Year of the charmer

Report and pictures by: 
Ariffin Jamar

Most people would be horrified to have snakes under their roof. But not Mr Mohd Yusof Kassim. The 49-year-old is a professional snake charmer, and keeps two pythons in his three-room HDB flat. He has a license from the Agri-Food Veterinary Authority to keep the snakes.

And with the Chinese ushering in the Year of the Snake on Feb 10, Mr Yusof expects the pythons, named Mr Bean and Charlie, to be very busy. “I already have 20 bookings for the Chinese New Year (CNY) period, mostly from Malaysia,” said Mr Yusof, who usually gets an average of three to four bookings a month. “This is the Year of the Snake, and it’s my year.”

The veteran snake charmer, who goes by the nickname Mr Yusof “Ular” (snake in Malay), is booked up to three sessions a day during peak periods. During his hour-long show, he gets the audience to interact with the snakes, while he performs magic and does comedy.

He took part in Festival Ular, a snake charming competition held in Malaysia six years back, where he placed third out of 40 contestants from India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, Thailand, Australia, England and Malaysia.

Contestants were judged on how fast they could “charm” a wild poisonous snake and if they could perform special acts, such as kiss the snake. “It was the proudest moment of my career as I beat many other snake charmers from all over the world,” said Mr Yusof, who charges about $300 for his performances. He has also performed for Malaysian royalty and Singapore presidents and ministers.

The art of snake charming runs in his blood – his father and grandfather also practised the trade. “I started playing with snakes when I was six and spent 10 years training under my father, before I could start performing on my own,” said Mr Yusof.

He had to learn to clean and tie a proper knot on the snake baskets,and how to catch his own snakes. “Back in the old days, snake charmers had no money to buy snakes, so they had to hunt and look for their own,” shared Mr Yusof. Recalling an incident when he was just 17, Mr Yusof stressed the importance of tying a proper knot on the snake baskets. He had completed a hunt, but tied a few of the snake baskets wrongly, resulting in all 20 snakes he caught that day escaping.

Snake-charming was also the reason he found love. His father-in-law was in the snake-charming circle. And that was how he met his wife, with whom he has four children. “In fact, my two snakes, Mr Bean and Charlie, were presented to me by my father-in-law,” said Mr Yusof.

Mr Bean, an albino python, and Charlie, a Burmese python, are about 2.5m long and have been with him for 15 years. “I named the albino Mr Bean because every time I perform with him, everyone laughs!” said Mr Yusof.

“He has his own personality and people love him.” He takes very good care of the two reptiles, bathing them at least twice a week, and checking them for fleas regularly. He also sun tans them so they can keep warm. “During the rainy season, I have to give them indoor tanning, using a spotlight,” said Mr Yusof.

Although his family has a strong and proud history in snake charming, he does not want his only son to continue the legacy, preferring instead to support his son’s ambitions. “I love snakes, but I want to be a doctor instead,” said his 14-year-old Mohd Khalid.

Interestingly, his wife fully supports his career, even though she is afraid of the snakes. He joked: “Whenever I want to take them out of their baskets for any reason, I will have to book an appointment with her, so she knows to stay away from those areas.”

Mr Yusof feels that snake charming in Singapore is a dying trade. He knows of about five active snake performers now, but he calls them“snake minglers”. “They only provide photo-taking sessions. I am the only one who can actually perform with the snakes on stage,”he said.

As for his pythons, he treasures them not just because they are the source of his livelihood, but because he has grown close to them. “I love them so much that to me, they are part of the family.”

This article was first published in The New Paper on January 21, 2013.