Brother Sway: more than just getting laughs
Cui Baoyin was quite successful by most standards — working as an interpreter for Boeing and Microsoft and later owning a company with 70 employees. But he longed for something more.
“I can’t leave this world with nobody knowing how damn great I am,” he said.
“I want to be China’s Jay Leno,” said Cui, now known as Brother Sway, a standup comedian, or as he prefers to be called, a talk-show host.
“Comedians just make people laugh, but a talk-show host has a point to make,” he said.
“Sway” is Cui’s English interpretation of his last name and also reflects his life: Swaying between the US and China, he entertains the Chinese residents of two countries with his bittersweet life stories.
“We came to America for dollars,” he said. “We worked very hard so that one day we could go back home like a rich man. But suddenly, China got stronger and people got rich.
“When we go home, we are poor again,” he said in Chinese to audience laughter. “China, why couldn’t you wait for a few years? Why did you grow so fast?”
The video, shot in the basement of his house six years ago, has been viewed more than a million times online.
A native Beijinger, Brother Sway graduated from Beijing University and worked as an interpreter in the Forbidden Palace. He left China for the United States in 1988, looking for a better life.
When he arrived in Seattle, Cui said he went “wherever money is”. He worked as a waiter in Chinese restaurants and as a movie stunt man. Like many early Chinese immigrants, Cui said he “changed from a white collar in China to a blue collar in America”.
He attended law school at Seattle University. Though he didn’t practice law upon graduation, Cui said he learned a lot about the American justice system, and more importantly, it improved his English and led him to work as a parttime interpreter for some major companies in the area, including Boeing and Microsoft.
Things began to look better after he sealed a contract to sell beer and snacks at some major sports and entertainment events in Seattle. As the business grew, he had 70 Americans working for him. “On a good day, I could sell $200,000,” he said. “That was a realization of my American Dream.” But a new problem cropped up. “I considered myself to be pretty successful, but I was so frustrated that nobody knew how successful I was,” Cui said. “My natural instinct was: Let me brag about it.”
Appearing on a China Radio International talk show, the host pressed him on his motivations. “Did you want to become a superstar?”
“No, I just wanted to brag,” Cui replied.
He began doing standup comedy in a Seattle tavern that held weekly open mic nights. Cui enjoyed talking to the Western audience about China, race and dirty jokes, “especially the dirty jokes”, he joked.
But after three years, he felt talking to Americans wasn’t enough. “No Chinese in my town knew what I was doing; that was not satisfactory,” he said.
So in 2009, he put on a show in his basement, where Brother Sway was officially launched.
To attract an audience, every weekend Cui’s wife cooks a huge pot of zha jiang mian, a traditional Beijing dish of noodles topped with pork sauce and cucumber cut in julienne style.
“Everything is free. Everyone in the Chinese community knew that Brother Sway served free noodles and told jokes that were quite funny,” he said.
In 2010, a friend recorded Brother Sway performing his iconic show Don’t Come to America, in which he blames China for growing too fast and leaving him behind.
He chides Americans about their math education. In the video, a poster of Chairman Mao and the Chinese and US flags are behind him.
As a Seattle resident for 28 years, Cui knows how locals order their coffee.
“I would like a triple venti, 2 percent, cinnamon dolce, extra-hot macchiato,” he imitated in another viral video in which he created a rap set to Chinese music, teaching Chinese how to order coffee.
“Excuse me, sir. Excuse me. I want to order a latte coffee. Don’t put sugar and don’t put a lid. Here is five dollars and you can keep the tip.”
Brother Sway’s creative and satirical videos have earned him followers across the globe.
He has performed in 11 cities in the United States and is preparing to tour Australia and Europe. In China, he has bragged on the stages of several broadcast stations, including the New Year Gala of Beijing Television.
Cui sold his business in Seattle and now focuses on cultivating a talk-show career. Cui said he now is able to support his family with his performances.
“I love what I’m doing. This is my passion,” said Brother Sway, a father of three boys. He said that his sons are all pursuing their passions: The oldest is now a pre-med student who loves doing research and volunteer work; the middle son is running two YouTube channels; and the youngest is a bartender.
“Don’t plan your life, because it never goes as you planned,” Brother Sway tells his sons and also his young audience. “I left China to pursue a better life, but that’s not what happened. My classmates from Beijing University, who have stayed in China, have become billionaires. Friends that I met in the US and came back in the early 2000s have become top executives in large companies.
“I’m nothing compared to them, but I have stories. I have been a waiter, a stunt man. I’ve been hired by Americans, and I’ve hired Americans. I’ve been in jail, and I’ve been on court. I can tell the stories that nobody else can.”
Brother Sway poses with other performers at the BTV Global New Year Gala in Beijing on Jan 10.
Brother Sway, talk-show host