Landing punchlines in home of kung fu
An Irish stand-up comedian’s colorful life in China has inspired a hit comedy show, Zhang Chunyan reports.
The decision of Irish comedian Des Bishop to become a restaurant greeter in northern China surprised many people.
What would make him swap his comfortable life for one in a country where he couldn’t even speak the language?
But his journey to China has been fruitful. In one year, the American-born and Irish-bred star has mastered enough Chinese to do standup comedy to a Chinese audience.
Now the 39-year-old comedian wants to let more people know his life in China.
His one-man show in English, Made in China, runs until May 30 in Soho Theatre, London.
“It is a new way to tell stories about China to a Western audience,” he said, adding that his stories included trying to find a girlfriend at a Beijing marriage market, taking part in a dating TV show in eastern Jiangsu province and working as a waiter in northeastern Heilongjiang province.
“I was 37 when I went to China, and single. I know culturally in China being old and not married will bring more pressure than we are used to. All the things are very different. I think that is interesting to us. So I just wanted to explore a little bit about the pressure Chinese people have to get married.”
Bishop believes Chinese people get a lot of pressure from their parents. “You know you have to be a good son or daughter. So it was a way to show something that was deeply inside China. Chinese parents get so involved in your marriage, the fact that dating is such a big issue in China.”
Even with his looks and easy- going personality, Bishop admits, “I am very popular in terms of people’s curiosity, but not in terms of letting their daughters marry me.”
He thinks the reasons for his lack of nuptial success are that he has no hukou — household registration required by Chinese law — and that the Chinese don’t understand what he does for a living. “On the TV show I was very popular. I enjoyed being on TV. But unfortunately it was more a way of making the audience laugh than finding a woman.
“But in the West, a sense of humor is more important than in China. You know a lot of girls would say a sense of humor is most important for a man.”
Bishop reveals how he became fluent in Chinese: “I was in a language university then had a private tutor. I tried not to speak English at all.”
He said the first couple of months were a little boring. “But I have a Chinese friend who lived in Ireland and then moved back to China. So I was very much immersed in Chinese. Eating a lot, speaking Chinese a lot, and having people correct my pronunciation.”
The experience as a greeter in a restaurant in Hegang, Heilongjiang province, also helped him a lot with his Chinese.
“I worked as a welcomer. Just to put myself under more pressure to speak Chinese.”
He also wanted to explore other parts of China.
“Beijing is great, but in Beijing you have a lot of Western things you get used to. Hegang is a small and remote city.”
He doesn’t think he was a very good restaurant greeter, because instead of welcoming people he had conversations with them.
“Chinese people are very generous,” Bishop said. “I spoke a little bit of Chinese. They would say, ‘You speak Chinese very well’, even though my Chinese was terrible.”
To some extent, Bishop’s one-man show is something of a homecoming — he riffs on living in China, learning a challenging language and performing stand-up comedy there.
“China is a very interesting and important country. There is a lot more to China than what we read about in the West. I know if Westerners had the chance to see everything about China, they would find it more interesting and entertaining.”
Bishop grew up in Flushing, Queens, before the influx of Chinese immigrants into New York. He said that his interest in China dated back to watching kung fu movies as a child.
He moved to Ireland at the age of 14 and went on to become one of the country’s best-known comedians, even performing some of his jokes in Gaelic.
Recalling the reasons for moving to China in 2013, he said: “It was more a case of one thing leading to another. The quick version is that I met some Chinese guys who became my friends while filming my show The Des Bishop Work Experience in 2003. I visited China with these friends in 2004. So I had a desire to learn their language because I was around them all the time.”
Then in 2008, when the Olympics were coming up in Beijing, China’s economy was roaring and he said everyone was talking about the place.
He found that learning Chinese would make a good premise for a show. “My job was to come up with ideas that I thought people would be interested in, so I pitched this Chinese journey and got the go-ahead.”
Last year Des Bishop: Breaking China aired on Irish television as a six-part series that was a mix of comedy, reality show and travel documentary.
His inside look at China played to sold-out audiences at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year and received warm reviews.
“People love it. They could understand it because of the way the show is written. I used a lot of images and pictures about the things I encountered in China. A lot of jokes are about explaining. All funny and interesting, not only for Chinese people who live abroad, but even to English people.
“It shows some of the wonderful and fun things about China. I just talk about everyday life. That helps people have a bit more understanding of China for sure. The best thing about comedy is that it makes you laugh about things and actually helps you understand things better.”
This year Bishop did an hour-long show in Chinese in Auckland, New Zealand, for Chinese people living abroad.
In future he wants to try to visit cities around the world that have large Chinese populations, including the big Chinese cities, to do stand-up comedy.
“I am also working with Dashan,” he said. Dashan, literally translated as Big Mountain, is the stage persona of Mark Rowswell, a tall Canadian who is China’s most well known homegrown foreign entertainer. “We are open to doing standup comedy tours in cities such as Toronto.”
More people are doing business with China and are getting to know a bit more about China for different reasons, he said.
“Doing the show all over the world, that is the longterm goal.” Zhang Qi contributed to this story. Contact the writer at zhangchunyan@chinadaily. com.cn