Stand-up comedy in Asia is booming right now, and one of the continent’s rising stars is a comic named Mark Stanlan. In a span of just 18 months, Stanlan has made the jump from lowly open-micer to headliner, with a touring schedule of the region’s major cities surely on the horizon. He regularly earns wall-to-wall laughs, and eats up big minutes at Hong Kong’s popular TakeOut Comedy Club.
But Stanlan’s ascension, though rapid, isn’t exactly winning him any popularity contests within Asia’s English-speaking comedy community. Ask comics in Hong Kong about his act after a few drinks, and many will tell you the same thing: It’s a bit…racist.
It’s a bit…racist.
The comedians who toss around whispered accusations most often seem to be those who were raised in the West, or started their stand-up careers there. I’m confident Stanlan’s peers feel this way because, up until this past April, I was one of them: a Canadian writer and comedian based in Hong Kong, who regularly performed at the same club. As someone who has shared many stages with Stanlan and watched him rise through the ranks, I also occasionally found myself uncomfortable with his material. Still, crowds there couldn’t get enough of it.
Here’s what you need to know about Mark Stanlan: He’s handsome, for starters, with a look, swagger, and manner of speaking that play up his Western education and Caucasian roots—despite the fact that he’s also half-Chinese. Beyond that, he’s a naturally confident performer who easily commands a room and charms audiences. Fellow comics could be forgiven for resenting Stanlan’s God-given gift for performance, but that’s not what offended us at TakeOut Comedy.
It was his Chinese accent.
You see, the crux of Stanlan’s act is his pitch-perfect impression of a local Hongkonger speaking broken English, which he uses to portray a large cast of characters—from shopkeepers to taxi drivers and even family members. The punchlines for most of these bits are at the expense of his Chinese speakers, who trip and stumble over their second-language vocabulary, or use embarrassing double entendres. Stanlan, a native English speaker, then mocks these mistakes in his regular voice, much to the delight of Hong Kong crowds.
Now, my goal isn’t to out Stanlan as a racist. On the contrary, I don’t think anything is objectively wrong with a half-Chinese guy roasting his own mother, or poking fun at the folly of learning a second language. But I cite this example because Stanlan is just the latest in a lengthy list of both established and up-and-coming comedians who’ve won over Asian audiences with material that raises the eyebrows of Western comics working in the region.
And the offending jokes always seem to be about race.
Whether it’s irony-free bits about Filipinos being predisposed to cooking and cleaning, or quips about black guys stealing, running fast, and having big penises, the result is the same: Audience members eat it up, the comedian’s profile skyrockets, and other comics in the back tut-tut quietly. I watched this process repeat itself ad nauseum during my three years working as a comic in Asia, yet it’s never been publicly discussed.
So, why is performing lowbrow racial humor such a winning move for comedians in Asia?
It’s September, when comics from all over Asia flock to the city to participate in the ninth annual Hong Kong International Comedy Festival, a month-long showcase of local and international headliners. The festival is a critical networking opportunity for the region’s English-speaking acts, providing a chance to be seen by promoters and club owners from neighboring expat hubs in Singapore, Shanghai, Beijing, Tokyo, Seoul, Manila, and Kuala Lumpur.
As the stand-up scenes in these cities have grown, so, too, has the festival’s diversity. Just consider some of its past winners: Jewish African-American comic Jim Brewsky in 2014, Malaysian-Chinese comic Jason Leong in 2013, Singaporean-Indian comic Rishi Budhrani in 2012, and two-time winner Vivek Mahbubani, an Indian raised in Hong Kong who won the Cantonese and English competitions in 2007 and 2008, respectively.
I’ve performed alongside all of these acts, perhaps most memorably as another competition finalist in 2013 and 2014. I threw my hat into the ring twice because it’s no secret that winning the festival can be a launching pad to steady work across Asia. All of the aforementioned comics have since become successful touring headliners.
But winning isn’t the only thing they share in common. Not coincidentally, each of these comedians has built their act around material that focuses on their unique cultural background and racial heritage—topics that local audiences eat up.
“I don’t think [this popularity] has to do with race-based jokes working better in Asia, but it’s about Asia being so much more diverse race-wise,” said Mahbubani, one of a few comedians to make the leap from East to West this year as a featured act at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. “We have so many differences to talk about. In Asia, comedy about race isn’t just black versus white—it’s everyone versus everyone.”
Then, of course, there’s the novelty factor.
“Race jokes in public are still fairly new here,” Budhrani said, highlighting Western-style stand-up’s tendency to break down taboos that are strictly upheld in public spaces in Asia. “Audiences love being able to hear things on stage that they normally only joke about at parties or bars.”
"Audiences love being able to hear things on stage that they normally only joke about at parties or bars."
Or at home. Budhrani’s wife is Sharul Channa, another prominent touring headliner whose material taps heavily into the differences between her Indian upbringing and those of Chinese- or Malaysian-Singaporeans. For Channa, discussing race on stage isn’t meant to divide, but to unite. “We get people from many backgrounds and ethnicities to sit in a room together, and laugh about our differences to ease the tension. As comedians, that’s our responsibility,” she said.
There’s an idealism to these responses, suggesting that local comedians are telling race-based jokes because it's rarely done in broader Asian society and audiences desperately need it. In other words, they're filling that need.
But what if the reverse is true—that audiences only demand jokes about race because that’s what comedians are already giving them? This explanation holds weight if you overlook local club acts, instead focusing on the sell-out stadium shows that pop up every few years across Asia, featuring stand-up’s first global touring megastar: Russell Peters.
To say that Peters has contributed to the explosion of English stand-up in Asia would be a huge understatement. The Indian-Canadian comic’s massive following in non-traditional stand-up markets makes him a trailblazer, and he attracts new fans with each successive gig.
You could even say Peters is creating a brand new industry. When the comedian sells out huge venues in cities like Mumbai, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, and Hong Kong, club owners and promoters are more eager to develop and import local English-speaking talent that will fill the void for comedy fans between Peters’ visits to town. Ten years ago, there were no full-time comedy clubs in Asia, but as Peters’ star has risen, so, too, have the various local scenes.
To wield such extraordinary cultural influence has made the comedian both a savior and pariah to those working Asian comedy clubs. In recent years, Peters has made an absolute killing off of his spot-on accent mimicry and tales of cultural clash—to the tune of $19 million in one year alone (which, according to Forbes, makes him the fourth highest-paid comic in the world). But some comedians feel that his incredible popularity has shaped expectations for them, too.
“People seem to only want to hear accents and jokes about race,” said one comic in Kuala Lumpur, who requested anonymity for fear that criticizing Peters’ influence could bring about backlash. “You might be crafting your style in the footsteps of a great like Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, or Chris Rock, but sometimes your audience has literally heard of one comic on the planet: Russell Peters.”
Some club owners and promoters encourage comedians to mine their own experiences for jokes that highlight cultural differences—even if they don’t usually include race in their acts.
In my experience, this encouragement doesn’t often come with a noble intent to inform and enlighten audiences. One time, a promoter prodded me to tell more jokes that affirm stereotypes rather than question them, while another told me bluntly, “Stereotypes are hilarious because most of the time they are true.”
Even more bizarrely, I once watched a club owner advise a room of comics that a great trick to use when hosting is to ask an Indian audience member for their name and then make fun of it—because “Indian names are funny.” Not exactly a nuanced approach to race.
A race joke told for the sake of telling a race joke—without considering intent or who might be victimized—seems to be where the problem begins. “I’ve seen plenty of anti-Chinese material and anti-Filipino material where the punchline just calls out those races or nationalities for being stupid, poor, or undignified,” said Turner Sparks, an American comic who co-founded Shanghai’s Kung Fu Komedy Club.
Sparks doesn’t advise his performers to specifically discuss race, and is highly critical of performers who use sensitive material for easy laughs, but he points a finger just as squarely at undiscerning audiences as he does reckless comedians. After all, laughs are currency in comedy, and audiences have just as much sway in policing material as club owners and comics do.
laughs are currency in comedy, and audiences have just as much sway in policing material as club owners and comics do.
“[That offensive material] always seems to get a laugh, but it’s brutally racist,” Sparks said. “If those same jokes were made about blacks or Latinos in the States, I would hope they wouldn’t be as widely rewarded by audiences as they are in certain parts of Asia.”
Once a joke has been told, responsibility falls on the crowd to accept or reject it. It’s a continual feedback loop, and Western comics say audiences in Asia are often complicit in encouraging questionable material. “Comics do racist, lowest-common-denominator material because our crowds can be racist,” said Boston-born, Hong Kong-based comic Garron Chiu, who tours Asia frequently.
One major contributing factor to these racist attitudes is that the progressive, politically correct culture so often heralded in the West doesn’t thrive the same way in Asia, he added.
Many Asia-based Western comedians I spoke to agreed. They frequently commented on how racist attitudes are embedded in the political fabric of these societies (such as Hong Kong’s lower minimum wage for Filipino workers or Singapore’s selective curfews and alcohol bans for its Indian citizens), and how many people in East Asian countries unapologetically venerate white skin while despising darker skin (as evident from the endless stream of TV commercials and transit ads touting skin-whitening creams, pills, and surgeries). What’s more, ongoing regional tensions throughout the continent—think China’s recent aggressions against Vietnam and the Philippines in the South China Sea or the deep resentment of Japan’s militaristic past—continue to fuel the racial and cultural divide that sometimes pops up in jokes about immigrants, tourists, and other political issues.
Due to their divergent attitudes towards racism, the West and East also have different views on what’s acceptable in stand-up.
During my first trip to perform in Singapore, for instance, a comic there told me that since the city is evenly divided between its Indian, Chinese, and Malaysian populations, performers can avoid charges of racism by simply attacking all groups equally. And as far as I could tell, the majority of comedians in Singapore followed that mantra. Everyone’s hit; everyone’s happy.
But this approach to race-based comedy leaves out one crucial point: It’s not just locals performing for locals in these rapidly globalizing financial hubs.
“Western expats often make up a majority of our crowds,” Chiu said. “And the club is sometimes a safe haven for them to laugh at the locals.”
To some, this feels like an intrusion. It’s one thing for a comedian to hold a mirror up to their own culture or society so that fellow countrymen can laugh at shared foibles. But when outsiders are sitting in the same room and chuckling along, that’s when the atmosphere can get uncomfortable.
Things can become particularly touchy when a performer from the West takes advantage of the fact that audiences will let them get away with much more politically incorrect material—simply because they’re in Asia. Much like how Dave Chappelle expressed concern over white frat boys co-opting his popular commentaries on racial politics in America, some see the influx of Western comics laughing at Asian cultural quirks as a form of comedic colonialism, meant to keep locals down.
For his part, Chiu feels that the most problematic example of this West-on-East ribbing in Hong Kong’s comedy scene is when Western comics lampoon locals’ mispronunciation or misspelling of English words, which always gets an easy laugh. “You’re making fun of Chinese people for saying something wrong in their second language, while you haven’t bothered to learn Chinese despite the fact that you moved to Asia? The jokes aren’t even racist; they’re lazy,” he said.
And that brings us back to Hong Kong’s rising star, Mark Stanlan. The gripe from comics is, essentially, that a guy who looks and sounds like a foreigner is making fun of the way Chinese people speak. Stanlan, it can be said, is using his Russell Peters impression to make race-based jokes that Western audiences would likely frown upon. And not only is he getting away with it in Asia, Stanlan is blowing away the competition. Does that mean, then, that other comedians are justified in calling his material racist?
The long answer is that it’s complicated. The short answer is: absolutely not.
It’s difficult to definitively deem an act racist because comedy doesn’t adhere to a strict set of rules. There’s no written constitution—just a host of customs and conventions that morph as times change.
Ria Lina is an award-winning comedian who brought her one-woman show, Taboo Raider, to this summer’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Half Filipino and half German, the UK-based comic takes shots at her country’s obsession with political correctness, including criticisms she has received for discussing racial identity on stage. In general, Lina believes that less powerful groups should be allowed to go after more powerful ones, but not vice-versa.
“In Britain, the general belief among comics is that you should only punch up,” she said. “As for jokes about race, there’s also an unspoken rule in British comedy that if you don’t belong to a certain race, you can’t talk about it.”
Assuming for a moment that all Western comedians were to follow these conventions, it’s tough to pin any charges on a comic like Stanlan. After all, he’s part Chinese, so this would seem to grant him some freedom in poking fun at his own race. And in terms of punching up, things get even more confusing. Is Stanlan’s comedy only acceptable if his Chinese half jokes at the expense of his Caucasian half? Is it correct to assume that his Chinese half is subjugated in Hong Kong, which is no longer a British colony? The discussion quickly becomes absurd.
While on a headlining tour through Asia this September, Australian comedian John Robertson stopped by TakeOut Comedy, and said he was surprised to see his opening acts performing stereotype- and accent-heavy bits about race.
“[The acts] didn’t do anything that crossed a line,’” he said in an email. “They were just pulling out tricks that appear old school and vulgar in the UK, but kill in Hong Kong. The way they probably would have killed in Australia in 2005. Or 2006. Or 2007. Or anywhere up to about 2010.”
Robertson’s point, here, further demonstrates why it’s so difficult to levee objective charges of racism against a comedian. Nowadays, a Western comic might be shocked by old Andrew Dice Clay or Eddie Murphy clips from the 1980s, which haven’t aged well by today’s standards; but it’s unfair to judge material without framing it within the cultural context of the time. In a way, a Western comedian performing at a club in Manila, and expecting it to be the exact same as a club back home, makes as much sense as someone stepping into a time machine and being surprised to find that life has changed. It’s impossible, then, to speak objectively about the value of someone’s act over time or time zones.
There’s a difference between raising a stereotype and perpetuating it. How well a comedian treads that fine, subjective line depends on how cleverly they craft their material; the best ones are skilled enough to dive into touchy topics, but still emerge with the room’s approval. It’s likely that charges of racism within Asian comedy are really just comics calling each other out for being bad comics.
There’s a difference between raising a stereotype and perpetuating it.
“Comics get accused of racism because their joke wasn’t smart, didn’t add value to a stereotype, or didn’t change the audience’s perspective,” said Mahbubani, the two-time winner at the Hong Kong International Comedy Festival.
In most established stand-up scenes in the West, comics are required to immerse themselves in a lengthy process of self-discovery—toiling away at open mics and burning off tactless material for years—before finding success. Even comedians who have achieved mainstream success can later disown or distance themselves from older, clumsier material that remains on public record; this was the case after both Amy Schumer and Trevor Noah received backlash for racist jokes from their earlier work.
On the other hand, growing demand for English-speaking acts and a relatively low supply of talented comics to fill line-ups in Asia provides skilled newcomers with the opportunity to fly across the continent as headliners, playing for packed bars, clubs, and theaters. But it’s a huge responsibility to bear for newcomers who are still developing, because they’re exposed to much more criticism for their missteps than a comic just starting out in New York or London.
“It isn’t fair to expect a budding comedian, still learning the trade, to be able to get it right every single time,” Taboo Hunter creator Lina said, adding that being responsible with controversial topics is a sign of a skilled craftsman.
That, to me, explains the discomfort surrounding Stanlan’s act. Fellow comedians can accuse him of many things, but racism isn’t one of them. He’s just new, and every comic deserves time to grow.
Luckily for Stanlan, he doesn’t have to worry about an article in which his peer accuses him of being racist—because there is no Stanlan. He’s a stand-in, an easily recognizable archetype that fits the description of several Asia-based comedians I’ve worked with over the past few years.
As much as these Mark Stanlans are models for success, they’re also products of the scenes that created them. They perform every night to new audiences who demand comedy that speaks to their experiences, who adore accent-based humor, and whose racial politics are less focused on political correctness than in the West.
The future stars of Asia's English-speaking comedy scene will find success by catering their act to the evolving tastes of local audiences, which isn't necessarily the same thing as pandering to them. With the continent's comedy boom in full swing, comics shouldn't waste time worrying over misguided charges of racism.
It’s no use getting bitter when there’s so much money in getting better.