Before becoming a Chinese celebrity as Dashan, Mark Rowswell was an international student in China whose life experiences have helped him become one of the biggest names in Chinese comedy today. Wing Kuang caught up with the comedian before his shows at this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
When Mark Rowswell stared out at China’s plains through his cold airplane window just 29 years ago, he never once imagined that he would one day perform in front of 550 million Chinese people.
Now, the Canadian comedian is a household name and a celebrity in the country. Performing under his Chinese stage name, Dashan, the 51-year old’s journey has brought him to many parts of the world including here in Melbourne, where he will soon be performing a series of Mandarin-only comedy sets as part of this year’s lineup for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
His show, ‘Dashan Live’, is a way for audiences to understand Rowswell as he reflects on his adult life and talks about the decisions he’s made that have helped him enrich his life experiences.
Taking up Chinese in 1984 at the University of Toronto, Rowswell says his interest in the language was brought on by his own curiosity and thought learning it would perhaps help him expand his horizons.
“[It] was a combination of studying something new and different plus the idea that maybe it just might be a useful skill as ties expanded between China and the West,” Rowswell said.
Four years later, Rowswell graduated with a degree in Chinese Studies, and realised the “time to get serious” had come.
He applied for a scholarship to study at Peking University and was successful; Rowswell was to spend a year in China as an international student. When he received the good news, Rowswell was excited by the prospect of overseas study and the adventure that awaited him but ultimately gave himself two choices: move on from China and onto something entirely different if the experience would bear no reward or “settle down and make a career out of something China-related”.
While studying in China, Rowswell lived on campus and faced similar problems that many of today’s international students still experience.
“I felt there was too much segregation,” Rowswell said. “Foreigners all lived together in their own bubble and it was difficult to get to know Chinese students unless you made a personal effort to break out of that bubble.”
Unlike most of his peers who were content to stay in that bubble, Rowswell attempted to break the ice. One day, he entered the Chinese student cafeteria asking a group of Chinese students if he could join them. They accepted him and soon he began joining clubs too, doing all he could to engage with Chinese students as much as possible.
Speaking on what he has observed of today’s international students, Rowswell acknowledges that while segregation still exists, that problem has been amplified since his days as a student.
“Living conditions are much better now; information flows much more freely and everything is much more convenient, but the bubbles we live in have only gotten stronger,” he said.
He encouraged students to be brave if they wanted to break out of that segregation. “Each of us still has to make a concerted effort to break out of own little communities and make friends outside of our ‘own kind’.”
Rowswell’s initial bravery to seek new experiences would later translate over into his career as a comedian and celebrity in China.
In 1989, after hosting an international singing competition on television and being discovered, Rowswell was given the rare opportunity of performing on the CCTV New Year’s Gala, a televised Chinese New Year celebration that broadcasts to more than 550 million people every year. Roswell performed a comedic skit for the gala that year, impressing everyone watching with his fluency in Mandarin and extraordinary performance, including Jiang Kun, a comedian with a speciality in the art of Chinese crosstalk, or ‘xiangshen’ (a type of comedic performance unique to China).
Under the tutelage of Kun, Rowswell began learning how to deliver ‘xiangshen’. He studied the greats like Hou Baolin and Liu Baorui, further practised his Chinese and put himself up for as many opportunities to perform as he could. Eventually, Roswell’s work ethic and decision to continue his career in China would pay off. He currently has more than three million followers on Weibo, China’s most popular social media service, and is so far the only foreign artist to have performed four times at the CCTV Chinese New Year Gala — few foreigners are granted the privilege of performing even once at the gala.
Yet there are no signs of stopping for the comedian. Acknowledging his influence as a celebrity, Rowswell says he is at a point in his career where there is now “more freedom [for him] to pursue [his] own ideas” and give back to the country that made him a success.
“I think that’s the main way I can make a contribution, not by competing with younger performers but by doing my own thing and being something of a role model for them,” he said.
On how he intends to contribute and give back, Rowswell acknowledges the prevalence of social media in helping him further the connection he possesses with those who already admire his work yet also wants to ensure that the experience he distributes online is not disposable.
“My main goal right now is developing my live show, and bringing audiences out to the theatre for that live experience,” Rowswell said.
“In the West, comedians like Louis C.K. have been pioneers in combining live shows with online distribution in a way that still makes people want to go see the live show. Nobody in China has really done that in the same way, distributing a true, live stand-up comedy show through the Internet. That’s one of my goals – to show people that a real stand-up show is not the so-called ‘tuokouxiu’ (talk show) that we see all the time online. ”
That personal connection between performer and audience is particularly special for Rowswell.
“A big part of what makes live comedy funny is that you can do all sorts of things that you can’t do on TV. That’s true in the West as it is in China,” the comedian said.
“I love performing for Chinese audiences outside of China because we share so many experiences together. So many of the audience members remember me from TV in China, but they also have the experience of living abroad and trying to find a balance between Chinese and Western culture. We’re all living somewhere between East and West, just coming from different backgrounds but ending up together. So there’s a great feeling in the audience – a little bit of nostalgia but also familiarity and of shared experiences.”
That, in essence, is ‘Dashan Live’, which combines an hour of familiar ‘xiangsheng’ material with the nuances of western stand-up comedy. Since 2013, the show has been presented in theatres and universities around the world.
“Comedy is a serious business, and through my work I hope people come to a new understanding of cultures and the world we all share,” Rowswell said. “It’s not about just telling jokes and making people laugh. There’s supposed to be truth, thoughtfulness and insight behind all of it. It’s supposed to achieve something positive in the world, but it still has to be entertaining.”
After 29 years in the business, Mark Rowswell continues to entertain audiences both in China and abroad. He has performed in the United States, the United Kingdom and of course his own home country of Canada. Looking back on his time as a former international student, Rowswell encouraged today’s students to embrace these years away from home and to seek new experiences.
“[Studying abroad] will change your life and you will not only learn more about the world we live in, but you will learn more about yourself and your home country by going outside of your own community,” he said.
“I [followed] my interests and [did] crazy and different things like any young person does. Somehow I stumbled on to a path that seemed to work for me.”
“So,” Rowswell said, to all the international students, “jiayou (all the best)!”
Mark ‘Dashan’ Rowswell will be performing his ‘Dashan Live’ shows at this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival, between Thursday, April 13 and Sunday, April 16. Tickets range between $25 and $38. These shows will be performed exclusively in Mandarin. For more information about Dashan Live, please refer to the event page on Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s official website.