The yo-yo dream

Yang Yuan-Ching, Taiwan

Professional street performer

Story by Koh Eng Beng | Photos by Charmaine Wu

Portrait Photography People Editorial Charmaine Wu Singapore

Have you ever dreamt of playing toys for a living? Not possible lah, grow up and get a real job please!

This was what I thought until I met Yang Yuan-Ching, a Taiwanese who’s been playing the yoyo as a street performer for almost a decade.

The 26-year-old shot to fame after appearing in China’s Got Talent show (中国达人秀) in 2011. It's a popular TV show in China watched by hundreds of millions of viewers.

Since then, he’s become a mini celebrity, performing on more television shows in China and Taiwan. In 2012, he even travelled with then-Taiwan president Ma Ying-Jeou on a state visit to Gambia to perform for foreign dignitaries.

During the day of our interview, Yang arrived in his scooter with his wife at our meeting place, a breakfast cafe near his home in Banqiao, New Taipei. He wanted to give me and Charmaine, the photographer, a treat before the interview. Taiwan hospitality at its best!

Home for the couple is a cozy, well-furnished apartment, roughly the size of a four-room flat in Singapore. His wife is a dance instructor who teaches school children. They married last year and is expecting his first baby in September.

Portrait Photography People Editorial Charmaine Wu Singapore
Portrait Photography People Editorial Charmaine Wu Singapore
Portrait Photography People Editorial Charmaine Wu Singapore
Portrait Photography People Editorial Charmaine Wu Singapore

They are clearly a middle-class family, not starving artists who are scrapping a living.  Like a typical, pragmatic Singaporean, I was curious how much he was earning each month. Street artists depend on tips, their earnings are highly unstable.

“We are working hard together, the money is enough for us to make a decent living,” said Yang, who usually performs twice weekly at Huashan 1914 Creative Park in Taipei.

Anyone can hit the street and put up a show, but most of them come and go. How was Yang able to do it for almost a decade and counting?

I would watch his show at Huashan two weeks later. He thrilled a hundred-strong crowd with a high energy comedy yoyo show. Uncles, aunties, teenagers and children generously dropped tips into his donation box. Some even waited patiently to take photos with him after the show.

It’s obvious that the key to his success lies in providing great entertainment, just like what singers and actors do. And unlike most street performers, Yang has a systematic approach to his ‘business’. He knows roughly how much he can earn from one show, so if he needs more money for his expenses this month, he would put up more shows. He also performs at company functions such as dinner and dance.

Yang performing at the Huashan 1914 Creative Park in Taipei.

Yang performing at the Huashan 1914 Creative Park in Taipei.

A red piece of paper with the words “美梦成真” (Dreams come true) written by his mother is placed in front of the box that holds the money he earns from each performance.

A red piece of paper with the words “美梦成真” (Dreams come true) written by his mother is placed in front of the box that holds the money he earns from each performance.

Play hard if you want to be brilliant
How does he get to where he is today? Yang started playing the yoyo at the age of eight, and till today, he does not see performing as his work.

“I continue to play today!” he said, with a hearty laugh. “You can set a goal to learn something, but it is only when you play, you achieve something special.”  

He became serious about the yoyo at 14 years old after watching an online video of Japanese yoyo players. Inspired by their cool yoyo tricks, he searched for more videos to self-study. And every Saturday morning, he would secretly take a train lasting a few hours from his Tainan home to Taipei where a gathering for yoyo players was held.

Prove that you can make a living
His dad, then a school teacher and now principal, found out later that Yang had been lying that he was out studying. He was not supportive of his son’s obsession about yoyo.

Like most Asian parents, he wanted to Yang to study hard, do well in school, and study medicine in National Taiwan University, the best college in the country. But Yang was spending so much time on yoyo practice, for up to nine hours each day. 

When he won the Taiwan national yoyo championship in Secondary 2, his dad never praised him. “I thought my win would open up a path for something greater, but my dad said, ‘There’s no prize money, what’s the point? You are spending too much time on yoyo, not doing well in your studies, what are you going to do in future?’”

Rather than feeling discouraged, Yang took action to prove his dad wrong. He started earning money from performing on the street. “My dad actually said, ‘Not bad, you have started earning your own pocket money even though you are still in high school.’” 

But still, his dad wanted him to get a stable job that provides a pension . Yang finished at the bottom of his class in high school, and against his dad’s wish, he went to study drama at National Taipei University of Fine Arts. But today, his dad, now his No. 1 fan on Yang’s Facebook fan page, could not be more proud of his achievements. 

Portrait Photography People Editorial Charmaine Wu Singapore

Failure is your teacher
Behind the glory and fame, Yang almost gave up at one stage. In the second round of China’s Got Talent show, he failed to catch his che-ling (a Chinese yoyo) dropping from the air. It came crashing down, along with his dream.

“I burst into tears on TV,” he recalled.

The humiliation in front of hundreds of million of television viewers was a huge blow. He had trained hard to perfect the move, only to let himself down when it mattered most. “I wondered if I was suitable for a performing career,” he said.

Back in Taiwan, he attended a school lecture by Lee Ang, a famous movie director, whose words had a profound influence on him: 不要怕失败,失败是最好的老师 (which means never be afraid failure because it is your best teacher).

Yang, still demoralised by his failure at China’s Got Talent show, reflected: “The mistake was a wake up call that I was not good enough. I realised I was too proud, I thought that I must be really good since I had many fans.”

Be around your fans and like-minded people
Yang went back to the streets to rebuild his confidence.

“The good thing about street busking is that only people who like your performance stay on to watch you,” he said. “I drew strength from their presence. They made me realise that perhaps I was not so bad, otherwise no one would have stayed for my performances.”

Yang also drew strength from fellow street performers who were constantly pushing one another to do better. “When I see them improving, getting louder applauses from the crowd, I would tell myself to work even harder,” he said.

No money? Be resourceful!
At the same time, Yang was saving up to attend street busking festivals in Europe so that he could learn from the world’s best street performers.

A chance came when a Taiwanese circus group was going to perform in a street art festival in France for a month. He did not have the money for such a long trip. Did he give up? Of course, not! He knocked on their doors, and offered to do various chores for the circus in exchange for free lodging.

For one month, in the streets of Avignon, he performed for the French people. It was an enlightening experience. “I learnt that I needed to create an art that I could truly call my own,” said Yang. “Why would people from Europe want to watch an Asian perform a western-influenced performance?”

Instead of performing to the tempo of fast and loud music, he began to develop a graceful style so that he “can ‘see’ the audience, and the audience can ‘see’ me”.

Portrait Photography People Editorial Charmaine Wu Singapore

Slow down to go further
He also stopped having a regular training schedule. He trains whenever he feels like it — but for at least 30 to 60 minutes a day. He continues to set a high standard for himself, practising a new move until he can execute it perfectly for 100 times continuously. Yang once took over three years of training to master a seemingly simple yoyo move.

“It’s important for performers to slow down and truly experience the joy of living,” Yang said. “We often draw inspirations from our daily lives to create new ways of performing. If you are rushing everyday, you are like a robot. But as a performer, you have to be alive on the stage; no one wants to watch a robot perform.”

Today, he continues to travel regularly to watch and learn from talented performers all over the world. He also takes part in overseas competitions in France, United States, Japan and Singapore.  To date, he has spent over NT$100,000 of his savings for such trips. 

Inspiring others
Yang is also a motivational speaker. He has given more than 200 talks in schools and companies, inspiring people to have the courage to chase their dreams.

“I feel that my life story gave me the credibility to speak with conviction,” said Yang. “In Taiwan, you are expected to study hard, do well in exams, and get a well-paying job. But this is a life mapped out by your parents. What if you can create your own life, and chart your own direction?

“I love to play yoyo, and it has allowed me to live a great life. I hope to inspire the young people to have the courage to do the things that they truly want.”

Giving back
For his future plans, Yang has set two goals: to win the world championship for street performers, and to create a platform to help young street performers.

He currently holds two Guinness World Records for the most number of napkins snatched from a table with a yo-yo in one minute — 12, and the most number of coins knocked off a person’s ear with a yo-yo in one minute — 16.

“I was lucky to be discovered by people, but many street buskers or those who are just starting out do not have a platform that allows them to be discovered,” he said.

Asked for advice for budding street performers, Yang said: “Find your own ways to overcome obstacles. 

No matter how many motivational talks or words of encouragement you listened to, it is far more important that you face your problem head on, because at the end of the day, it still boils down to taking actions.
— Yang Yuan-Ching

This feature is part of a collaboration with the Happiness Notebook. Titled For the Love of It, the project was conceived to inspire a generation of dreamers to act boldly. Through stories of individuals who are wildly successful in pursuing their passion for a living, Charmaine and Eng Beng hope to inspire more people to dream big and be bold in pursuing their goals.