British comedian Bill Bailey returns to Hong Kong to tickle our funny bone
Funnyman Bill Bailey talks to us about his ‘weak’ Mandarin skills, his 30-year love affair with Hong Kong and US president-elect Donald Trump in the lead-up to his Kitec show
Bill Bailey is no stranger to Hong Kong. The 52-year-old British comedian first visited the city somewhat by chance almost 30 years ago, after his trip to Beijing was cancelled amid the Tiananmen Square protests.
“It was an extraordinary time to be there,” he says. “I fell in love with the place. I loved the hustle and bustle; the energy of the community. I enjoyed being by the water and the Star Ferry. And I liked the contrast of old and new; the junks and the skyscrapers.”
The experience left the star of the TV sitcom Black Books wanting more. He has since made multiple trips to the city, and his next visit will see him perform at Kitec in Kowloon Bay on December 14 as part of his Larks in Transit tour. The show looks back on his 20 years as a travelling comedian.
Speaking to the South China Morning Post ahead of the gig by telephone from Australia, it’s clear that Bailey thrives on exploring the world. During his Qualmpeddler tour in 2013, he joked about his forays into China, where he made often fruitless attempts to practise his Mandarin.
As he relayed one anecdote, he mocked his own poor attempts to speak the language, and compared the sounds he made in Mandarin to the noises he might make in moments of “revulsion”. He also highlighted the difficulty of understanding tones. “Ma”, he suggested, can mean “mother”, “hemp”, “horse” or “disappointment”. He mused on the potential confusion if he had mixed up the tones: “Since your horse died, I’ve been smoking a lot of your mother.”
To those who are unfamiliar with Bailey, it might sound like his stand-up performance was mocking Chinese culture, but he was just revelling in his own linguistic ineptitude. He is actually a huge fan of China and particularly enjoys visiting Yunnan province, he says, because he can go fishing and cycle through the fields.
“China is hugely diverse,” he says. “It has all manner of landscapes – it is just so varied. Although in China, there is the idea of getting rid of old buildings. It is a quirk that I can’t get my head around.”
When he is not touring, Bailey lives with wife Kristin and 12-year-old son Dax in Hammersmith, west London. These days, he admits, his son is progressing with Mandarin at school much more than he ever has.
“My Mandarin is weak by comparison,” he admits. “We try to have a conversation sometimes. I just love the sound of it. Cantonese can sound quite harsh by comparison. But even Mandarin to me sounds best when you shout it high pitched in the street; it’s the perfect language for trade.”
Bailey comes across as modest despite his shrewd wit and ingenious take on the world, which he often demonstrates best in his innovative songs. The Daily Telegraph in London has dubbed him “the brainiest comic of his generation”, a quote which his publicity team has included on his tour press release. But the accolade is certainly not going to his head, he says.
“I think it’s a kind of back-handed insult, he says. “It’s like calling someone at school a brain-box.”
Bailey may think the praise is disingenuous or at least overblown, but he is undoubtedly smart. He remains eloquent and outspoken on political issues. Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election horrifies him, but he admits the “meandering” and “blustering” Republican will prove a great source of comedy.
“He is a ridiculous figure,” he says. “He cannot even string a sentence together; he often starts a sentence and stops mid-flow. I read a transcript of him talking about foreign policy recently – when challenged by a reporter, he said he had clarified the details with himself. He said he had a good brain. And then you think ‘that is the most important person on the planet’. We’re all waiting with bated breath.”
And his fans can’t wait to hear the comedic results.
Bill Bailey, Dec 14, 8pm, Rotunda 3, Kitec , 1 Trademart Drive, Kowloon Bay, HK$488-HK$888, www.hkticketing.com