Thu. May 30th, 2024

Meet the ‘Chinese Wonderman’ performing death-defying stunts in his 70s

Emily Hudson By Emily Hudson May19,2024
Key Points
  • Michael Xiao, a retired international trader, has another career in performing stunts.
  • He has performed stunts and magic tricks for more than 50 years.
  • His passion for acrobatics is shared by Australian circus studies founder, Guangrong Lu.
Caution: This article references stunts performed by a professional, do not try to do any stunt or activity described in this article. 
Standing on eggs without breaking them, swallowing balls made of iron and cracking rocks on his chest are just some of the stunts still being performed by Michael Xiao who is known by the stage name of “Chinese Wonderman”.
Xiao, 72, launched himself into the stunt industry as a teen.
The migrant from China recalled “threading the needle” as being the first trick he learnt in China’s capital city of Beijing at the age of 18.
“I put eight needles and a thread in my mouth and threaded the needles on to the string inside my mouth,” he told SBS Chinese.

“It’s a highly skilled act and can be dangerous if you don’t know how it’s done.”

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Micheal Xiao performs swallowing iron balls (L) and splitting bricks bare-handed (R). Credit: Micheal Xiao

Real skills and tricks

Xiao combined his work as a stunt performer with his “day job” as an international trader before his retirement.
He was a regular performer on the Sydney entertainment scene over a number of decades, including Lunar New Year and Mid Autumn Festival celebrations.
Despite his age, he is yet to retire from the stage, though still finds time for selected performances.
When Xiao was 10, he watched a street stunt show in Beijing, sparking his interest in the industry from that moment.

“Someone swallowed an iron ball and then spat it out. Sometimes they swallowed two balls, and there was a sound of the iron balls clashing in their stomach,” Xiao recalled.

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Xiao’s fire-breathing (L) and bare-handed wood-chopping (R) shows. Credit: Micheal Xiao

This experience inspired Xiao to spend countless hours watching stunt shows on the street. He decided to learn from the stunt performers in his neighbourhood.

“I would visit their homes asking for advice, or watch them perform secretly to understand these tricks,” he said.
“Sometimes, I couldn’t sleep well, constantly thinking about how they did it.”
After years of learning and practising, Xiao said he mastered dozens of tricks and continued his performance in Australia after he moved to Sydney in 1988.
He appeared on stage for television program Australia’s Got Talent in 2007.
Xiao said his performances combined both authentic Kung Fu and a certain level of showmanship, referred to as “Xinghuo” in Mandarin.
“Xinghuo conveys a sense of mystery that makes the fake look real,” he said.

“It’s a way of presenting art. No one earns money at the cost of making themselves miserable.”

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Micheal Xiao performs one of his signature tricks of standing on eggs without breaking them. Source: Supplied / Micheal Xiao

The circus was an ‘iron rice bowl’

Similar to Xiao’s experience, Guangrong Lu, 70, said he started to learn acrobatics at age 11 in Nanjing, China.
“I was selected to join the Nanjing Acrobatic Art Troupe, which was an ‘iron rice bowl’ in the 1960s [in China],” he said.
“My parents were very proud of me because I could earn money.”
“Iron rice bowl”, or tiě fàn wǎn in Mandarin, is a Chinese term for an occupation with guaranteed job security. It typically refers to stable government jobs.

In 1983, then 29-year-old Lu came to Australia on tour. He then received an invitation from an Australian circus to teach here.

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L: Guangrong Lu performing. R: Guangrong Lu and one of his students. Source: Supplied / Guangrong Lu

He accepted the invitation and committed himself to promoting the systematic learning of acrobatics in Australia.

He also worked on design performances for major Australian events including the Sydney Olympic Games and Melbourne Commonwealth Games.
In 2001, he co-founded the National Institute of Circus Arts (NICA) in Melbourne in partnership with Swinburne University, which offers a three-year Bachelor of Circus Arts program with an annual intake of 25 students.
Lu said graduates of the program were highly employable, with the majority finding work in the performance industry.

“The employment rate is 95 per cent, which is the highest among all the majors at Swinburne University,” he said.

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Guangrong Lu (L) with then Governor General Peter Cosgrove (R) when Lu was honoured with a Medal of the Order of Australia (OAM) on Australia Day in 2015. Source: Supplied / Kit_Haselden_Photography

To date, there are 287 NICA graduates entertaining audiences around the world, according to James Brown, Head of Circus Studies at NICA.

He was also among the first graduating class at NICA 20 years ago.
In addition to circus training, NICA students also study subjects such as small business, administration, history of circus and physiology, Brown said.

“We provide a volume of training for students to really master their art as well as give students a longevity of career and understanding of what it takes to be a circus performer,” Brown said.

Risks and hard work behind the scenes

Stunts and circus acts are known to be physically demanding and risky, therefore requiring a lot of practice.
“Students will arrive at eight in the morning [to start training] and leave at six at night,” Brown said.
“They’ll have classes of a minimum of four hours of physical circus training every day, five days a week, (for a) minimum (of) 38 weeks a year.

“I tell the students that their job is to make the most complex skills look effortless.”

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As Australia’s only university-level circus degree provider, NICA has had 287 graduates perform for audiences around the world, Brown said. Source: Supplied / Guangrong Lu

Injuries during performances are common for stunt performer Xiao.

In a fire-breathing show, Xiao said he needed to swallow fire in his mouth before one torch went out and then light another.
“I burned my teeth nerves and one tooth became yellow after many times of (practising),” he said.

“Sometimes it’s windy and the fire gets blown askew, (and) it burns my lips.”

The only thing that matters

Records show that the earliest stunt performers were travelling entertainers and circus performers.
Today, for those in the industry, stunts and circus have evolved in different ways.
“It takes three years to practise one acrobatic manoeuvre before going on stage, but stunts can be learnt in three days if you know the tricks,” Lu said.
But he emphasised that both of them were artistic expressions and “there is nothing wrong or right”.

“The only thing that truly matters is whether the show is engaging enough for the audience,” he said.

Emily Hudson

By Emily Hudson

Emily is a talented author who has published several bestselling novels in the mystery genre. With a knack for creating gripping plotlines and intriguing characters, Emily's works have captivated readers worldwide.

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2 thoughts on “Meet the ‘Chinese Wonderman’ performing death-defying stunts in his 70s”
  1. Wow, what an incredible story! It’s amazing to see someone still pursuing their passion and performing such daring stunts in their 70s. Michael Xiao’s dedication and skill is truly inspiring. I hope he continues to amaze audiences with his talents for many more years to come.

  2. I find Michael Xiao’s career transition from international trader to stunt performer truly inspiring. It takes remarkable skill and courage to continue performing death-defying stunts in his 70s. His dedication to acrobatics is unquestionably admirable.

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