'Laowai Style' - One American's mission to share the power of comedy in China
Jesse Appell has used both viral music videos and traditional Chinese comedy to appeal to Beijingers and international audiences
Jesse Appell is an American in Beijing looking to bridge the gap between West and East in an unorthodox way - through a nonstop barrage of comedy.
“I like to call myself an intercultural comedian,” the 23-year-old Appell says. “There’s all this emphasis these days on the United States and China relationship, but if the two countries don’t know each other and can’t laugh with each other, then they can’t communicate. You need to laugh with someone in order to find trust in a relationship.”
For the past year, Appell has been doing his part to foster this trust as a Fulbright scholar in Beijing. Selected for the US government’s highly competitive international exchange programme in 2012, the former Bostonian has spent the last ten months in China’s capital apprenticed to Ding Guangquan, a master of “xiangsheng” – a fast-talking, pun-laden method of traditional comedic dialogue occasionally known as “crosstalk”.
After becoming well-practiced in xiangsheng himself, Appell went on to perform stand-up routines in numerous Beijing comedy clubs.
He also began a website, LaughBeijing.com, which showcases articles that “mix the comedic styles of West and East in a way that brings both groups closer…bridging cultural gaps through laughter.”
But it is Appell’s viral music videos that have truly boosted his renown, even earning the American props on Chinese television shows and a feature on state media CCTV.
Appell’s first video, a rambunctious play on Korean rapper Psy’s hit song Gangnam Style, appeared online October 2012. Dubbed Laowai Style, the song was a tribute to the life of a foreigner – a “laowai” – in China, and incorporated verses that alluded to the many quirks of Beijing-based expatriates, including driving a second-hand electric bike, sipping Yanjing beer and spending long nights singing karaoke.
Video: Jesse Appell's 'Laowai Style'
“With that song, I wanted to break down the stereotypes that laowai in China are just rich people who drive BMWs and drink and party all night,” Appell explains. “A lot of laowai here are actually students who just spend their time studying Chinese!”
While Appell admits that Laowai Style was originally born as a joke, the project touched a chord with both Chinese and American netizens, who were united in their laughter at the video’s satirical nature and their praise of Appell’s Chinese language skills.
Appell’s follow-up project, Mo Money, Mo Fazhan, hit the internet on Monday, and is similar in content but much more expansive in style.
Video: Jesse Appell's 'Mo Money, Mo Fazhan'
While Laowai Style was completed relatively quickly, Mo Money, Mo Fazhan required months of planning and help from a professional film editor. The song uses the backing instrumental of Mo Money, Mo Problems, a song by renowned Brooklyn rapper The Notorious B.I.G.
But while the original record featured braggadocio boasts of wealth, Appell’s version combines Chinese and English lyrics to speak on the development, or “fazhan”, of China in the 21st century.
“While most rap tends to be microeconomic, about purchasing habits and non-traditional markets for guns and drugs, I chose to go for macroeconomic rap this time,” Appell says. “After all, in China nowadays, there is only one thing that remains true – more money equals more development!”
Mo Money, Mo Fazhan looks set to re-create the success of Laowai Style, and as his Fulbright scholarship comes to an end, the “intercultural comedian” plans to remain in Beijing and possibly open a comedy school to share the secrets of his xiangsheng training, leaving time for more video projects on the side.
Video: Jesse Appell's Chinese crosstalk
“The music videos are quite experimental, and especially with bilingual lyrics, it can be hard to find an audience amongst people,” Appell says. “But in Mo Money, Mo Fazhan, if you have some exposure to the economy in China as a Westerner, you’ll get at least some of the jokes. And for the Chinese audience, even if they can’t understand English, they understand the energy of rap and the hiphop element… From an artistic perspective, everyone gets something.”
Appell believes that this ability for multiple audiences to appreciate his work is largely thanks to the fact that Chinese and Western humour are ultimately quite similar.
“You hear a lot about how comedy is so different in China and there are many things that you can’t say,” Appell acknowledges. “And there may be certain things in American comedy that you can’t say in China - for example, direct criticisms of the government. But rather than making outright, controversial remarks, you can make cunning, cutting ones, and those are the ones that are more rewarded in the end.
“After all, all that’s different in the comedy of different countries is informational background. If you rephrase words for your respective audience, you’ll find that there is a humour that underlies all cultures… We all think the same things are funny in the end.”
For more information on Jesse and his comedy, visit his LaughBeijing website.