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Mario Ko – the local magician who won third place in an international Santa Claus competition
By Vicki Yuen

Wearing a red costume, black boots and small-round glasses, the man with rouged cheeks, white beard and a big belly is dancing frenetically in a video, turning the viral Korean pop rap hit “Gangnam Style” into a promotion for the 2012 Santa Claus Winter Games. He is Marco Ko Tim-yu, who as Santa Mario, was the second runner-up in the 8th Santa Claus Winter Games in 2011.

A Hong Kong representative has competed in the Santa Claus Winter Games, held in Sweden, every year since 2007. The event was founded in 2003 by a retired Santa Claus, Santa Svensson in Gellivare, a small town in Sweden. The aim is to gather Santas from all corners of the globe and to test their physical skills.

The tasks can include riding on an electric rodeo bull, running around a massive candy cane, eating a traditional Swedish Christmas meal of porridge, kicking Christmas presents and competing in a sack race.

In order to better prepare himself for the games, Ko practised by running around a massive candy cane for a whole afternoon, training himself to finish the task within 15 seconds. But there were two tasks Ko could not practise for because they were kept confidential until the day of the competition.

Riding on the electric rodeo bull was one of the unexpected tasks. It required contestants to grab the bull tightly to stay on while it bucked back and forth and side to side. Ko managed to stay on for 25 seconds but found this task the most difficult and physically demanding.

Behind the Santa Claus costume and rodeo heroics, Ko is a magician who loves to perform in a humorous and playful way. He sometimes wears a Mario Brothers costume to attract his audience’s attention. With his mop of curly hair, and his slim frame, Ko who claims to have forgotten his age, appears to be a young man in his thirties. He is hardly anyone’s idea of what Santa Claus should look like.

It was his sense of playfulness that attracted Ko to the Santa Claus Games, an experience he believed would be amazing and unforgettable. He shows Varsity his prizes from the games – a bronze medal, a wooden sceptre and a red cape and says the Santa Claus Winter Games were not about victory or defeat. It was about spreading love and care. He did not care about winning the games, but treasures the interaction with the participants from other countries and the experience of being a Santa Claus in Sweden.

It was the first time Ko has seen so many Santas together, and they came from as far afield as Japan and the Netherlands. He enjoyed sitting around a fire and having a barbecue with them outside in the freezing weather. Ko says the most unforgettable experience during his stay was dancing hand in hand with other Santas around a large Christmas tree bedecked with lights.

Being a Santa Claus ensured he got a warm welcome everywhere. Though the meals were simple, just deer meat and sweet gruel, Ko says the people in Gellivare are happy and easily feel satisfied.

This makes Ko sigh about how materialistic life is in Hong Kong. Here, Santa Claus is just a commercial product. Companies profit by using Santa Claus to draw the attention of more customers.

Ko says the meaning of Christmas is to celebrate the birth of Christ but now it has become a festival for Santa Claus. Still, Ko says he will carry on being a Santa, “I do not care about others. I can have my own way of being a Santa Claus, like performing magic to the children.”

It is not just Santa that is commercialised. In his job as a magician, Ko has noticed that many parents invite magicians to perform at their children’s birthday parties not just for the children’s enjoyment but for their own pride and to “keep up with the Joneses”. All of this makes him treasure the simple life in Sweden even more.

While Ko does not have many positive things to say about Santas in Hong Kong, he does make an exception for Santa Jim, Jimmy Chan, who took the crown at the sixth Santa Claus Winter Games in Sweden, who also happens to be a friend of Ko’s.

“He [Santa Jim] is a Santa even without wearing the costume. He doesn’t need to deliberately impersonate Santa Claus,” Ko says, mimicking Santa Jim’s voice and expression when talking. Jimmy Chan, on the other hand, describes Ko as funny, energetic and playful.

“He keeps on doing different actions to catch attention. He just loves to express himself,” Chan says.

Ko admits that he loves performing. He does not care whether others agree with him or not. He simply enjoys the process of performing even if he does not get any applause. Performance is what gets him going.
At school, Ko says he was just an ordinary boy who did not like to follow rules. He was always asleep in class and the only thing he enjoyed was playing football.

“I did not like studying. It’s boring,” Ko says. After he quit school in Form Five, Ko worked as a salesperson and then in a bar. There, he saw a magician playing a coin trick. Amazed by the magic trick, Ko started to study magic by reading books.

Ko likes to quote his father’s words to describe the nature of magic, “Shen Kei” in Chinese is a combination of “shen” which refers to things that people cannot do while ‘Kei’ refers to things people have not seen before. Magic is the combination of these two elements.

While he was initially blown away by magic, he began to lose the sense of excitement after he had practised it for a while. He used to feel very proud of himself because he felt like he had learned all the magic in the world. Later however, he discovered the more he learns, the more he realises there is no end to learning.

“Performing magic is far more difficult than learning it. You have to practise for a hundred times before you can play magic in front of strangers,” Ko says.

Now that performing in front of strangers is no longer a challenge to Ko, he needs to come up with more new and creative ideas for making magic and to improve his performing skills.

“When I play magic, I enjoy the performance and I can entertain others. This is the meaning of playing magic,” Ko says.

Although he comes across as playful and fun, he is also devoted to his craft and is determined to treat being a magician as a lifelong career. “If you are interested in something, you will try your best to do that,” he says.

It was this determination that motivated him to turn his interest into a career and set up Magic Kingdom in 2006 with a partner. Magic Kingdom is a social enterprise that organises magic classes and performances for schools, the underprivileged, sick children and the elderly.

November and December are his busiest times as he is preparing for Christmas, which is the peak period for Santa Claus and magic performances.

After returning from Sweden and meeting the more “authentic” Santas there, Ko wishes the adults in Hong Kong could also believe in Santa Claus and regain their childish sense of wonder and playfulness. He thinks Hong Kong people are suffocating under the stress of work and other pressures. Thinking like children can help them find some relief.

“When you are small, you believe there is magic, just like you believe there is Santa Claus,” Ko says. “It’s wrong that adults think magic and Santa Claus do not exist at all… It is just because they have lost their innocence.”