During the 25th anniversary of Tiananmen Square, what's a Beijing comedian to do?
Last week, I arrived at a comedy open mic at Nanluoguxiang, a trendy street in Beijing, ready to head onstage and do Chinese-langauge stand-up for eighty audience members. But right before the other comedians and I headed onstage, an official from the Cultural Affairs Bureau told the MC of the event that we were advised not to perform.
We discovered the reason was because we did not have a permit for the performance. It was hard to hear that reasoning, however, over the noise of about a dozen cover bands and other performances that were simultaneously taking place, ostensibly with permission, up and down the street.
When the MC pointed this out, we were reminded that not performing was, after all, just a suggestion.
A suggestion for which we were reminded that the entire stand-up comedy scene would face responsibility for ignoring.
Ten minutes later I stood onstage with a dozen other Chinese comedians. The MC apologized to the audience. Due to events beyond the control of the performers, the show would be cancelled.
“That’s not funny!” an audience member cried.
Of all the shows that I’ve ever been at, this was by far the worst.
Formally, all performances in China need to have scripts approved before they are performed, but cancelling a show with no tickets, no cameras, and no affiliation with any influential figures is highly unusual.
Non-dialogue has passively reminded us that "nothing is unusual" about this time in early June. The Beijing newspapers are full of commentary on how nothing is unusual, and as nothing is unusual, nothing more needs to be said.
Nonetheless, the no permit suggestion rings hollow. I also perform with a Chinese stand-up organization that does indeed get formal approval for their shows. They sent in scripts for their jokes months ago, received approval, and performed them a dozen times in March, April, and early May.
In late May, we showed up to the theatre to a hurried backstage announcement. Our ticket-takers had overheard that there were plainclothes officers from the Cultural Affairs Bureau in the audience. We suddenly had fans in high places. We had made it! Strangely enough, however, the dread feeling backstage did not reflect that.
My fellow comedians began infighting and bickering. Voices were raised and tempers flared. Which jokes should be said? Which jokes should not be said? Nobody knew what to say or not to say, and as we did not formally know who was watching or why, any unusual changes from the script we had originally submitted might cause problems themselves.
A Chinese comedian friend of mine performed a bit about the flags of the world. He hand-drew a dozen world flags and dissected the symbolism hidden in each one. He had a joke about the Chinese flag as well: “The big star on the flag represents Wudaokou,” he told the audience, a nod to the exorbitant property prices that earned the Beijing neighborhood the mocking moniker "The Centre of the Universe".
“The small stars represent the suburbs, and the color red represents a constant haze,” he said.
In an unusual occurrence, the four Cultural Bureau employees insisted on meeting this comedian backstage, purely for educational purposes, regarding the true meaning of the color red on the flag.
“The Chinese flag is stained red by the blood of the martyrs of liberation,” my comedian friend told me he was reminded by the officials.
The flag was not his to defame with comedy. But if drawing his own country’s flag with his own hand did not make it his own, he was given little suggestion on how to make it more so.
From my experience performing in China from mid-June of last year to late-May of this one, it is highly unusual that a joke involving property prices, pollution, or even the flag would be an issue worthy of the Cultural Bureau’s time. And again, as officially "nothing is unusual" about this week, it makes it even more unusual that these officials would have been at either of these events, not to mention both.
Following the flag joke, we received another unusual suggestion: shut down all future shows until further notice. This suggestion was accompanied by the levying of a hefty fine upon the stand-up club.
The reasoning for the fine was left vague but the fine itself was concrete enough: it was larger than the gross profit of the club over the entirety of its three-year existence. The club still does not know how much money you can make in China performing stand-up, but they now have a much better idea of much it costs.
The fine also has the distinction of being the one element of this week’s series of occurrences that was not a suggestion.
Comedy, as an art form, is entirely dependent upon subtlety. When I go onstage, I consider every eyebrow twitch, every pregnant pause, and every minute detail of verbiage. I do it for the sake of creating laughter and allowing people to see the world from a different angle.
I know that I live in China, and the price of living in such an amazingly complex and rapidly evolving country is enduring its growing pains. My wish is not for China to be Utopia, nor for it to blindly mimic my homeland. My wish is simply that the subtlety my fellow comedians and I put into our performances will one day be reflected by subtlety in the way we are issued suggestions.
And if I am asked this week if I think whether the powers that be are going a bit overboard, I will take the advice I have been given, and say nothing.
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.