This magician is Singapore's answer to X-Men's Jean Grey

SINGAPORE - You may have seen her dangling from a crane, breaking free from chains in an underwater vault or even predicting the top prize for a 4D draw in 2010.

Ning Cai, Singapore's most recognised female illusionist is back.

The escape artist who once went by the stage name Magic Babe Ning had retired at the height of her career in 2014 to recuperate from injuries.

But today, she's locking up her arsenal of knives and chains, to channel character Jean Grey from X-Men instead.

Decked out in a monochrome piece from local fashion house Ong Shanmugam, the 34-year-old was candid about transitioning into her new persona.

"I didn't want to be called Magic Babe Ning when I become a grandma. I'm in my 30s now, (and am) very comfortable (with) growing older, becoming more mature," she recently told AsiaOne bluntly.

"So my new character Mind Magic Mistress is dominant. She owns the whole 'I'm Asian, I'm a woman, I'm in a male-dominated industry and I'm different'."

Ning now considers herself a mentalist, just like the mutant heroine in X-Men, and her upcoming shows will involve mind reading among other things.

"When you think about that one superhero ability that you want - mine's Jean Grey," she professes.

"She's this strong independent woman who is a smart cookie, who holds her own fort. She can move things with her mind and read people's thoughts."

She can indeed, proving her practised prowess with two card tricks in less than 10 minutes.

I am woman, watch me rise

When Ning first broke out into the magic scene, she was one-half of a duo act with local magician JC Sum.

Unlike traditional performances where women play a supportive role, she wasn't the magician's assistant, but a partner.

"There are times when you don't expect it but people are just unhappy a woman is making waves.

Ever the performer, she saw the perks of being a woman and used it to her advantage.

"Sex sells when you're in showbiz. I've got two X-chromosomes and I'm not afraid to use it," she declared, harkening back to her cover girl days on men's lifestyle magazine FHM.

Photo: FHM

Yet the edgy magician draws the line at raunchy, maintaining that her liberal image was purely professional. She has politely declined tipsy suitors while performing at events and is quick to give equal attention to female audience members by inviting them to participate on stage.

Ning may have been in show business for around 15 years now, but she attributes her confidence to strong role models in her family.

"My grandmother survived WWII by jumping into a mud pond to hide from the Japanese soldiers who were ransacking her village for comfort women," she shared.

"She held her breath under water like an escapologist until she was sure they'd left. Otherwise, I won't be here today."

However, while Ning has proven that women can have as much gall as men in executing extreme stunts, she is acutely aware of their dangers.

The show must go on

Mind Magic MistressPhoto: Ning Cai/Facebook

Bruises and cuts were an inevitable part of her performance, Ning told herself, pushing away anxieties that she was not indestructible.

But an incident in 2010 changed all that.

During a film shoot for "Duel Mahakarya Magician", an Indonesia-based TV show, a technical malfunction caused a box she was suspended upside down in, to fall.

Ning had a huge bruise on her forehead which the crew hastily concealed before filming resumed in the next half hour. 

She said: "The show must go on. I wanted to focus on wrapping up the shoot then taking a step back to rest."

After that near miss, things weren't the same.

Getting in and out of boxes became a challenge, and migraines occurred more frequently. She also discovered that she had a slipped disc in her neck.

"I started to question if I really wanted this. I questioned the longevity of such a career," she said.

So she bowed out of the scene slowly, eventually making that final exit by 2014, to focus on recuperating. She even took up a yoga instructor's course to help align her body better.

Magic: Not all fluff and pixie dust

Ning may have faced her fair share of injuries and criticism over the course of her career, but no challenge was too insurmountable with her family's support.

Take her foray into magic for example.

Her mother initially wondered if Ning would spend the rest of her life pulling rabbits out of top hats, but gave her blessing anyway after ensuring that her feisty daughter had a plan.

Within months of scoring a gig with JC Sum, the duo was invited to perform at large scale conferences, private corporate events and even for the royal family in Oman.

But Ning is a Singaporean after all, and she exemplifies the practicality of one.

Her advice to budding magicians?

"Showcase your talents on YouTube and try getting part-time gigs while studying or working if you must," she said.

"Just make sure you have your university degree first, and see if you can actually pay your bills," the mass communications graduate from RMIT University added.

While Ning highlights diligence as an admirable trait, she also wishes that Singaporeans didn't have to be so anxious.

"Children here have forgotten how to play," she admonished.

While attending a talk in a local school recently, a student confessed that he had contemplated suicide because of stress.

She said: "I was very affected by that encounter."

"We live in a world where children aren't allowed to be children anymore. And they grow up to become adults who can't appreciate entertainment."

Play inspires creativity, which is an important tool for success because it differentiates a man from a robot, Ning continued.

So what can Singapore's Jean Grey do to jolt Singaporeans back to leisure?

She said: "I'm Asian, I'm a woman and I'm a mentalist..and my show is going to be a little sexy."

Can Singapore handle sexy?

2017's the year to find out.