusionist is, only one name will come to their minds: Solo. Behind this stage and household name is a small man who is recognised as the pioneer in performing magic tricks in Cambodia. However, not many of his fans know his real name, let alone his background. In an interview at his magic shop on Street 12 BT, Phnom Penh, the legendary magician reveals his journey to Taing Rinith, this time without any tricks.
Fifty years ago, Sok Kimol, a 7-year-old boy born in Phnom Penh, visited Wat Phnom for the first time with his father. There, Kimol met some of his father’s friends, a group of street performers known as pahi, which was a big attraction at that time.
Making their living from gratuity and selling traditional medicine to their audience, the pahi members were giving various performances such as acrobat, comedies and animal tricks. However, Kimol was captivated by one of the members who could perform magic tricks. He made animals, such as rooster and cobra, appear from empty boxes, and Kimol, as well as other children, thought it was very cool.
“One day, that is going to be me,” Kimol told himself. Little did the little boy know that he would go far beyond being a street performer.
A few years before Khmer Rouge came into power, Kimol’s parents sent him to live with their parents, members of the Khmer Krom ethnic group in the southwestern part of Vietnam. When Kimol returned to Cambodia in 1981, he found out that his mother and father were both killed during the Khmer Rouge regime.
An orphan at 18 and almost finishing high school, Kimol still did not know what to do with his life. He wanted to be a street performer but he did not know where he could learn the art.
One day in 1982, while walking along the Riverside, he saw a group of young people doing strange training in an old school. Some of them were trying to get on unicycles or juggle with sticks while others were doing gymnastic feats such as bending their bodies. Kimol later found out that it was the School of Circus Art, run by the Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts.
Without much ado, Kimol walked in and asked to enroll as a student there. After testing him and finding out that Kimol had a talent for performing arts, especially humour, the director accepted him to his school, along with a scholarship.
In the next two years, Kimol studied the basic art of circus and spent another two years studying in Ukraine, then a part of the Soviet Union. He studied comedy, and upon his return worked as a jester in the Ministry of Culture’s circus troupe. He also has a sideline career as a photographer. Despite doing these for years, Kimol later found out that he was only passionate about magic tricks and was committed to becoming a magician.
“Cambodian people, either old or young, love seeing magic tricks,” Kimol says. “But at that time, there was not a single well-known illusionist in the country.”
In late 1990s, Kimol, then in his mid-30s, started teaching himself magic tricks with instructions from books and watching magic tricks on videotapes. He also studied the techniques of famous illusionists, especially the great David Copperfield and Houdini. Then he bit the bullet and spent all his savings to travel to Singapore and study under a magician there.
Kimol eventually made his debut in a concert organised by Apsara TV, a local TV station, at Park Way square. Performing the Guillotine and Dove Pan, he combined the magic tricks with comedy. The audience gave a loud applause and they really loved it.
After a few more performances, Kimol was already tasting the fruits of his success. But he found that people had difficulty remembering his real name so he decided to come up with a stage name.
“I combined the name of Sak Lo, as Charlie Chaplin has been called in Cambodia, and Loto, a famous Cambodian comedian and actor with dwarfism,” Kimol says.
“That is how the name Solo came up. Now, more people know me by this name than my full name.”
For almost 20 years, Solo has been giving countless performances, mostly on TV shows and national celebrations, with the audience enjoying every bit of it. He has also given performances in other countries such as Singapore and Thailand. So far, there has not been an illusionist in Cambodia who surpasses him in terms of fame although Solo is already 57 years old.
“The key is that when I perform before an audience, I have to give them as much fun as I can although it means I have to make myself look silly,” Solo says.
“But at the same time, I have to pay extra attention to even the smallest detail of the performance. Sometimes, tens of thousands are looking at me standing on stage, and even the smallest mistake could ruin my career.”
Solo says he also has to keep studying to come up with new tricks, adding that performing same old tricks could destroy a magician’s career.
Solo’s wife Ouch Phalla, 56, has often been with him on stage as his assistant and for emotional support. She says she always does her best to care for her husband’s feelings because even a wave of small anger could distract him from giving a good performance.
“When I got on stage with him for the first time, I was amazed by his magic tricks,” Phalla says. “It was not a wrong choice to support him following his real passion.”
Solo wants to pass his skill to the next generations. In 2008, he set up a magic shop where people could learn magic tricks from him for a small fee as well as buy paraphernalia for their magical performance.
“Some of my students are performers, but most of them are students or young people who want to learn a trick or two to impress their friends,” Solo says. “Yet for whatever they are learning it for, magic tricks are made for people to have fun.”
Sok Ouch Oudom, 24, is Solo’s second son and his best pupil. Oudom’s skill earned him the Apsara TV award in 2016, and he is currently performing in the TV station’s kid shows or concerts, occasionally, while attending law school.
“When I was a boy, my father always brought me to his performances so I did not have many problems learning from him,” says Oudom, who is also known by his stage name Sovid.
“I want to continue my father’s legacy and also hope to pass it to my children.”
Unlike the real David Copperfield, the “Cambodia’s David Copperfield” does not have millions of dollars in his bank account. Solo’s career as an illusionist gives him a busy but exciting life, and he is neither rich nor poor.
“I am satisfied with my life because I am able to do what I love and get paid for it,” Solo says, smilingly. “I am happy as long as people keep enjoying my tricks and laughing at my silliness.”