Did you hear the one about the Egyptians in China?
Telling funny stories may become the new way to understand a strange culture thousands of miles away, according to 26-year-old Egyptian Mohammed Magdi, a part-time stand-up comedian in Shanghai.
Magdi works as a marketing team leader for China Telecom in Shanghai, promoting new packages in the expatriate community.
But what makes his life vibrant and exciting is his position as a stand-up comedian on weekends at a local club called Kung Fu Komedy.
“People often have a lot of ignorance and misunderstanding about Egypt, Islam, Africa, and the Middle East. It doesn’t only happen in the Chinese community, but also to many other foreigners, too,” he said. “Living in a global, cosmopolitan city like Shanghai actually gives me a very good chance to tell my stories to a larger audience.”
He said it’s too cliched to claim a role as a cultural ambassador between two sides, but it is a fact that many people don’t know anything about Egypt apart from instability and revolution. Thus his role is to correct the stereotype using a performance that is funny and also makes people think.
“I didn’t live in a place that has proper stand-up comedy, which is seen as a copyright of Western, English-speaking countries, and neither did I have any similar experience in Egypt,” he said. “But I think there are a lot of ideas that can’t be expressed in a very serious way like racism, discrimination and stereotypes, and using comedy is a good way to make an impression and help people remember.”
He started doing stand-up comedy at Kung Fu Komedy in September 2013 as a regular on their open mic nights, and now he is a regular headliner and even opens for international comics touring China.
He has done shows in many cities across China and other Asian countries, including Beijing, Hangzhou, Suzhou, Hong Kong and Tokyo.
“Standing at the center of the stage gives me an opportunity to make people want to listen to me, and I can attract them by finding interesting observations in my life,” he said.
In the club, there is Chinese open mic and also English-language stand-up comedy shows with different target audiences. Magdi has attracted a large number of local expatriates and Chinese people who speak English.
The club was established in 2010 and has regular performances every weekend. It has introduced many international headliners to China like Ari Shaffir, Tom Rhodes and Wil Sylvince.
Andy Curtain, one of the founders of the club, said Magdi is contributing a new perspective to local audiences based on his personal background, and also represents a voice from Africa.
“But we don’t pick comedians through location — though we have comedians from every corner of the world — but on their comedic talents. Magdi has proven his success through his popularity at the club,” he said.
None of the local comedians came to Shanghai for comedy, but Shanghai as a melting pot has inspired them and provided them with a good platform for their performance, Curtain said.
Before arriving in China, Magdi worked for Vodafone as a marketer after graduating as a business administration major from a university in northern Egypt.
He said he needed a new environment to reset his mind after revolution broke out in Egypt in 2011, so he chose to come to China as an English teacher at northeastern China’s Changchun Normal University in 2012.
After all his experiences, he said China also has offered him a chance to expand his comedic talents, not only to focus on his personal background, but also to take up a broader range of topics that expand his range as a professional comedian.
“I used to tell a lot of funny stories related to my country and my cultural background, until a famous comedian from Hollywood told me that I should become a comedian from Egypt, rather than an Egyptian comedian, since ethnic identity stories had a corner on my professional life,” he said. “So I am trying to have 40 percent of my show relate to my background and the rest on other topics.”
Egyptian Mohammed Magdi said his role is to correct the stereotypes using a performance that is funny and also makes people think.