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Stony-faced, Damien Lee Ka-fai launches into a litany of woes. 'I'm a high-school dropout, I don't have a job, I don't have a girlfriend - or boyfriend,' he says, drawing bursts of laughter from the crowd before concluding, 'I'm a loser.'
Lee, 24, is among the participants in a workshop run by Chinese-American comedian Jami Gong. With a satisfied nod, the bespectacled Gong tells him, 'You did stand-up. So you're not a loser. You win.'
In the past couple of years, several comedy workshops and classes have sprung up across the city. Lingnan University offered sessions hosted by veteran funnyman Michael Hui Koon-man. Theatre Ensemble held classes at its Comic One Festival last month. Each semester, stage actor Pichead Amornsomboon leads a 10-session comedic acting programme at the Academy for Performing Arts (APA). And then there are the free workshops held in Gong's SoHo basement club, the TakeOut Comedy Shop.
Gong, who splits his time between Hong Kong and his native New York, has run five sessions since November, mainly to recruit talent for his club, which opened three months ago.
'I need comedians so I started teaching for free to see how the response was,' he says. 'There's untapped talent out there. I'm trying to wake up the funny-bones. The audience here is hungry for laughter.'
To start them off, he asks the participants to list 10 things they detest. Some poke fun at cultural differences such as the way Hong Kong people speak Cantonese and filthy mainland toilets. Others take aim at workplace frustrations. In the four-hour sessions, Gong goes on to offer tips on pacing, body language and developing punchlines.
He draws a diverse crowd, a mix of young and old, Chinese and expats from different backgrounds. Some, such as Lee, are aspiring performers. 'I want to be a comedian, but there's hardly any place for an amateur to practise,' he says. 'I like making jokes, but it's hard to tell the right joke at the right time. I'm worried that I'll offend people. Sometimes I look so serious, they don't know if I'm joking or being rude. That's why I want to test out my deadpan jokes with a live audience.'
Lee will have a chance to flex his laughing gear at the club, where Gong has set aside two hours every Friday and Saturday night for acts by former students.
Performing stand-up is no mean feat. 'Public speaking is hard, but standing alone and making people laugh is even harder,' says Hui. 'It's a sophisticated art form. A comedian needs to know how to turn modern absurdities into a funny script and deliver it on stage naturally. It's like acting. A good actor never looks like he's acting. Once you grasp the basic techniques, you can develop your own persona.'
Yet few of Gong's students are would-be comics. Stefania Lucchetti, a lawyer, hopes to sharpen her wit and change the typically solemn image of her profession. 'Humour is so important,' she says. 'I don't think I could cope with my job - drafting articulate documents, dealing with conflicting decisions, negotiating with difficult parties - without humour,' she says.
Students at the APA course, which covers topics such as clowning, devising skits and talking gibberish, also have varied motivations.
For university student Suen Yiu-tung, the sessions are a way to gauge his sense of humour. 'I don't consider myself funny yet friends laugh when I attempt some lame jokes. So I want to see if I'm really funny or not,' he says.
Plus, the workshops are 'an exercise in de-stressing', he says. 'It's all about being open-minded and creative.'
Marketing executive Lydia Lee Suen-fong signed up out of curiosity, and has found that there's a lot more to it than clowning around. 'It boosts my confidence. Making people laugh is a challenging exercise. You have to overcome stage fright and the fear of speaking up,' she says.
'It's intimidating if no one laughs when you deliver the punchline. Your mind may go blank, but you must go on because there's no retake. Improvisational skills are important in real life, too. Especially in the corporate world, there's no way that you can rehearse your conversation.'
Pichead is gratified by how his students have developed. 'They all progress in different ways, but the most apparent change is their confidence,' he says. 'Some were shy and nervous when they went in for the first lesson, but have now loosened up. They're not afraid of spontaneous speech.'
For bar owner Bonnie Ho Yin-wei, the APA sessions were all for fun. 'I'd never done acting before, but I like to make people laugh,' she says. 'Laughter is contagious. When you see people laugh, you want to laugh, too.'
And they proved so enjoyable she's preparing to sign up for a fourth semester. 'They aren't just about learning the techniques but also interacting with others,' she says. 'There are always new sparks when you work with different people.'
In a career spanning three decades, Hui has seen different strains of comedy emerge in Hong Kong, from the satirical barbs that he and Dayo Wong Chi-wah favour to Stephen Chow Sing-chi's nonsensical mo lei tau humour and Jan Lamb Hoi-fung's streetwise observations.
But Hui says that the city 'definitely needs more comedy workshops'. Some people think Chinese people are humourless, he says, but often that's only because many are not used to laughing out loud in public as it's traditionally deemed impolite.
We need to loosen up. 'Having a good sense of humour is important, whether you're a comedian or not,' he says. 'It's an interpersonal skill that helps build relationships from dating to family to workplace. People from all walks of life should learn to be humorous.'
Architect Thomas Schmidt agrees. One of Gong's students and a regular performer at the club's Saturday nights, he says telling jokes is a great way to vent his frustrations.
'In the past I used to write many letters to the editor to complain about the traffic, the pollution and urban planning. Now I don't have to because I can just go up [on stage] and talk about it,' he says.
A little wit can also go a long way in everyday life. 'Now I use humour to resolve conflicts. We have a choice in how to react to situations - we can either get angry and rant or we can make light of the situation and probably achieve more satisfactory results,' he says.
Schmidt recalls a recent trip when he'd been double-booked on a flight. 'While the other passenger began screaming at the hapless flight attendant, I made fun of the situation. I joked that if I'd stayed on my diet we could have shared the same seat,' he says.
His banter didn't just make the flight attendant smile, he says. 'She gave me a free upgrade to business class while the angry passenger festered back in economy.'
Academy for Performing Arts comedic acting workshop, HK$1,250 for 10 weekly classes. Next semester Aug 5 to Sept 30. For details, call 2584 8721. Jami Gong's stand-up comedy workshop, free admission but registration required, next session Jun 9, 2pm-6pm. To register, e-mail email@example.com or call 6220 4436.