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There's magic hidden in the heart of New Westminster

Shawn Farquhar serves up world-class magic at Hidden Wonders, a secret speakeasy venue in downtown New West.

If you’ve ever sat across from Shawn Farquhar and asked him about magic, you might have just a little trouble believing him when he claims to be a shy person.

He’ll talk, seemingly without pausing for breath, about his family, his childhood, his idols in magic, his career on cruise ships, his chance to fool Penn & Teller twice — and he’ll do it with such enthusiasm that the air around him vibrates with barely contained energy and joy.

But, yes, he’s shy.

“I know, it seems really weird,” he says with a laugh. “If we're not talking about magic, I don't have much else to talk about. I don't follow any sports. I try not to follow any more politics than I have to.

“Magic is just my whole world.”

Farquhar is the affable, fast-talking force behind the Hidden Wonders Speakeasy Magic Experience.

Tucked away in a secret location in downtown New West, Hidden Wonders gives people of all ages a chance to experience magic in an intimate, 30-seat venue. As its name suggests, the venue is styled as a speakeasy, complete with a fake storefront façade and a hidden entry into the back room.

Yes, there’s a bathtub (and, yes, you’re encouraged to take a bathtub selfie — clothed, of course).

You won’t find gin here, though. Farquhar and his team serve up not bootleg liquor but sleight of hand and a curio cabinet full of illusions, with a little mind-reading on the side.

It’s all family-friendly, and it’s all world-class. The just-turned-60-year-old Farquhar is a two-time world champion of magic with a long list of honours to his name.

Magic runs in Shawn Farquhar's family

For Farquhar, there was never any doubt that he’d become a magician. He’s the fourth generation in his family to do so, following his father, grandfather and great-grandfather.

“When I was born, the doctor slapped me and I said, ‘Pick a card,’” he jokes. “It’s my earliest memories. I always wanted to be a magician.”

He started early in life, even scoring a Saturday morning CBC television show as a teenager in the 1970s.  In high school, his goal was to build a magic show and tour across Canada.

He wound up going much farther than that.

Pre-pandemic, he was spending about 285 days a year on the road, performing in 40 countries. His biggest shows ever were in China, where he performed for crowds of 30,000 in Shanghai and 60,000 in Beijing — with the latter performance broadcast to an audience of 300 million.

He’s performed for notable figures from Queen Elizabeth II (twice) to Nelson Mandela to Justin Trudeau. He’s hoodwinked Penn & Teller twice on the famed magicians’ Fool Us show and performed with them in Las Vegas. He spent seven years entertaining audiences on Disney cruise ships.

But eventually Farquhar found himself wanting to spend more time at home. One day he got off the Disney Wonder and decided he was staying ashore for good.

In September 2019, he set up a venue in Vancouver’s Chinatown, which operated until the pandemic hit in March 2020.

Farquhar describes April and May of that year as his darkest period.

“I didn't know what to do with myself because I've been a performer all my life,” he says.

He did Facebook videos and started a YouTube channel, which got tens of thousands of subscribers and helped to pay the bills. But it wasn’t like performing for a live audience.

It was June of 2020 when his wife, Lori, told him he needed to get back to live performance. She found a vacant downtown New Westminster storefront listed on Craigslist and pointed it out. This, she said, was where he was destined to set up a magic venue.

Magician has deep ties to New Westminster

Farquhar, who lives in Maple Ridge, has a longstanding connection to New Westminster. He first lived in the community in the 1980s and built his career as a magician here, making the pages of the Royal City Record on numerous occasions. New Westminster’s own icon of magic, Leon Mandrake, a.k.a. Mandrake the Magician, is one of Farquhar’s heroes and mentors in magic.

Farquhar even made headlines for saving residents from a devastating apartment building fire on May 13, 1988.

(That, by the way, is one of three Friday the 13th episodes that have followed Farquhar through his past — the other two being a flood in his home in East Vancouver, and the time a car drove into the living room of his place in Maillardville. He suffers from triskaidekaphobia to this day.

“I’m terrified of the number 13. That’s really weird,” he admits. “But if you had a flood, a fire, and a car drive through your living room, you might be a little trepidatious.”

Tangential? Maybe. But file this away; it’ll come back.)

Farquhar agreed to look at the premises, tucked away in an 1890s building in an unassuming part of downtown New West. Just standing out front looking through the windows was enough to convince Farquhar that his wife was right.

Eighteen days after they signed the lease, Hidden Wonders was up and running.

“This was my shining beacon, opening this up,” he says.

The storefront is furnished largely with items repurposed from Farquhar’s family home, including trunks full of his childhood toys, games and collectibles. Farquhar’s ingenuity and creativity abounds throughout the space, with touches that make the most of the building’s heritage features.

The speakeasy theme was a natural choice, he says, given that New Westminster’s history is full of bootleggers and rum runners using the Fraser River as a route to and from the States during Prohibition.

Hidden Wonders: Small in size, large in impact

At the heart of Hidden Wonders is the small theatre, contained in a 13-by-13-foot space as Farquhar’s way of staring down his phobia.

When the venue opened at the height of COVID-19 restrictions, Farquhar could only play to audiences of 12 people, seated at tables spaced two metres apart — a vastly smaller audience than he’d been playing for on the Disney Wonder.

“We could have a dozen people in here. And everybody went, ‘Let me get this right, you go from 1,200 people to 12. How does that make you feel?’” Farquhar recalls. “I said, ‘Joyful.’ I’m working for 12 people, and they’re having a grand time. And when they leave, they’re all going, ‘I’m going to tell 12 more friends.’ I was selling out two shows a night, four days a week.”

As restrictions eased, he was able to increase his audience to 30, adding tiered, theatre-style seating in place of the flat floor and tables.

Farquhar has also been able to add audience participation back into his shows, which is a big part of what he loves about performing. The show is built “choose your own adventure” style; audience members decide which tricks Farquhar will perform and join him on stage to help carry them out.

Farquhar continues using the skill he honed on board the cruise ships — finding the person in the audience who may be reluctant or skeptical, and charming them with his personal chatter and compelling tricks until they, too, are drawn into the spell of the evening.

“I can make somebody who doesn't look like they're having a good day — male, female, older, younger, angry — I can turn their day around into something palatable with a little bit of magic. What's not to love about that power?” he says. “My superpower is making people a little bit happier, or at least creating a sense of wonder.”

Because the venue is so intimate, Farquhar can get to know his audience members on a more personal level than he could at a big show.

The magician stays after shows to mingle with attendees, pose for photos and parry questions about how exactly he did that trick where he solved a Rubik’s cube behind someone else’s back or how he correctly “predicted” the outcome of the show before it started.

He loves those moments after a performance where audience members linger outside, reluctant to depart.

“The greatest compliment is them standing up front because they don't want to leave,” he says. “They just kind of want to figure out the feeling. And they hang around and they kind of buzz in little groups and talk, and I feel like they're more connected as a community.

“I think I'm doing that. That’s maybe arrogant to say, but I think I'm communicating in a way that I can connect community.”

Book your tickets for Hidden Wonders

Hidden Wonders is in a secret location in downtown New Westminster, an easy walk from the New Westminster SkyTrain station. Tickets are $50, or $130 for a VIP couple (with guaranteed front-row seating). The showroom is also available for private buy-outs. 

You can book and find more information at the Hidden Wonders Speakeasy Magic Experience website.

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