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An Indian Made in China: Interview with comedian Vivek Mahbubani

BASED in Hong Kong, Vivek Mahbubani is a regular on the region’s comedy scene, performing bilingual stand-up routines fluently in Cantonese and English. He’s coming into town as part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and took time out to chat with Daniel Driscoll.

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Vivek will be performing his solo all-Cantonese language show and as part of Comedy Zone Asia Roadshow. Image supplied.

Most people would think carving out a comedy career would be tough, especially in a culture where laughing out loud is seen as impolite.

But comedian Vivek Mahbubani, featured in our Melbourne International Comedy Festival highlights, has been rising to this challenge since he first took to the stage in 2007.

That same year, he was crowned the Funniest Comedian (to perform a routine in Chinese) at the Hong Kong International Comedy Festival and in the following year, Mahbubani also won in the English category.

He’s now a regular headliner at the TakeOut Comedy Shop in Hong Kong and performs internationally. In earning all of these success though, he confesses growing up in Hong Kong and looking Indian had its challenges.

“I was always seen as different and there were times this annoyed me, especially when it came to meeting the ladies! However, it forced me to find creative ways to [deal with] the same situation because of my special case. At the same time, it also allowed me to live this double-identity where I could be a foreigner when necessary.”

“My family is all Indian, so everything was a culture shock to me. From the concept of giving out red pockets with money for Chinese New Year to certain slang terms that no school ever teaches you.”

Mahbubani admits that he could easily pretend to be an innocent tourist if he was caught jaywalking, while also keeping his local wits by being able to notice signs such as discounts written only in Chinese.

While challenging at first, the funnyman has been able to use these cultural conflicts in his favour.

“My family is all Indian, so everything was a culture shock to me. From the concept of giving out red pockets with money for Chinese New Year to certain slang terms that no school ever teaches you. There weren’t any specific aspects of the culture that stood out, but I definitely loved the idea of getting money during Chinese New Year – that was the time of the year I made it a point to visit my friends’ families and show off my Cantonese chops.”

Growing up, Mahbubani says comedy was always something he was fascinated by.

“I remember growing up watching stand up comedy videos and at one point in time, I told myself that before I die, I need to try stand up. Sort of like a bucket-list item. In 2007, I saw an article in a newspaper here in Hong Kong talking about a stand up comedy competition and I figured this was my chance. I got on stage, some people laughed, and [that] was it.”

As a younger man, his comedy heroes included ’90s greats such as Jerry Seinfeld and Chris Rock. But these days, he looks to comedians who are carving their own path.

“Nowadays, my comedy heroes are Louie C.K. and Bill Burr. Mostly because they have their own perspective and angle on life, which is what I love to hear from a comedian. I admire any performer who has discovered [their] voice; you can enjoy their show at a different level.”

“I remember growing up watching stand up comedy videos and at one point in time, I told myself that before I die, I need to try stand up.”

His experiences in Hong Kong as a “culturally misplaced” person has influenced his comedy greatly, leading him to find fun ways to talk about his life to audiences – something that will definitely play a role in his Melbourne shows.

“I make fun of how I’m proud of my body hair to silly things like my attempts to learn Yoga from a Chinese person all the way to weird encounters I have with fans who try to bargain with me for my own show’s tickets.”

Image supplied.

Image supplied.

If Mahbubani was looking to stand out from the crowd at this year’s festival, performing his one-off show, An Indian Made in China, completely in Cantonese was probably the way to do it. He says that he came to this decision because he enjoys the exploration of language with an audience.

“I’ve been doing Cantonese shows and English shows since the beginning of my journey as a comedian. During this time, I’ve learned so much about how language plays a part in the way you tell a joke and how culture plays a part in the way you perform a joke that I’m always open to the idea of exploring this further with new audiences.”

When it comes to language specific routines, Mahbubani says adjustments need to be made depending on whether he’s writing an English or Cantonese show.

“An Indian speaking fluent English is nothing surprising, so my angle is often about how I find the world around me weird and the way I deal with it. For Cantonese, my ability to speak the language fluently is a pleasant shock, so my angle is often about how I can’t fit into the world around me and how I cope with the reality of the side-effects of being a Cantonese speaker.”

“Many Cantonese audiences tend to take a lot of things said on stage literally or as the absolute truth. Sarcasm is a very hard thing to get across in Cantonese because of the tonal issues of the language.”

Mahbubani says the tonality of Cantonese also poses its own particular challenges when writing a routine.

“Many Cantonese audiences tend to take a lot of things said on stage literally or as the absolute truth. Sarcasm is a very hard thing to get across in Cantonese because of the tonal issues of the language.”

In his early days writing separate language shows, he felt that Cantonese was more difficult to craft a routine for, simply because of the nature of the language. But over time, he’s found that English and Cantonese have become the same for him.

“[After] a few years, I began to learn how to find the middle-ground in my joke-writing. I’m able to take the same concept and present it in one way that is fit for an English-speaking audience, then mix things up a bit so it’s perfect for a Cantonese-speaking audience.”

Mahbubani says the English and Chinese comedy scenes in Hong Kong still vary quite a lot. While English-speaking audiences know what they’re in for at a comedy show, the Chinese-speaking crowd is still learning how to behave at comedy shows.

“For Asian audiences, they’re here for a good time, but not at the expense of losing face. So picking on Asian audiences requires that you build a good rapport with everyone so no one feels any hostility.”

Part of the reason why Mahbubani considers the Chinese scene to still be in its infancy is that laughing out loud is still not seen as a social norm in China.

“People are often caught covering their mouths as they giggle during shows. However, we’ve learned that it’s all a cultural education where the audience needs to realise that laughing is the whole point of the show as compared to what we’re going to tell them. Once they realise this, chances are arms aren’t crossed anymore and smiles are revealed more readily.”

“Everyone is interested to enjoy a good laugh, but they’re not quite sure how this whole game works. I’m confident in a few more years, people will be fighting for the front row just to be part of the show and get picked on.”

That said, Mahbubani says the Hong Kong scene is growing by the year and that’s a positive for all involved.

“I find myself dropping into open mic (nights) to find many new faces on stage as compared to a few years ago. I’m always happy to see new blood in the scene mostly because it means more material for everyone to enjoy!”

“Everyone is interested to enjoy a good laugh, but they’re not quite sure how this whole game works. I’m confident in a few more years, people will be fighting for the front row just to be part of the show and get picked on.”

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Image supplied.

When comedians are asked about a memorable moment in their career, most people would expect to hear a story about playing to a large audience or an anecdote about meeting someone famous. Mahbubani’s answer was a little closer to home.

“One of the most memorable moments in my career here in Hong Kong was when I was invited to perform at a hospital for a group of patients and their families. Watching people sit together with their sick relatives, forgetting the reality of any illness and having a good hearty laugh… that to me, was more worth it than any standing ovation.”

“Watching people sit together with their sick relatives, forgetting the reality of any illness and having a good hearty laugh… that to me, was more worth it than any standing ovation.”

These days he’s busier than ever, but he still manages to find time to hone his comedy chops, with the help of a technique from his school days.

“When you were always punished for daydreaming as a student in school, you develop this ability to zone out quite easily while you’re out and about. While commuting, I may think of a funny idea, write it down and let it digest in my mind. Usually at the end of the day, while I enjoy a nice warm shower, all these silly thoughts start connecting to each other and then I try to put everything together in hopes it forms a punch line at the end.”

And when it comes to following your own path, Mahbubani says everything is about how you see it.

“I used to sometimes get picked on and discriminated by my peers in school, and now they pay to come see my shows and hear me retell those stories. Karma? I call this a great business model.”

Vivek will be performing a one-off hour long show, An Indian Made in China, entirely in Cantonese on Saturday, April 18 at the Melbourne Town Hall. The show is also a part of the Comedy Zone Asia Roadshow. 

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