Sunday, July 5, 2015

Foreigners who speak Chinese

For many years, Mark Henry Roswell (aka Dashan) played the role of the archetypal "Chinese-speaking foreigner" on Chinese television. Although his popularity has been on the wane in recent years, during the nineties and into the early 2000s Dashan was a star to hundreds of millions of Chinese, probably making him the most famous Canadian in the world, even though in his native Canada no one has even heard of him.

As much as Chinese audiences (used to) love him, foreigners who live in China long term and speak Chinese often claim that they can't stand him. Part of this may be put down to envy of Dashan's truly amazing mastery of the Chinese language. There is more to it then that though. As Peter Hessler commented in his great book "River Town", "many of Dashan's routines have more than a touch of the trained monkey to them".

That's a harsh way to put it, but not inaccurate. Dashan's route to fame has basically been to ape the Chinese, amazing people by performing xiangsheng and presenting shows with exactly the same intonations and mannerisms that a Chinese actor would use (as in the video below). The only thing that distinguishes him is his foreign face. One can almost imagine the Chinese audiences going "oh look, the cute little alien can perform xiangsheng just like a Chinese can".

Dashan recently gave a very long and reasoned reply to the question of why a lot of foreign Chinese learners seem to hate him, showing admirable self-awareness. He claims that the perception of him as a "performing monkey" responds to a Western cultural bias, and has nothing to do with how Chinese audiences actually perceive him. He also claims that in China people simply won't accept a foreign celebrity criticizing any aspect of the country on television.

He is probably right, but I think it is still fair to say that Dashan has never used his fame to do anything which could really bridge the two cultures, or lead Chinese audiences to question their assumptions about Western culture. Of course there are huge constraints to what you can talk about on Chinese television, but I think there would still have been ways to push boundaries a little, and encourage audiences to see the world from a different perspective.

Nowadays however, the internet is offering new opportunities for Westerners with good Chinese to achieve some degree of fame in Chinese society while actually saying something of substance in the process. One of them is a German who goes by the Chinese name of Lei Ke (雷克).

Lei Ke became famous in 2007, when he traveled all the way from Beijing to Urumqi, in China's Far West, and then wrote a book about it in Chinese. He also gave quite a lot of interviews on Chinese television. At the time he had a big beard and long messy hair, which must have made him look quite outlandish to all the Chinese villagers he met on the way.

His Chinese is not quite at Dashan's level, to be sure, but he still speaks it fluently and confidently. Now back in Germany, he regularly releases videos online of himself commenting on Chinese society and current affairs in Chinese. Some of these videos have been making the rounds on Wechat and Chinese websites. What is noticeable is that he has absolutely no qualms about saying it like he sees it, and criticizing the Chinese government in the process (of course he no longer lives in China).

Below is a video he released after his popular Weibo account was closed down by the website. He attacks Weibo for censoring people's posts, and claims that the Chinese government must be very happy that everyone now prefers to use Wechat, where only your friends can see what you post, and the kind of public debate which flourished on Weibo is thus impossible. Unfortunately there are no English subtitles.

Recently an American girl studying in Taiwan, named Avalon, released a video on YouTube where she explains in fluent Chinese (this time with English subs) why this video by Taiwanese pop group 911 is racist and tasteless. The kind of stereotypes about foreigners which underlie the song, and the complete insensitivity to the fact that "blacking up" is offensive, are quite recognizable to anyone who has lived in an East Asian country.

The American girl's video drew a lot of attention in Taiwan, and pushed the band to release a statement in which they denied that they were being racist, although they still show no understanding of why the song and the video might be perceived as offensive. They also released a statement on their Facebook page in which they heavily insulted the American girl in Taiwanese. Others however took her side.


FOARP said...

Yeah, I used to not think too much of Dashan, especially after he did that propaganda-tastic Red Star Over China play, but I have to admit I've developed a small bit of respect for him more recently, as he doesn't just whole-sale endorse the government and is (judging by his public statements) a fairly nice guy.

justrecently said...

When it comes to the Dashan issue, Chinese society frequently reminds me of German society in the 1970s (that's as early as I can think back myself) - people loved foreigners on television who did it their, i. e. "German", way. Maybe it's because Germany, too, is a more corporate society than Britain or France, or maybe it's because Germans wanted to know to which degree they were "respected" abroad.

what would be acceptable for a Chinese performer to say is not considered acceptable for a foreign performer, especially when it comes to social or political satire

That would also make it difficult for cabaret artists who are perceived as foreigners - and that can happen to German passportholders, too, if they look "foreign". There are one or two of television fame now, but it took a long time before that became customary - and it's still not completely normal.

Until about twenty years ago, our concept of citizenship was very different from other Western countries.

I'm not equating it to the Chinese concept (if there is anything in writing anyway), but there appear to be similarities, and they may define the envelope in which you can move around without causing offense.