BRIDG­ING EAST-WEST WITH LAUGH­TER

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSS CANADA - By KELSEY CHENG in Toronto for China Daily

Mark Rowswell, bet­ter known as Dashan, is per­haps the most fa­mous Cana­dian cul­tural am­bas­sador to China. With­out a doubt, he’s the fun­ni­est one.

At his sold-out show Dashan Live at the Univer­sity of Toronto on March 20, Rowswell re­ceived an en­thu­si­as­tic wel­come from the 500 Chi­nese in the au­di­ence, all of whom grew up watch­ing him on TV do­ing his xi­ang­sheng rou­tines, or “cross talk”, a tra­di­tional Chi­nese comedic di­a­logue.

This time, how­ever, Rowswell did some­thing dif­fer­ent — he per­formed a solo stand-up com­edy show, a for­mat un­fa­mil­iar to most Chi­nese au­di­ences.

“For many years, I wanted to do some­thing dif­fer­ent,” Rowswell said. “I’ve al­ways known there was more po­ten­tial be­yond tongue-twisters, xi­ang­sheng, and host­ing events.”

There have been three stages in his Dashan ca­reer, he said: Dashan 1.0 -- Dashan the for­eign ex­change stu­dent; then Dashan 2.0 -- Dashan the cul­tural am­bas­sador; and cur­rently, Dashan 3.0 -- Dashan the stand-up comic.

“It’s com­ing full cir­cle: my com­edy is, in fact, a form of cul­tural com­edy,” he said.

Born and raised in Ottawa, Rowswell be­gan to study Chi­nese at the Univer­sity of Toronto in 1984, then left for fur­ther stud­ies at Bei­jing Univer­sity on a full schol­ar­ship when he was 23.

When Rowswell first picked up the Chi­nese lan­guage, he didn’t ex­pect a ca­reer from it at all. He just wanted to learn the lan­guage of the com­mon folk.

“I wanted to study some­thing out­side of my own cir­cle,” Rowswell said. “French wasn’t ex­otic enough, be­cause we learned French all the way through high school.”

De­cem­ber 1988 was a turn­ing point in his life. Within three months of ar­riv­ing at Bei­jing, he per­formed a skit dur­ing the an­nual Chi­nese New Year Gala hosted by China Cen­tral Tele­vi­sion, where the seg­ment was broad­cast to nearly 550 mil­lion peo­ple across the na­tion. The name, Dashan, which trans­lates to “big moun­tain”, be­came fa­mous overnight.

“At the time, a lot of peo­ple told me it wouldn’t last, that it was only a flash in the pan,” he said. “And I thought, ‘There has to be some­thing more for me to do than tongue-twisters.’”

It wasn’t un­til seven years later in 1995 that he de­cided to pur­sue and de­velop Dashan into a full-time ca­reer. He be­came in­ter­ested in xiang sheng and started to learn from his men­tor, pop­u­lar co­me­dian Jiang Kun.

Most of Rowswell’s con­tent cen­ters on what the Chi­nese call “the fun­da­men­tal truths”, par­tic­u­larly of life phi­los­o­phy and so­cial strug­gles, told in an abrupt but gen­uine man­ner. These sub­jects have gained pop­u­lar­ity among au­di­ences since they are feel­ings and ob­ser­va­tions shared and, more of­ten than not, con­cealed by many.

“A lot of the jokes I do on stage, they come from real-life ex­pe­ri­ences that no one talks about,” he said. “And when you tell it like it is, it’s funny, be­cause no­body does that.”

Through his act, Rowswell quickly be­came one of the most fa­mous for­eign­ers in China, and the most fa­mous Cana­dian in China.

But he has al­ways wanted to do more than just be a comic.

“I’ve al­ways wanted to be­come a cul­tural am­bas­sador,” he said. “Every­body loves co­me­di­ans, but no one re­ally re­spects them, be­cause you’re just be­ing funny.”

Early on, Rowswell worked at the Cul­tural Af­fairs De­part­ment of the Cana­dian Em­bassy in Bei­jing, where he pro­moted Cana­dian stud­ies pro­grams in dif­fer­ent Chi­nese uni­ver­si­ties by set­ting up Cana­dian stud­ies cen­tres, as well as host­ing cul­tural events and fes­ti­vals.

His most mem­o­rable stints in­cluded serv­ing as Com­mis­sioner Gen­eral for Canada at the Shang­hai 2010 World Expo and of­fi­cial team at­taché to the Cana­dian Olympic Com­mit­tee for the 2008 Olympics in Bei­jing.

“I was a true cul­tural of­fi­cial, rep­re­sent­ing the gov­ern­ment of Canada and the De­part­ment of Cana­dian Heritage,” he said. “It was a great ex­pe­ri­ence and such an hon­our.”

Rowswell was named Canada’s Good­will Am­bas­sador to China in 2012, and in­ducted into the Or­der of Canada, Canada’s high­est civil­ian hon­our.

In 2009, Rowswell re­ceived a Doc­tor of Laws hon­orary de­gree from Thomp­son Rivers Univer­sity for his “ef­forts to build global con­nec­tions be­tween cul­tures and economies”. TIME mag­a­zine named him as one of the Lead­ers for the 21st Cen­tury in 1999.

He has also hosted mul­ti­ple for­mer Cana­dian prime min­sters at diplo­matic events in China over the years, in­clud­ing Jean Chré­tien, Paul Martin and Stephen Harper.

“If your am­bi­tion is to be a cul­tural am­bas­sador and you’ve al­ready been Com­mis­sioner Gen­eral at the big­gest Expo ever in Shang­hai, where do you go next?” Rowswell said. “I didn’t have a core project. I could be­come the Cana­dian am­bas­sador to China, but that wouldn’t be a cul­tural ca­reer, it would be a po­lit­i­cal ca­reer.”

He also slowly drifted away from xi­ang­sheng. As much as he has mas­tered the Chi­nese lan­guage like a na­tive, Rowswell says he will al­ways be con­sid­ered as “unau­then­tic” by the Chi­nese, and there­fore can only por­tray “the stu­dent”, es­pe­cially when per­form­ing such a tra­di­tional art form.

Af­ter be­ing away from com­edy for 15 years as a cul­tural am­bas­sador, he ac­tu­ally started to de­velop stage fright.

“Com­edy is like a mus­cle, you have to keep work­ing at it ev­ery day,” he said. “Grad­u­ally, it be­came a huge men­tal bur­den be­cause peo­ple al­ways ex­pect you to be funny wher­ever you go.”

He spent five years fig­ur­ing out what to do next, ex­plor­ing a way to com­bine el­e­ments of com­edy, live per­for­mance and be­ing a cul­tural am­bas­sador.

“I still want to do peo­ple-to-peo­ple stuff. I love work­ing on stage be­cause of the rush, and the sense of con­nec­tion with the au­di­ence,” Rowswell said.

That’s when he came up with an East-meets-West so­lu­tion: Western style stand-up com­edy in China.

“I’ve al­ways thought stand-up com­edy was for ex­pats, or for cos­mopoli­tan Chi­nese who speak English,” he said. “There’s an au­di­ence for it in China, but a tiny niche, not for the main­stream.”

He be­gan to ex­plore the lo­cal standup scene, and re­al­ized the art form hadn’t been es­tab­lished in China at all. The ear­li­est stand-up com­edy show he could track down was in 2009, per­formed by Zhou Libo.

“Chi­nese com­edy tends to be di­a­logue; while Western com­edy tends to be one-man — and that’s the kind of com­edy I’m most fa­mil­iar with. I grew up lis­ten­ing to it,” said Rowswell.

Draw­ing from his un­der­stand­ing of stand-up com­edy, his stage skills and 25 years of ex­pe­ri­ence from liv­ing be­tween East­ern and Western cul­tures, Rowswell be­gan per­form­ing the solo show Dashan Live in 2013 at smaller venues like clubs and uni­ver­si­ties, to test the wa­ters and pol­ish the show.

The feed­back so far has been pos­i­tive. Even though many warned him stand-up shows like his are un­likely to be aired on CCTV, Rowswell thinks it’s still worth­while. He is con­fi­dent stand-up com­edy will even­tu­ally gain pop­u­lar­ity among Chi­nese au­di­ences.

Even af­ter mas­ter­ing the Chi­nese lan­guage for so many years, per­form­ing in front of an all-Chi­nese au­di­ence still holds its chal­lenges. To this day, Rowswell be­lieves there is a cul­tural bar­rier to break down, and a new im­age to re­built. In fact, Rowswell be­lieves East­ern and Western cul­tures aren’t ex­tremes in the con­tin­uum.

“No one is de­fined by a sin­gle cul­ture,” he said. “Every­one em­bod­ies a hy­brid of cul­ture; we shouldn’t talk about cul­tures like they are black and white.”

“Of all the things I’ve ever done, there is noth­ing more dif­fi­cult than be­ing funny,” he said. “It’s a high risk, high stress en­vi­ron­ment. And if you can do it well, it’s an in­tox­i­cat­ing feel­ing.”

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Mark Rowswell, AKA Dashan, per­forms his new stand up com­edy show, Dashan Live, at the Univer­sity of Toronto on March 20. The show was sold out.

Mark “Dashan” Roswell, co­me­dian

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