Hung Liang Hsu is known as Johnson, a Melbourne busker who has been attacked while performing his “balloon guy” routine. He also dabbles as a fortune teller and hopes to become a psychologist helping people recover from trauma.
In Taiwan, performing as a balloon guy is popular. Johnson says there can be more than 20 balloon guys in one city. But in Melbourne, he’s the only one.
It usually takes him 10 minutes to prepare for the performance. Johnson then begins his funny show, greets the passers-by and warns his audience not to try this at home.
Ken Gong, a student from China, says the performance was great. “I hadn’t seen this before back to China. It is very funny and entertaining.”
The show lasted for five minutes. I watched him perform continuously the same show for half an hour. It was at 5pm. I asked when he finished? “Probably 7pm, I work like this at least 3 hours every day,” he says.
But there is not even a slight difference in his performance.
“The balloon guy I know in Brisbane does the same thing every day during the last 10 years, but still attracts a lot of audiences. It’s an easy show to earn money than magic.”
A roller-coaster is an apt metaphor for his life and work. He started as a magician before jumping to “balloon guy” which helps him earn big money.
Building an artist’s dream without social support
Johnson began to learn to do magic by practising with the books in the library and YouTube tutorials when he was a 17-year-old. After breaking up with his girlfriend, he wanted to be an outstanding person in others’ eyes.
He then went to Taipei to meet the professionals to enhance his skills. Johnson became the champion of a Taiwan magic TV competition in 2008.
Growing up in Taiwan where buskers are not seen positively was challenging. Chinese cultures have a significant influence on Taiwan. No matter how talented he was, his parents expected him to have a stable life, and thought this job was unacceptable.
He graduated from the Taiwan National Chai-Yi University, majoring in applied math. After that, he became a teacher in math and music.
“The education life was too boring for me. The textbooks became easier, and it was like you would know what your life would be in the rest of your life doing the same things every day,” Johnson says.
“Also, there were more and more teachers than students so it was competitive to become an official teacher.”
From encountering financial difficulty
He left for Australia when he was 29 without his parents’ support.
Living in another country with a different mother tongue wasn’t that easy for him. He was struggling with finding a job to feed himself through days.
Money comes first, paying for bills and food made the amount in his bank account less and less. Johnson even worked, underpaid cash-in-hand for $10 per hour to survive in Australia.
Thanks to the encouragement of Melburnians for street arts, he chose the city for living after visits to Brisbane and Sydney.
“In Brisbane, the buskers are not allowed to use a microphone or even amplifier. There are also some magic tools such as fire not allowed to use. It’s hard for the buskers to perform well without those. It’s like asking a singer to sing without music,” says Johnson.
To a moneymaker
After a short time, he studied the skill to perform a balloon guy from his friend and mastered it. The show attracts a lot of curious people and helps him earn at least $90 per hour working as a busker alone. In peak-season, this amount of money goes up to $1000 a day for four hours when he busks nearby the events.
Besides being a magician and balloon guy, Johnson also works as a tarot reader, contact juggler and percussionist. As a card reader, he can look at the way clients choose cards to see their present and future. He says he charges up to $95 for an hour session.
Facing low keys in the career
In April, the footage recording the balloon guy kicked while busking in Southbank spread on social media. The incident prompted coverage in Melbourne media and led to Johnson becoming “instantly famous”.
It wasn’t the first time he was bullied since he started busking. Too many similar harassments happened before that he gets used to it. But the attack can’t prevent him from being an entertainer.
“It comes regularly with other buskers as well. But this is the first time it was actually recorded by my audience and went viral,” Johnson says.
After kicking the busker, the drunk man ran away and Johnson reported it to the police but got no result.
Johnson shares with me the challenges of Melbourne’s buskers, saying it would be very difficult for the junior buskers to ask people for donations. However, everyone deserves a pay-off when they are serious with their profession. He also confronts embarrassing moments when no one donates after watching the show.
“There are lots of people watching when I’m doing a balloon guy or magic on the street, but sometimes after I finish, no one gives money.”
Johnson plans to become a well-known card reader in the future, he is also following a psychological course at a Melbourne institution.
“If I weren’t a magician, I would be a psychologist consulting other people. It interests me because I can help people in different ways through putting my foot in other’s shoes,” he said.
When asked why he risked his life to go against the career path advised by his parents, he says he wants to live his own life.
“It’s really difficult to be an outstanding person. People want to be unique but they’re afraid of being unique. Because they don’t want to be different from others. Not everyone is encouraged to jump out of the box. Be brave to do something different.”