The Chinese Water Torture Cell at 100

Discuss the historical aspects of magic, including memories, or favorite stories.

Postby JohnCox » 09/23/12 11:37 PM

Friday marked the 100th Anniversary of Houdini's first public performance of his famous Chinese Water Torture Cell. To celebrate, I took a look back at the history of the cell and its 100 year journey from England to Las Vegas. Thought you might enjoy.

http://www.wildabouthoudini.com/2012/09 ... 00_21.html
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Postby Greg Edmonds » 10/13/12 10:22 AM

As always, very nice job John!

Greg

PS. If my calculation is correct I write this a couple days after the anniversary of the FINAL time Houdini gave a water torture cell performance. By the way John you should write professionally. ;)
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Postby JohnCox » 10/13/12 10:56 AM

Thank you, Greg. Appreciate it. :)

Yes, you're quite right. Houdini's last performance of the USD was Oct 11, 1926. I covered that one last year.

http://www.wildabouthoudini.com/2011/10 ... rture.html
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Postby JohnCox » 10/15/12 10:06 AM

BTW, I got a private message here saying that I was being rasist calling this the Chinese Water Torture Cell. I see the point, but that's what Houdini called it. I actually use USD or Water Torture Cell when talking about it myself, but I think at some point it's important to say what Houdini actually called the effect.

I've now taken "Chinese" out of the title and zapped a few uses in the article. I still say "at some point it became the Chinese Water Torture Cell", but that's part of the story. But that's it. Guess it's how I should have handled it in the first place, but I really didn't see the name as offensive, just historical.

Apologies to anyone else I offended.
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Postby Brad Henderson » 10/15/12 11:19 AM

I understand and appreciate that many of out magic names have a (sometimes more than a little) hint of racism. However I am having a hard time finding racism in the use of the word "Chinese". When did that word become politically incorrect? Must we now call the technique of dripping water onto someone's forehead something else? I don't wish to be niggardly (look it up before you freak out) with my compassion, but I would like to know that there is a basis for that compassion. Perhaps the pm'er will share the basis of the alleged offense.

(for those who freaked out and didn't look it up: from wikipedia: In the United States, there have been several controversies concerning the word "niggardly," an adjective meaning "stingy" or "miserly," due to its phonetic similarity to the racial slur "n$&$&$." The two words are etymologically unrelated.)
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 10/15/12 11:35 AM

Hi Folks,

I'm sure we can refer to Houdini's upside down (he called it that) without propigating a meme that any Chinese were involed in the process. Seems odd to post things that don't reflect well or acurately on a quarter of the world's population and a significant part of our economy.

As regards the technique in what's now called "enhanced interrogation" - here's a link to an article that gives credit where due. The Roman Drip?

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Postby Brad Henderson » 10/15/12 12:01 PM

Historical Innacuracy is one thing; being offensive, another
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 10/15/12 12:21 PM

Stockade escape then?
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Postby JohnCox » 10/15/12 12:27 PM

When writing about the USD, one has lots of wiggle room. While it was absolutely billed as "The Chinese Water Torture Cell" for most of the 14 years Houdini performed it, Houdini himself referred to it as the Upside Down or USD, and early on it was just called The Water Torture Cell. In the body of this article and all my articles about the cell, I use USD or Water Torture Cell.

This time I put Chinese into my headline because, I don't know, I was presenting a full 100 history and I felt like the headline should be formal, present the name as it was presented to the public, The Chinese Water Torture Cell.

Now what are we going to do about the Russian Manacle? ;)
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Postby Eric Fry » 10/15/12 12:43 PM

I always figured that Houdini had heard the phrase "Chinese water torture" and either didn't know what it referred to or didn't care.

It is odd that he used the phrase for his trick, given that he made no effort to decorate the cell as a Chinese object or present the trick in a Chinese-oriented skit. And he didn't give false exotic names for his other tricks, did he?

It's also illogical to claim the cell as an original invention and yet attribute it to the Chinese.

The one point I can think of is that a Houdini biography mentioned his interest in photographs of torture and executions. He may have associated the Chinese government with torture.
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Postby Diego » 10/15/12 02:52 PM

The use of the word Chinese here is historical-That's what it was called, and should seen in it's historical context.

The word itself is not offensive, unlike the continued use of "chink-a-chink" for a coin trick. (I've seen ordinary coins used and the late Bruce Cervon use bottle caps at The Magic Castle, while clueslessly still calling it "Chink a Chink" to an audience which people of different backgrounds were offended by.)

The "Chinese Linking Rings" shows how things Chinese, for better or worse, have been associated with the mysterious, exotic, and unique. (What do they call it in China?)

"The Albainian Torture Cell"
"The Hawaiian Torture Cell"
They don't sound as good, do they?
(Unless you were ever tortured in Albainia.)

Of course who we are fighting at the time: British, Germans, Japanese, Viet Cong, etc. has more easily linked their names to torture. (Would "The Manchurian Candidate" have worked as well at the time, if it was set in Hungary, instead of China?)

John, while your interest in not offending people is commendable, and it doesn't detract to only call it the WTC, I believe it should be kept in perspective regardless.

Most are not offended by what Houdini billed/depicted his escape 100 years ago, but more, (but not enough) are offended TODAY by the depiction/caricature of Chinese by the cowardly, racist profiteer Jeff Hobson .
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Postby Kevin Connolly » 10/15/12 02:52 PM

I'll stick with calling the Chinese Water Torture Cell. He used images of a large menacing Chinese person on his advertising and posters.

Maybe he used "Chinese" because the Chinese Water Torture was in vogue back then. I don't know either way, but I heard of it before I heard of Houdini.

Either way, using the word Chinese is not racist. If it is, then we are too PC. IMHO
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Postby erdnasephile » 10/15/12 04:13 PM

Kevin Connolly wrote:I'll stick with calling the Chinese Water Torture Cell. He used images of a large menacing Chinese person on his advertising and posters.



Is this guy really supposed to be "Chinese"?

[img:center]http://www.rainfall.com/posters/images140/Theatrical/magic018.jpg[/img]
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Postby Ted M » 10/15/12 05:07 PM

When one acknowledges the "Chinese" element of the trick's promotion, it's helpful to remember that this poster's baggage rides along with it. They're a package.

One might legitimately choose to avoid that element to focus on the apparatus or the trick itself. Or one might include the sensational racist "Chinese" element to acknowledge the historical context of its promotion, since Houdini was as notable a promoter as he was a performer.

The choice will depend on what you're aiming to focus on, and where you want to direct your audience's focus.
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Postby Brad Henderson » 10/15/12 05:23 PM

Is the use of the word Chinese either sensational or racist? Is there any evidence that it was intended as such, or taken as such, at that time?

Can we still call the bowls made by Tayade and others Indian cups and balls?
Should BMW cease references to German manufacturing?

Off to eat some food that may or may not have had origins in the country known as china.

Macaroni grill here I come!
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Postby JohnCox » 10/15/12 05:51 PM

erdnasephile wrote:
Kevin Connolly wrote:I'll stick with calling the Chinese Water Torture Cell. He used images of a large menacing Chinese person on his advertising and posters.



Is this guy really supposed to be "Chinese"?

[img:center]http://www.rainfall.com/posters/images140/Theatrical/magic018.jpg[/img]

Kevin was thinking of a different poster in which a Chinese devil-like man (complete with pig tail) is holding down the top of the cell. I've never understood what this big blue monster is supposed to be...except a big blue monster.
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Postby erdnasephile » 10/15/12 06:05 PM

It's Smurfist!
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Postby Kevin Connolly » 10/15/12 06:27 PM

Thanks John for clearing that up. On my blog it will always be the Chinese Water Torture Cell. :)

As for the person above, that's Warner Oland.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 10/15/12 06:28 PM

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Postby JohnCox » 10/16/12 09:07 AM

Jonathan Townsend wrote:Hi Folks,

I'm sure we can refer to Houdini's upside down (he called it that) without propigating a meme that any Chinese were involed in the process. Seems odd to post things that don't reflect well or acurately on a quarter of the world's population and a significant part of our economy.


Houdini also called his Needles the "Hindu Needle Trick." Is that also a problem?
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 10/16/12 09:13 AM

JohnCox wrote:You know, Houdini also called his Needles the "Hindu Needle Trick." Is that also a problem? Seriously.


Not sure what the needles trick has to do with Hindu religious practice. Maybe it was a Kali thing? Anyway about the names:

Change "Hindu" or "Chinese" to "The Prohpet Muhammed's" and see if that causes discomfort. Try changing the title to "Jewish Water Torture Cell" and see if that irks. If it does, same problem. Feigned historical references are pretty much gone with the wind and Twain's character "ni**er Jim". Grandfathering a faux-pax does not make us look too classy IMHO.

IMHO we don't need to propigate such false attributions and problems. Especially when it comes to devices of torture and acts we'd prefer others's don't imitate at home.

I like the C/S/B trick. Not so keen on using the "Chinese Bit" patter that was included in the Ken Brooke instructions though.
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Postby JohnCox » 10/16/12 09:18 AM

But that's what it was called. If it was called The Prohpet Muhammed's Water Torture Cell, I would say that's what it was called.

And while I certainly don't think we need to use Hindu Needle Trick or the Chinese Water Torture Cell when performing these effects today (or even when talking about them in forums), should a historian censor the original name when presenting a formal history of that effect? Because that's what you're asking me to do.

My solution from the start was to use the original name sparingly. But I'm still trying to find the area of offense. Was it because I used it in the headline?
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 10/16/12 09:23 AM

JohnCox wrote:But that's what it was called.


So f*'ing what? Vernon also had "wetback" in the patter for a trick in the Ganson book. Do we need to call it the "wetback's slippery bill trick" today?

Houdini called his version of the stockade escape his "upside down". How about being a historian and calling a thing by what its inventor called it?

This is not about racism. It's simply about false attribution and perpetuation misplaced cultural stereotypes. A kindly black guy is not a "ni**er Jim" character. The language known back then as Mandarin is now known as national language or common speech.
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Postby JohnCox » 10/16/12 09:28 AM

Jonathan Townsend wrote:
JohnCox wrote:
Houdini called his version of the stockade escape his "upside down". How about being a historian and calling a thing by what its inventor called it?

I do! Several times in the article. I say that's what Houdini called it and I use when talking about it myself. I also point out that "Chinese" came later.

But Houdini called it the USD privately, it was short hand. Publicly, he called it and billed it as The Chinese Water Torture Cell. So I am calling it what the inventor called it.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 10/16/12 09:31 AM

Back then, racism and sexism and cultural stereoptypes were reinforced. By using them you are perpetuating them. I wish you'd stop it.
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Postby JohnCox » 10/16/12 09:38 AM

Jonathan Townsend wrote:Back then, racism and sexism and cultural stereoptypes were reinforced. By using them you are perpetuating them. I wish you'd stop it.

But I'm presenting a history.

And I'm not arguing that's what we should still call it today. I agree with you, the Chinese part is insensitive. I'm just saying that's what it was called in Houdini's day. That's all.

I actually went back in and removed the Chinese from the headline and all but one reference in the body of the article. But in what I want to be a definitive history of the effect (as definitive as one can do in a blog), I have to say at least once that it was called The Chinese Water Torture Cell back in the day. So that's what I do.

My apologies to anyone this (still) offends.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 10/16/12 09:46 AM

Your language speaks to who you are and what you believe. Self justification and "... but..." speaks to how you think about things. It's on you.

I remain impressed by the clever inversion of the stocks, the tremendous feat of performing the thing and how well it went over.
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Postby Kevin Connolly » 10/16/12 10:12 AM

Self-indignation really doesn't impress me. Referring to the illusion to as "The Chinese Water Torture Cell" is still not racist.
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Postby JohnCox » 10/16/12 10:13 AM

Jonathan Townsend wrote:Your language speaks to who you are and what you believe. Self justification and "... but..." speaks to how you think about things. It's on you.


Again, I'm really sorry to have offended, Jonathan. But I feel like I'm the person here who most agrees with you. I think Houdini's use of Chinese was insensitive, and by today's standards, racist. But I never saw it until you pointed it out. Maybe this means I'm racist. But I think it has more to do with the fact that I've just lived with the name for so long that I never saw it as anything but the "exotic" name of Houdini's most famous escape. But maybe that's the nature of racism. Some don't even know they're being offensive until someone smacks you in the head.

But now I see it and I've made what I think are the appropriate changes, and I will certainly be aware of what I call the USD in the future. Maybe bringing it out and discussing it like this helps combat this form of racisim better than repressing it? Or not.

Truth be told, I really only included the full name because it filled the headline space so well. :)
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Postby Ted M » 10/16/12 10:34 AM

Kevin Connolly wrote:I'll stick with calling the Chinese Water Torture Cell. He used images of a large menacing Chinese person on his advertising and posters.

Kevin Connolly wrote:Referring to the illusion to as "The Chinese Water Torture Cell" is still not racist.


Let me see if I understand this.

You'll stick with calling it the Chinese Water Torture Cell because Houdini used racist caricatures of Chinese people to advertise it.

And that's... not racist?
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Postby Kevin Connolly » 10/16/12 10:44 AM

Still not racist. I'll use this quote I found on the internet concerning the word "Chinese". "The other sense is 'exotic, mysterious, or devious,' as in Chinese handcuffs (the finger restraints that bind more tightly the harder you try to pull your fingers out), Chinese checkers (the game is said to have been invented in the latter 19th century by an Englishman), and of course the Chinese water torture."

We than can than move over to Europe where it's called "The Spanish Water Torture" if we need to fight more windmills.
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Postby Brad Henderson » 10/16/12 11:37 AM

Is there anyone here of Chinese heritage who finds the phrase offensive? That seems to me a good starting point.

Claiming offense for a race to which one neither belongs, nor has any real life experience living as, seems a bit patronizing and insulting to me. While I cannot deny the phrase has offended a couple of white guys, I'm not sure if they should be the arbiter of racism.

I did a little looking online and found no references to controversies over the phrase as being racist. With warner bro's and Disney censoring themselves for racist content (especially negative Asian imagery) with the torture depicted by name on gilligan's island, the Brady bunch, myth busters, and numerous movies - one would think if it were offensive an Asian anti defamation group would have said something by now.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 10/16/12 11:46 AM

I know someone who's Chinese and they point out such language in the media when it happens. Recently it's been use of the word "chink" on receipts. The "Chinese water torture" term has been mentioned in the last year or so when it was used TV news.

Racism is still with us. People's language speaks to their way of thinking and sense of identity.
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Postby Brad Henderson » 10/16/12 12:25 PM

Chink and Chinese are two very different things.

We can find many instances of the former causing concern, i have yet to find controversy (other than here) for the latter. And yes, our language does speak to our way of thinking. In this case, does it not reveal hyper sensitivity to imagined wrongs?

There are Many commonly used words and phrases that do cause offense, and many of those are being slowly - and rightfully - pushed out of usage. I simply see no evidence - other than jt's noble concern (written with sincerity, no sarcasm intended) - that this phrase has racist implications or fosters negative stereotypes.
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Postby JohnCox » 10/16/12 03:02 PM

BTW, the earliest reference I can find so far to the USD being called "The Chinese Water Torture Cell" is 1916. That's a little later than I thought. I was thinking it got the more "exotic" name when Houdini included it in his Full Magical Revue of 1914. But then it was still just The Water Torture Cell.
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Postby JohnCox » 10/16/12 03:20 PM

JohnCox wrote:BTW, the earliest reference I can find so far to the USD being called "The Chinese Water Torture Cell" is 1916. That's a little later than I thought. I was thinking it got the more "exotic" name when Houdini included it in his Full Magical Revue of 1914. But then it was still just The Water Torture Cell.

Wait! Scratch all that. I just found a 1914 reference. Interestingly, it also says Houdini is "Introducing the Masterpiece of the Yogis, the East Indian Needle Trick" (even though Houdini had been performing the Needles all his career). So it looks like the USD and the Needles picked up their exotic names when they were presented around the time Houdini's Magical Revue.
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Postby Jonathan Townsend » 10/16/12 03:41 PM

What changes to the artwork happened for that item? - was it by year, tour, Europe/American venue?

Kevin mentioned a Chinese person in one version and there's the big blue guy (a Hun?) in another so I'm wondering about how it was advertised.
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Postby JohnCox » 10/16/12 04:06 PM

Jonathan Townsend wrote:What changes to the artwork happened for that item? - was it by year, tour, Europe/American venue?

Kevin mentioned a Chinese person in one version and there's the big blue guy (a Hun?) in another so I'm wondering about how it was advertised.

Ironically, the Chinese man advert (you can see that here) appeared before it was called The Chinese Water Torture Cell. It was still just The Water Torture Cell then. The date of the big blue guy poster is 1914, so right around the time of the change. Not sure I know of a poster later than that.

But none of the USD posters really give a name to the escape. They just say things like "Houdini will attempt to free himself from a water torture cell." The programs are where one reads the name.
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Postby Pete McCabe » 10/16/12 04:06 PM

You're quoting a hun to me?
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Postby Pete McCabe » 10/16/12 04:08 PM

Sorry, I was just watching Love and Death over the weekend.
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