Norman Ng remembers the moment he discovered his life’s passion, at a magic shop called Almodarr’s Grand Illusion in Portland, when he was 9 years old.

“The magician made a ball appear in my hand,” he said. “My heart stopped beating.”

He recognized that same sense of wonder in his son, Lucas, the first time Lucas saw a tractor. “The look in his eye just inspired me,” said Ng, 31.

Today, Ng uses the same creativity and aptitude for problem-solving that helped him become a nationally known magician to help nurture his son’s passion. Ng (pronounced ING) began by teaching himself to repair and restore garden machinery. Then he refurbished a 1974 Ford tractor and presented it to Lucas on the boy’s fourth birthday. Ng and Lucas, now 5, have spent hours in the garage since then working on tractors. For Lucas, who was born deaf but can hear with the aid of cochlear implants, learning about torque and carburetors is not just fun, it’s an exercise in language development.

Ng’s reputation as a magician has earned him an invitation to appear on the CW Network TV show “Penn & Teller: Fool Us.” On Monday’s episode he’ll perform for famed magicians Penn Jillette and Teller (who uses just one name), and they will try to figure out how Ng created his illusion.

But Ng’s most important trick may be his ability to recognize a momentary glint in his son’s eye, and turn it into something magical. Ng spends about three-quarters of the year on the road, performing at dozens of colleges, so he wants to make the time he spends at home in Hollis with his family really count.

“Doing this with Lucas helps me learn about how the world works, how relationships work and what’s actually important in your life,” said Ng. “It puts my whole life into perspective.”


When he ran Almodarr’s Grand Illusion on Stevens Avenue in Portland, magician Markus Steelgrave saw lots of kids fascinated with magic. His magic shop was not far from Longfellow Elementary School, so he saw young faces all the time. But more than 20 years later, Steelgrave can still picture Ng, at age 9, standing quietly near the back of the shop, watching everything.

“The other kids would be grabbing everything, yelling, ‘Show me the thing with the rope,’ but he’d just hang back and then ask a question,” said Steelgrave. “Every kid wants to know how magic works, until they get bored with practicing.”

Ng began asking Steelgrave to demonstrate tricks for him. Steelgrave put a small red ball in Ng’s hand, made a fist, then told Ng to make a fist with his own empty hand. Presto, the tiny red ball appeared in Ng’s hand.

“I could not compute what had happened. It was this feeling of astonishment and awe,” said Ng. “I had to learn how to do it. So I bought the trick from him, thinking it would be automatic.”

It wasn’t automatic. It took lots of time, study and practice to perfect the illusion. But Ng stayed with it, he said, because he wanted to recapture the feeling he got when Steelgrave made that red ball appear in his hand.

And he wanted to give that feeling to others.

By the time he was 12, Ng was entertaining at birthday parties for children not much younger than he was. He also ran a cash register at times at his family’s Chinese restaurant, the Hu Ke Lau, by the Maine Mall in South Portland. But Ng said he knew his career would be in magic, not in the restaurant business.

Ng spent time carrying props for Steelgrave, helping him set up at shows, and even performing with him at times. He traveled to magic competitions and sought advice from veteran magicians, who recognized his drive and talent.

After high school, Ng moved to the San Francisco area, where his mother had moved after his parents split up. He found that the area was a great place for magicians and did a lot of private parties. At one point, he was doing 400 shows a year.

Ng and his wife, Tonya, had met while both were in high school in Portland. They married in 2006. While expecting their first child, they moved back to Maine to start their family.


Magic is not a profession you see a lot of teens writing college entrance exams about. As Ng points out, most people either know one or two very famous magicians from TV (David Copperfield, Criss Angel) or have seen a magician at a birthday party. But lots of magicians make a living by carving out a niche, maybe performing at resorts or corporate events.

Ng’s specialty is doing magic for college kids. He’s honed his act over the years to appeal to them, combining comedy patter with fast-paced action and props the college set can relate to. His best-known illusion for those shows involves smashing an audience member’s cellphone with a baseball bat, an act that causes everyone to gasp with sympathetic horror. Then he makes the unharmed phone reappear in a can of Pringles potato chips. Ng says the trick took about three years to perfect.

This year he’s performed at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, Utah Valley University, the University of Virginia and Tennessee Wesleyan College, among others. He travels light, with all his props fitting in one or two suitcases. No giant escape chambers for Ng. He mostly uses cards, paper, a bowling ball, flashlights, and whatever he can get from the audience.

In one trick, Ng asks an audience member to think of a card, then he draws a deck with an ace on top. When the audience member says that’s not the right card, a full-color picture of a 7 of hearts is seen slowly appearing, one line at a time, on the paper. And that is the right card.

“He has great sleight-of-hand skills, which is about psychology and timing, really,” said Phil Smith, a Portland magician who met Ng when Ng was 13. “As a magician, you can’t move your hand quick enough to fool the eye, but you can fool the mind.”

But fooling the mind is not the same as distracting someone. It’s more about directing someone’s attention where you want it to go, said Ng.


On a rainy Monday afternoon in June, Ng was home working on a tractor engine in the garage, with Lucas by his side.

“He and Lucas are very similar, the way they become fixated on figuring something out,” said Tonya Ng, Norman’s wife and Lucas’ mother. “I’ll see Lucas bending down to look under trucks, to check out the engine. Norman will wake me up at 4 a.m. to show me a new trick he made.”

For a while, the whole family was in the garage watching Ng give lessons in tractor repair: Noah, 7, Alaina, 3, and Phoebe, 8 months.

Lucas was born “profoundly deaf,” meaning he had no hearing at all. But he has had cochlear implants since he was about 1. The implants are small electronic devices made up of two sections, one that sits outside the ear and one surgically inserted under the skin above the ear.

For nearly two years after getting the implants, Lucas and his family would have to drive to a Boston hospital once a month for regular reprogrammings of the external processor Lucas wears, to help the device interpret various sounds.

“You can’t just introduce every sound all at once to a child that has never heard,” said Ng.

The implants allow Lucas to hear his father teaching him about his favorite subject, mechanics.

“What’s the carburetor do?” Ng asked, while working with Lucas in the garage.

“The gas comes out the carburetor,” Lucas answered.

“It mixes the gas with the air and it feeds it to the engine,” Ng said.

“Why?” asked Lucas.

“That’s how the engine causes combustion,” his father said.

During the brief times he was not fixated on what his father was doing, Lucas had his hands on every new device he could find. He opened and closed a visitor’s umbrella several times. He was fascinated with the camera being used to photograph him for this story.

The look in Lucas’ eye, the one Ng spotted long ago, was clearly visible as he started pulling a chain attached to a cluster of gears and pulleys, used for hoisting heavy engines in the garage.

“That’s my gear reduc…shun,” Lucas said, pointing and grinning. His father had taught him about gear reduction and the use of multiple gears to provide power.

A few moments later, Lucas was outside climbing onto his 1974 Ford tractor and proclaiming, “My birthday tractor is very powerful.” But it was raining out, and Ng didn’t think Lucas should ride it. Lucas pleaded and begged. But Ng told him, “Maybe later.” Later in the afternoon, the rain slowed. With Lucas in the driver’s seat, Ng started the engine and in seconds the 1,500-pound tractor was rumbling around the family’s backyard. Lucas had a look of focused glee in his eye as he drove the tractor, making the front shovel go up and down, while Ng jogged alongside and shouted instructions.

Lucas helps Ng run an online parts business, iSaveTractors. Restoring tractors also has become a hobby that Ng and Lucas share with the rest of the family. Ng restored a 1951 Allis Chalmers B-1 for Alaina, now called “Alaina’s Allis.”

Tonya Ng says her husband’s traveling presents challenges, but as a family, it’s all they’ve ever known. Her passion is horses, and part of the reason the family lives in Hollis, part of the reason they have tractors, is so someday she can have her own horse-related business. She relates to her husband turning a passion into his life’s work.

“Neither of us has a traditional career,” she said. “We both have a passion and we very much want to be parents who encourage our children to follow theirs, whatever it is.”


Ng filmed his appearance on “Penn & Teller: Fool Us” in April in Las Vegas. He will be one of about 50 magicians on the show this summer. During each one-hour show, magicians perform for Penn and Teller, then the two legendary magicians discuss the trick and try to figure out how the illusion works. Penn and Teller try to let the contestant magician know that they know what happened, without really telling the audience, said Andrew Golder, the show’s executive producer. Magicians are sort of touchy about giving away their secrets.

Golder said the show’s “magic consultants” looked all over the country for the best magicians they could find. Ng’s name came up repeatedly, and he was asked to film a segment.

“This is not like other TV talent shows, where they look for undiscovered talent,” Golder said. “We didn’t want anyone who wasn’t a great magician.”

About 15 percent of magicians on the show will fool Penn and Teller, Golder said. Those magicians don’t win money, but they get to perform with Penn and Teller during one of their live Las Vegas shows.

Ng wouldn’t say very much about his appearance on “Penn & Teller,” but he did say he used a trick that he uses as part of his regular routine.

The basement of Ng’s home is where he makes the things, the props, that he makes magic with. His workbenches look pretty normal. There are screwdrivers, pliers and electrical tape. But there are some odd items, like hockey sticks, for a trick during which he impales playing cards with them.

He also has shelves of magic books. He looks for inspiration in old tricks but tries to come up with original ideas. Once he knows what he wants to do, make a blunt hockey stick slice a thin plastic card, for instance, he starts problem-solving.

“I start with what I want to happen. I want to make an elephant to appear. Then I go backwards one step at a time. If I’m going to make an elephant appear, I know he needs to be somewhere, somewhere the audience doesn’t know about,” said Ng. “I create magic tricks the way I’d troubleshoot an engine.”

And sometimes, troubleshooting an engine can create magic.

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