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Why Adelaide needs a touch of magic

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SA entrepreneur Vinh Giang talks about escaping pirates, making money appear from thin air and how a fledgling career in magic led him from school-hopping in Adelaide's northern suburbs to a lucrative career on the international public speaking circuit.

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Vinh Giang’s website bears the motto: “Adversity is your greatest competitive advantage.”

It’s a lesson he well understands, one handed down from the life experience of his own parents, and forged in his early years growing up in Adelaide’s northern suburbs.

And it’s a motto that has driven one of the unlikeliest of entrepreneurial careers: from university drop-out to magician to YouTube sensation to a keynote speaker commanding five-figure sums for a single address.

But despite his success, Giang – the “psychological illusionist”, as he dubbed himself in his magic heyday – has continued to embrace adversity.

“It’s because it’s something my dad has always said,” he told Adelaide podcast Rooster Radio, which appears weekly on InDaily.

“Mum and Dad came to Australia with nothing and Dad, when he arrived here, he would work during the day with Mum at a sewing place and then at night he would come home… take two hours sleep and then go to the factory to do night shift.

“Mum would be peeling onions in the backyard with all her sisters [while] all the men went to second shift in the factory.”

The family’s northern suburbs digs were a hive of makeshift entrepreneurialism. Every spare inch of garden space was used to grow capsicums, cucumbers and chives for sale – the latter “for 50 cents at the local grocery”.

Giang honed his own gumptious spirit at school, where his unorthodox approach to salesmanship saw him shuffled from Salisbury’s Thomas More College to Blackfriars to Saint Ignatius.

“One of the worst things I ever had to go through was hearing my mum have to borrow money to put me through school,” he said.

“Seeing my mum plead for the money crushed my soul. Like it really crushed my soul. It forced me to be an adult really quickly.”

It was 2000, and he exploited the nascent eBay by buying MP3 players online, filling them with illegal downloads and selling them off to schoolmates at double the original price.

“And then the principal would find out and I would move schools,” he recalls.

But if his method was unorthodox, it was honed by the adversity he had learned first-hand – his greatest competitive advantage.

“Every single opportunity they [my parents] had to make money and to get by, they would be seizing it,” he said.

“And seeing all that adversity and them not crumble to adversity, but rather take it head-on, that was just so powerful for me.”

I think it’d be awesome for Adelaide to have some more unrealistic dreams

Giang’s family fled Vietnam by boat in 1979, some seven years before he was born. He remains glad he was young enough to experience some semblance of the hardships they faced in their early years in Adelaide.

“I had to work on the farm every time I got home from school, from, you know, 3.30pm to about 7 o’clock,” he recalls.

“Then go home, do homework from 7 till 9 and then go to sleep after that. So, I experienced it… when I got older, it wasn’t that much adversity.

“Dad would always say to me every time I would tell him ‘Oh dad this is so hard’, he would always say to me, you know, ‘Did you have like a gun pointed in your head? Did you nearly die?’ And that’s his excuse for everything.

“So even when I’m going through a break-up in high school and I’m like crying, he’s like ‘Did you have the gun to the head?’ I was like, ‘It’s not the same, Dad!’”

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Vinh Giang addressing an audience as a public speaker.

His father’s attitude was understandable, given his own tale.

According to Giang, he became a fisherman in Vietnam, purely to learn the authorities’ patrol routes and how to avoid them. He eventually realised the only time the coast was not patrolled was during heavy storms and thus, “on the worst storm in 1979 they took the boat out”.

“So Dad and his brothers would take the boat out, flashlight, blink it to the family, [who] would swim out,” Giang explained.

“Some of the family couldn’t get out so Dad had to jump out, swim, bring them all out. They all made it.”

So meticulous was their planned escape, they even “tanned themselves really dark to look like the Thai pirates, had haircuts like them, even carved out AK47s with wood”, to avoid being robbed at sea.

“So that when we were passing by the Thailand area… they were screaming out Thai swear words and stuff like Thai pirates.

“Got through all of it somehow, then ran out of fuel.”

Finally, help arrived in the form of a Dutch oil rig, the crew of which had to spend hours convincing the asylum seekers they were not some other race of pirates, due in part to the language barrier and in part to the fact that the only way they could legally take them aboard was if they first smashed their boat.

The family ended up in a Malaysian refugee camp for around six months before Australia took them in.

But despite his ordeals, Giang said his father always retained a dark sense of humour.

“It was almost dark at times… but that’s how they got through it,” he said.

“You know, I think we’re all human at the end of the day and how we get through really difficult times is, we kind of make fun of it.

“So growing up we didn’t really understand the seriousness of it. We kind of just saw the ‘Wow, how cool is that’, you know, ‘You guys got past the pirates’!”

But Giang’s upbringing taught him important lessons, not least an early appreciation that Australia was “heaven on earth”.

Nonetheless, he was determined to forge his own slice of it.

It was while doing a work placement in his final year of an accounting degree that he made his own defining life decision.

“I was working there and at the end of every single working day I would be performing magic for all of the employees there… and then one day one of the partners comes out and he says to me: ‘In six months’ time, two things are going to happen: you’ll either voluntarily leave because I shouldn’t have employed you… or I’ll fire you’.

“And he said, ‘because you’re in the wrong job’. And he showed me his hands and, I remember this forever, he said, ‘I have arthritis. I’m 72. I spent my whole life, starting from 32, building this firm. It’s not worth it. Totally not worth it. The biggest love of my life is piano. I can’t play anymore.’

“And he saidm ‘This is the most crushing thing for me, you have to understand, because if I could switch places with you, I’d do it in a heartbeat.’”

From that moment, Giang undertook to pursue his passion, literally making magic happen.

“He made me realise that, you know, I only had 19,000 days or so left to live. He only had like 4000 days maybe… that was what made me go, ‘Holy crap, I’ve only got that many days left. I don’t want to be doing this. I hate this.’

“And you know, I really feel for the guy and I think he saved my life. I always told him, ‘You saved my life, you really saved my life with that.’”

Unknown-3But his early career, like his father’s passage to Australia, wasn’t all smooth sailing.

“My first public performance, my first real big one, was probably in 2012 at the Adelaide Fringe… I went on stage, I did the trick and it didn’t work, and I didn’t have a plan B.

“So I didn’t know what to do… I panicked, I just ran backstage, and classic Fringe audience, they started to slow clap me.

“So I’m sitting back there like, ‘Oh my god!’ and I was literally in tears. I went home that night, couldn’t sleep, crushed my soul… and the Advertiser put a review up [that read], ‘Adelaide magician needs new tricks’. Soul crushing man, soul crushing.”

But he took on board the lessons: always have a plan B, and pretend it’s all part of the act.

“If you don’t treat it as a failure, as far as the [audience] is concerned, it’s part of the show,” he said.

“And I think there’s a lot to take from that in life as well.”

In 2011, he started an online magic business with some friends, putting free content on YouTube explaining the tricks of the trade.

Once the business reached 35,000 subscribers, they monetised the content.

The model was successful enough for Giang and his partners to receive a Young Entrepreneur of the Year award – but it was while accepting the gong that he inadvertently spawned his most lucrative career path.

“In the audience was someone that said, ‘Hey, do you speak? Like can you speak at one of these events?’ And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, sure. I’d be happy to.’ Then he asked me, ‘What’s your fee?’ I was like, ‘What? You get paid for this?’”

The speaking circuit led to an agent, which led to more and more gigs. Giang now commands $10,000 a talk in Australia, $15,000 overseas.

But he insists he has “a lot to give back” to SA.

“Adelaide has bred me; Adelaide has made me. And I think Adelaide has prepared me for the world stages,” he said.

He wants his home state to learn his own life lessons from its own adversity, to follow the kind of trajectory that could see someone throw away a university degree to, literally, follow a puff of smoke.

“I think it’d be awesome for Adelaide to have some more unrealistic dreams,” he said.

“I think by being too realistic we stunt ourselves from being able to aim for higher things.

“Adelaide has also prepared me to compete against everybody in the world. And Adelaide is not an easy place to make it. So it’s the perfect training ground… it’s where it’s hard, it’s where it’s difficult, it’s where opportunities are a little bit scarce. But that’s great. Because like I said, that’s a competitive advantage… if you make it here, you can make it anywhere, right?”

Rooster Radio’s podcast appears regularly on InDaily.

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