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#HiddenHongKong: A look into the local stand-up comedy scene

By Gigi Wong 23 September 2019
Header photo credit: TakeOut Comedy Club

Ask a smattering of locals for their opinion on stand-up comedy in Hong Kong and brace yourself for a chorus of, “Oh, I love Dayo Wong!”

But there is actually so much more to it than Wong’s brand of stand-up. Our city’s live comedy scene has continued to burgeon since TakeOut Comedy Club opened as Asia’s first full-time comedy venue in 2007. Whether it’s open mics, one-man stand-ups, roast battles, or comedy roadshows, there is something going on almost every night in town.

During the run of the Hong Kong International Laugh Festival this year, we interview four local comedians leading the charge for laughs, who tell us about the craft of stand-up and the future of the industry in the 852.

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Garron Chiu at the Hong Kong International Comedy Competition in 2015, which won him the third place. Photo credit: @iamgarron

The craft of stand-up

Stand-up comedy, at its core, is such a simple thing. One person hops onto the stage in front of a live audience. Jokes are told, the audience laughs, and the comedian takes their bow. How hard can that be? Except—as any professional comedian knows—simple does not equal easy.

“It’s a great deal of trial and error,” says local comedian Tamby Chan. Chan immigrated to Canada at a young age and began performing stand-up full-time as soon as he sorted out his affinity for the art form.

Together with his long-term comedy partner Garron Chiu—an American-born stand-up comedian based in Hong Kong—the established duo delivered a double headliner night dubbed DIU last Saturday. The show featured a spin-the-wheel game on an iPad, which the audience could swing to determine the themes and stories to be presented by the comedians that night. From sex and politics to travel, one may wonder how much time it took for the pair to prepare all the frisky (and provocative) jokes.

“It really depends; it can be two months or two years. A lot of repetition is involved. When you go on stage to tell a joke, if the audience laughs at certain parts and not the other, you figure out where the funny parts are. Gradually, you develop it into the funniest version,” explains Chiu.

“Stand-up is a craft that may take people many years to master. It’s like going to the gym—you tear your muscle and build it up. The more you practice, the better you are at getting the optimal punchline and set-up of a joke,” adds Chan.

Matina Leung in action. Photo credit: Hall of Laughs Stand Up Comedy

A diverse sense of humour

Perhaps what’s significant about the stand-up scene in the 852 is people’s diverse appetite for comedy. We’ve got edgy and raw dudes like Chan and Chiu talking about sexual intercourse in one show, while at the same time, you can also spot a comic joking about going to the hospital and getting his blood level checked.

“What I like about the scene is that you’ve got all senses of humour. You can basically cover all kinds of grounds here,” says Vivek Mahbubani, a multi-award-winning bilingual comedian.

As an Indian born and raised in Hong Kong, Mahbubani has exploited his multicultural identity to full length, touching upon topics of racism and the everyday lives in Hong Kong in his comedy. His likeable stage presence and good-natured content have, indeed, captured the hearts of many, granting him championships in both the Chinese and English categories at the Hong Kong International Comedy Competition in the late 2000s.

If stand-up comedy is a means for its performers to voice out their complaints about our society, the other half of the gender spectrum certainly has as much to say as their male counterparts. One of the few female comedians in Hong Kong, Matina Leung, splits her time performing stand-up and being a full-time mum. After joining a stand-up comedy workshop taught by Chinese-American comic Jami Gong in 2008, she has become hooked to its format. Rather than trying to appear hip, she embraces her identity as a mother living in a metropolis. Many of her jokes centre ostensibly around the woes and fun of parenting two young daughters.

“As a full-time mom, I see my children every day, so I write about them the most. As a result, most of my parent audience can relate to it,” Leung says.

But her brand of humour isn’t limited to fellow parents. In fact, audiences with no children can also resonate with her humour by imagining how blunt and straightforward kids. Matina, for one, likes to joke onstage about how one of her daughters has “no filter” when she talks—a trait most people can relate to, young or old. The fact is, our city teems with personalities and comedians like Vivek Mahbubani and Matina Leung, who help bring flare to the industry and diversify the comedic offerings to be had.

Photo credit: My Cyprus Insider

Where to catch the gigs?

Hopefully, by now you’re asking, “Alright, where can I catch the stand-up gigs?” And no, you don’t have to wait approximately two years to attend a show by seasoned local comedian Dayo Wong (not to mention that he’s already given his farewell performance last year, which sold out at record speed). There’s actually a comedy night happening on almost every day of the week.

As an entrepot between east and west, our city has cultivated a bilingual stand-up comedy scene that caters for audiences from various cultural backgrounds. Start out with browsing through Comedy HK. Aimed at fostering and growing the local comedy community, the all-inclusive website showcases a range of English-speaking open mics and comedy shows that are on offer, like the upcoming TakeOut Comedy All-Star Showcase that assembles top Hong Kong stand-up veterans. For Cantonese shows, stay tuned to Hall of Laughs Stand Up Comedy.

It’s fine to be a little picky if you’re relatively new to the stand-up scene as a showgoer. If you’re not sure that you’d like to pay $250 to watch someone cracking jokes on stage and trying to entertain you, open mic is a good place to start, as most of them are free. And there are perks to it, too.

“Open mic nights act as a sort of practice venue for comedians to test and train up their new materials. Because it’s mostly free, we’ve had audiences who might come back regularly just to see your working progress from zero to one hundred. They saw the joke last week and would like to see how you’ve refined it this week,” explains Mahbubani.

There’s an extensive array of open mic nights on our shore. Bar 109 in Wan Chai is known for running the hottest Cantonese (on the first and third Tuesday nights of the month) and English (every Mondays) ones. The Aftermath on Wyndham Street and KonFusion in Sheung Wan also hold weekly open mic nights on Tuesdays and Wednesday respectively. We’ve been told that those held on Tuesdays are the most fun. Well, you know where to head to for your next night out.

Vivek Mahbubani (back) and Matina Leung (front) interacting with the audiences at last year’s Hong Kong International Laugh Festival. Photo credit: Hall of Laughs Stand Up Comedy

The future of the local stand-up scene

Recently, there has been a surge in the number of venues which allow people to perform comedy, not to mention the touring talents that have graced our stadium stages in the past year alone, including Netflix darling Iliza Schlesinger, provocative Jimmy Carr, MTV legend Tom Green, and German comic Michael Mittermeier. Unsurprisingly, the local stand-up industry has prospered from the trend.

“There used to be only two bars and one comedy club where we can do comedy. Instead of letting it die down, everyone joins in and helps out. Now, there are around ten avenues for it, which has really started since last year,” Chiu recalls.

Take the aforementioned Comedy HK, for example. Originally started by two comedians in 2012, the website is a showcasing and promotional platform for all English comedy shows (and some Cantonese ones) around Hong Kong. Since taking it over this year, Chiu and Chan have endeavoured to run more comedy shows and continued to book exciting acts from across the world and in town.

Such an expansion has brought in a more diverse set of performers, including women and comics from the LGBT community. It’s especially apparent if we look at the wide-ranging stand-up comedy events hosted in Hong Kong this year. From the Hong Kong International Laugh Festival that brings together the best of local comedic talent to the first-ever LGBT+ Comedy Night in the coming October, there’s a bastion of diversity within the scene.

“It’s an open platform for everyone,” says Mahbubani, “and anyone who wants to do stand-up is welcomed in the community.”

Hong Kong may have a troubled history with inclusivity, but it has gradually transformed into a space where people of all races and genders—including trans folks and queer folks—can perform as artists to a welcoming audience.

“The beauty of stand-up comedy is that everyone can talk about their lives and their points of view. Everyone is different and everyone has their own style,” Leung expresses.

Like an intricate jigsaw puzzle, comedians of all hues and shapes piece together to create a grand picture that’s vibrant and flourishing. Go see for yourself; support the local comedy clubs and take in some laughs this weekend. You’ll be surprised at what you can find

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From Hollywood blockbusters to indie flicks, Gigi loves just everything about films. Aside from rock n’ roll, she is also partial to jazz and vintage music. You can find her indulging in all sorts of books, eating out, discovering vinyl albums, and playing Blu-ray movies on her TV.

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