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.

China Daily (Canada) - - FRONT PAGE -

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

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