Why is this man laughing?

(This article, about an Indian-origin stand-up comedian in Hong Kong, who was adjudged the best Chinese-language comedian, was published in DNA edition dated February 27, 2008.)

Venky Vembu


A funny thing happened to Vivek Mahbubani late last year in Hong Kong…

The 25-year-old tech geek, who runs his one-person web design firm by night and sleeps by day, decided on a passing whim to audition for a stand-up comedy competition in Hong Kong. “I’d never done comedy before, although I’ve always been a fan of stand-up,” Mahbubani recalls. “But I felt that if I didn’t seize the moment and try it out, I’d regret it for the rest of my life.”

Just being on stage, getting a few laughs with his hilarious observations about Hong Kong’s many quirks, would have been a heady experience for him, he says. But Mahbubani sailed along on a sea of laughter to become a finalist in the English-language section of the first Hong Kong Comedy Festival. But he did even better in the Chinese-language section and was adjudged the funniest Chinese comedian in Hong Kong. Not bad, he reckons, for an Indian…  

That’s because few Indians, even among those who have been in Hong Kong for generations, can speak more than a smattering of Cantonese, the nine-tonal Chinese-variant language that’s spoken on the streets of Hong Kong. “But when I was young, my parents enrolled me in a local government school because they wanted me to learn the language,” says Mahbubani. Every day after school, while his friends (all of whom went to English-medium international schools) played on Nintendo games, he trudged off to a tutorial centre to learn to read and write Cantonese. “I hated it then, and being young, I couldn’t see the big picture of how this might help me in the future. Mercifully, my parents did, and stuck with it.”

Being a visible minority in a Chinese school also taught him a few survival skills. “I didn’t have many friends at primary school, so I began to amuse myself by thinking up funny things. I also used humour as a defence mechanism to beat back the bullying and badgering that’s common in boys’ schools.”

His identity as a ‘foreigner’ growing up in a Chinese society provides much of the material for his comedy routine today, but Mahbubani uses them differently in the English and Chinese acts. “In my English set, my audience is largely made up of foreigners, including Western expats, so I narrate my experiences of being an ‘outsider’ who finds Hong Kong ‘weird’, which they can identify with…. In my Chinese act, I reverse it, because my audience is now predominantly Chinese, and I’m the minority, so I tell them how I’m trying to fit in as a Hong Kong person but am always seen as the ‘outsider’.”

Today, Mahbubani is Hong Kong’s only bilingual comedian and newest star, performing at comedy clubs, bars, corporate events – and even at the Venetian in Macau. He’s seen as a bridge across cultures, who can use comedy as a point of confluence of different ethnic identities.

On Youtube, clips of his English and Cantonese comedic acts have gone viral, drawing huge number of comments – and invitations from Canada, which has a lot of Cantonese-speaking Chinese. What’s more, Cantophilia, a website aimed at the overseas Chinese community, uses his Cantonese comedy video to teach others the language! “In other words,” he says, “foreign-born Chinese people are learning Cantonese from a Hong Kong-born foreigner! Talk about a totally twisted reality!”


About Venky

Journalist, blogger, amused observer of worldly goings-on... More about me here.
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One Response to Why is this man laughing?

  1. Pingback: Dim sum days in Delhi and Mumbai | It's only words…

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