BEIJING (AP) — Under rotating ceiling fans in hot, crowded bars, an edgier form of entertainment is emerging in China that reflects greater cultural freedom: stand-up comedy.
The jokes told in these settings depart sharply from traditional routines of trained entertainers who work in pairs and tell age-old tales. This small, new breed of comedians face the microphone alone in live settings that are more conducive to personal storytelling about topics that resonate with modern audiences: relationships, jobs, parents and kids.
They often touch on the frustrations of younger people, who can’t buy property in Beijing, find a spouse or endure long working hours.
In a recent Sunday line-up of seven acts at a Beijing bar, the only female comedian, Wang Yafei, joked about how she defied Chinese societal norms by pursuing men instead of waiting to be pursued. The short-haired, 28-year-old whose stage name is San Di said nine out of 10 men would respond by telling her they were gay, while the remaining tenth would say: “I really love a man like you.”
Zhao Yu, 24, watching in the packed room of about 120 people, said Wang was her favorite comedian of the night. “She speaks out what preys on my mind,” she said. “In my life there’s a man I adore, and I would really like to be able to pursue him.”
Stand-up, performed mostly in a handful of larger cities, is gaining a following among people likely to have first seen the genre on TV or online. Those shows appear styled on late-night American TV with hosts who tell jokes, sometimes sitting behind a desk.
While TV and online shows tend to have non-stop one-liners to keep the audience from turning over, stand-up routines are gaining popularity because they are more personal and creative, edgy and vulnerable.
“Most of the ideas for these jokes come from real-life experiences, so we the audience can readily relate to them,” said Zhang Jingjing, a Beijing professional who was in the Sunday evening audience. “All the performers are very creative, and what I value most are their thoughts expressed freely without any of the constraints and censorship that TV and other traditional media in China have.”
Sexually suggestive jokes abound, while other favorite topics include families’ concerns about still-unmarried children, and the differences among Chinese regions in temperament and accents.
Chinese-American comedian Joe Wong said live stand-up is catching on in China, but needs more performers. They have regular jobs and moonlight as comedians.
Two years ago, there was just one comedy club and perhaps one show a month, he said. “Now there are four or five just in Beijing and almost every night of the week you can find some kind of stand-up.”
Stand-up attracts a younger audience than the traditional comedy genre “crosstalk,” which began as street performances in China’s dynastic past, moved into teahouses and was heavily promoted by state television in the 1980s and 1990s. Two robe-clad speakers sing and talk. The audiences are often well-versed in the routines passed down from generation to generation, so performers can unexpectedly change the ending to comic effect.
Liang Haiyuan is an insurance salesman by day and one of no more than 20 stand-up comedians in Shenzhen, a wealthy city of 15 million, from where he travelled to take part in the Beijing show. He riffed on the typical prerequisite that a man must provide a house before a woman will marry him, asking whether Chinese who eat bird’s nest soup are giving appropriate thought to the feelings of a male bird who wants to bring a female home — only to find the nest gone.
“The ashamed male swallow has to explain to his partner that he really did have a house!” he said, provoking big laughter and applause.
At times the jokes can verge on the political. Liang, 31, referenced Deng Xiaoping’s call a generation ago to let some get rich before others, saying that he believed Shenzhen would accomplish this first.
“The reason is that we let some people get rich first and then keep the rest as mistresses so as to reach common prosperity in the very end,” he said. Some in the audience heard an implicit reference to corrupt officials, often reported to have several mistresses.
A comedian with a timid style, Song Qiyu, held up a piece of paper with a U-shaped graph showing the relationship between having a standard Mandarin accent and a sense of humor.
He said if you have a bad Mandarin accent, like himself, that’s funny. On the other extreme of the “U” are the anchors on state broadcaster CCTV who are famed for speaking flawless Mandarin while delivering irony-free propaganda. Those anchors, he said, are just as hilarious, finishing his act to applause.
Jesse Appell, an American stand-up comedian who has studied traditional Chinese comedy, said jokes often suggest unsaid things in China, where people traditionally are indirect and freedom of expression is limited.
“If you are going to make a corruption joke it’s better to do it through subtext because then you didn’t say anything, the audience didn’t hear anything, but everybody knows what you were saying,” he said.
Tony Chou, the organizer and host of the recent show in the Beijing bar, said China is developing and modernizing “but the cultural things are still far behind.”
Stand-up comedy, however, is “something that catches up with people’s lives,” he said.
If you visited China in the 1970s, everyone “dressed the same, in two colors, gray and blue,” Chou said. “But it’s developed, people have realized ‘oh I have my own pursuit of life'” and stand-up “has to do with freedom, everybody can talk about their life and make people laugh, which is great.”
“Actually it’s a sign of cultural freedom and a way of life of the new generation in China,” he said. “It’s a big, big transformation.”