The Great LOL of China

The Huang Haibo smackdown incident

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 28 May, 2014, 6:21pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 28 May, 2014, 6:30pm

While performing Chinese stand-up gigs around Beijing this weekend, I repeatedly heard one name arise as the butt of all the new jokes on the comedy circuit: Huang Haibo.

Huang Haibo, this week’s comedic hot topic, is an award-winning actor who suffered a startlingly sudden and extremely public fall from grace last week when he was caught soliciting a prostitute and thrown in jail.

To add insult to injury, the news was announced not by an entertainment magazine but by the Beijing Public Security Bureau’s “Peaceful Beijing” police Weibo account. The post of his mug shot as well as that of his tall, lean, and recently makeup-deprived co-conspirator’s spread like wildfire around the internet.

Somewhere deep underground in a hidden lair covered in banners that read MAINTAIN A HARMONIOUS SOCIETY, a Public Security Bureau social media expert is pumping his fist, high-fiving his interns and shouting, “Score one for us!”

Whether Huang has acted his last role remains to be seen, but Chinese comedians have flung themselves, vulture-like, on the carrion of his previous branding image. Huang is most famous, ironically, for his role as a dashing, proper husband in the movie Let’s Get Married. He was given the title of "The Husband of The People" by Chinese microbloggers for his good-natured character. I can only wonder if he took his new title too seriously by attempting to fulfill his marital duties to “the people” one at a time.

But how has this news impacted the everyday people of China? To answer this overly broad question, I went straight to my lead consultant on these issues: my cleaning lady, Ms Li.

Ms Li first told me, “I don’t follow these sorts of things myself,” and then proceeded to treat me to a history of celebrity sexual infractions that went most of the way back to the Qing dynasty. “You know what they say,” she said meaningfully, fixing her eyes on me, “money corrupts.”

Money and corruption indeed draw attention, but the line between attention and distraction is a thin one. Just as human beings are genetically hardwired to stop any and all serious contemplative thought at the sight of two chickens fighting in the middle of the street, so has this celebrity gossip cockfight gummed up the social media discussion boards. Stop the presses! Everyone must get in a word about Huang Haibo and his business-time business partner!

Some comedians have poked fun at the convienient nature of this social distraction, as this joke a fellow comedian forwarded to me on WeChat implies:

“Chief! There are deaths in Vietnam, the Filipinos have attacked another one of our ships, and this morning some farmers bombed their county government office! What should we do?”

The chief furrowed his eyebrows, snuffed out his cigarette, and in a cool, calm voice replied, “This afternoon, release the news about Huang Haibo and the prostitute.”

The joke hits at two levels: The scandal might indeed be convenient for the powers that be, but the genius plan of our cigarette-smoking chief only works because people are interested in discussing minutia such as whether the height of Huang’s nighttime associate is 180 or 185 centimeters. What is the punch line beneath the punch line? If we’re being distracted, it’s because we’re distracting ourselves.

The big winner of The Huang Haibo smackdown incident - which sounds like a great name for a prison wrestling TV show - is the Public Safety Bureau of Beijing. They get to strike down a “morally corrupt” public figure and show no mercy to famous lawbreakers, all without creating a public discussion on the sex worker industry as a whole.

Meanwhile, since Huang is an entertainer, the source of the money, power and gall needed to solicit his illicit companion seems clear enough—he’s a movie star! For many other big name figures, the beam of the moral correction spotlight might shine on less comfortable places. Public Security Bureau plays paparazzi only part-time.

Ultimately, as with most jokes, Huang Haibo’s misfortune and the resulting comedy reaffirms something fundamental about humanity. In China just as in the West, the curious cocktail of fame, money, power, sex, government intervention and bad mug shots makes for some pretty good laughs everywhere.

The Great LOL of China is a blog that aims to share the topics and themes that make Chinese audiences laugh. Its creator is Jesse Appell, an intercultural comedian who performs Chinese-language comedy all around China.