The middle-aged Westerner more famous on the mainland than either Elvis Presley or Barack Obama seems a little lost when he arrives for a breakfast interview. 'Is this really Grandma's Kitchen?' Mark Rowswell says, entering the American-style Beijing diner. 'They've changed it.' Better known as Dashan ('big mountain'), the award-winning actor and comedian rushes outside with exuberance to inspect the eatery's facade. He scrutinises the building, scratching his head in comic confusion, then bounds back up the steps and into the restaurant looking for internal clues. He repeats the bizarre routine twice. 'It's changed since I was last here a year ago but I can't figure what they've done,' he says, settling into his chair and shaking his head, grinning manically. The comic actor does bafflement exceptionally well. Rowswell is a linguistically adept Canadian who, as Dashan, has become a cult figure on the mainland. He is by far the most famous foreigner in China - and has been for more than two decades. He's a sought-after media darling for all occasions, dabbling in Chinese opera, cultural ambassadorship, television soap operas, films, tongue-twisting skits and teaching. And he still finds time to advertise cars and electronic translators. Dashan rocketed to fame after performing, in fluent Putonghua, a xiangsheng, or crosstalk, skit on Chinese television 22 years ago. So good was he at mastering the cackling idiomatic taxi-driver slang, live in front of 550 million amazed viewers, that he immediately won a place in the nation's heart. More mainlanders than foreigners watch his Chinese-language teaching programmes on CCTV 9. His upcoming performance on state TV's New Year Gala, an all-singing, all-dancing comedic cabaret, will be watched zealously by Communist Party officials and more than half a billion star-struck subjects. Dashan gets VIP treatment wherever he goes, from provincial cadres, business leaders, entrepreneurs and TV executives. And he can stop the masses in their tracks: he was mobbed at the Shanghai World Expo while performing cultural ambassador duties at the Canadian pavilion. Security was the bane of the event but it was Dashan-mania, not terrorist threats or charter-waiving dissidents, that sparked a code-red alert. Police had to stop crowds of people jumping over the barriers to have a picture taken with him. 'Yeah, that was pretty scary,' he says. Show an ordinary person on the streets of Beijing two photographs - one of a beaming Dashan and one of Xi Jinping, the plutocrat tipped to be China's next president - and the smart money would be on the Canadian being recognised first. But outside the mainland, the 44-year-old with a boy-next-door face is as almost well known as you or me. His fame hasn't even passed through the Lo Wu turnstiles. Although he has been given an Order of Merit in Canada, for putting the nation on the Chinese map. Many have tried to fathom the secret of Dashan's success. He speaks Putonghua exceptionally well but so do many other foreigners. His popularity stems from more than his ability to tell jokes. Much of his comic appeal is visual. Rowswell perfectly fits the foreigner stereotype: he is more than two metres tall, with fair skin, a quiff of ochre-tinged hair and the all-important prominent nose. Crucially, he has marketed himself as a true friend of China. Dashan sprang to fame in 1988 as an object of light-hearted ridicule. Fresh off the plane, armed with a classical Chinese degree, he landed a job teaching English. Within two months he had been picked to help in a singing competition being broadcast on Beijing TV. 'There were, of course, other foreigners in China and some were already on TV, but I was a little ahead with the language,' Rowswell says after ordering New York steak (medium), eggs (sunny-side up) and saut?ed potato - in perfect Putonghua. His big break came when he was asked to appear in CCTV's 1989 Lunar New Year's Gala. He was introduced to veteran crosstalker Ding Guangquan, who had been commissioned to write a skit for the show, which is shown annually to a nationwide audience of more than 600 million. 'We put together a comic skit and I was given the name Dashan,' says Rowswell, who played a foreigner arguing with his spouse through a closed door. 'The appeal, what made it fun, was the down-to-earth taxi-driver slang we used,' he says. Xiangsheng is regarded as a highly skilled form of performance art beyond the linguistic ability of most native speakers, much less a foreigner. 'The Chinese just did not expect it from a foreigner,' he says. 'The premise they held - that 'foreigners don't understand us' - was broken and the name Dashan stuck.' He teamed up with two legendary crosstalk comics who were to become his mentors, Jiang Kun and Tang Jiezhong. And, in December 1989, Dashan was formally accepted into the strict xiangsheng hierarchy as a member of the 'ninth generation' of the genre, and as the first foreigner to enter the ranks. The appointment reportedly sparked controversy in xenophobic Chinese performing-arts circles but, among the masses, Dashan was a hit. Naturally a fast talker, he showed a knack for comic timing and the quick-fire patter required for crosstalk, pairing up with other top comedians who appreciated the novelty value. More often than not, he was portrayed as the friendly foreign idiot - the 'happy-go-lucky buffoon' - trying to get a grip on 5,000 years of culture. A Chinese maxim says, 'You can always fool a foreigner.' And what could be better than to pull the wool over the eyes of one who speaks the language better than many Chinese? It's an act that has kept hundreds of millions of people in stitches, in front of the TV. In an early clip, he is on stage dressed in a beige full-length mandarin's tunic, or changpao, having fun poked at him by two Chinese comedians. A picture of a stage performance shows him on hands and knees, barking like a dog. In another skit, he repeats a classic tongue-twister, using the numbers four, 10 and 14, which sound similar in Putonghua, as the audience applauds and gawks at the living proof that one foreigner at least can master their ancient language and understand their ways. Such scenes prompt the scorn of some old China hands. Peter Hessler, the American author of a trilogy of best-selling books on China, captures such sentiments in River Town. 'People asked me about Dashan and his fame testified to how badly foreigners did with the language,' Hessler writes. 'I had a long way to go before I could be accepted as a China hand, and from what I had seen of Dashan, it wasn't a particularly appealing goal. 'Probably, he was a nice enough person, but in his crosstalk routines and opera singing, there was more than a touch of the trained monkey.' Rowswell chews long on his New York steak as he reflects on Hessler's prose. 'That was not fair,' he says, swallowing. 'He called Dashan a performing monkey but he had never seen my performances. He was part of the Dashan backlash five or six years ago but I don't think that is there anymore.' Rumours about Dashan have become urban folklore. Among them is a false claim the happily married father of two was so inundated by female admirers that he put all their names in a sack and plucked out his Beijing-born wife. Another bizarre claim is that he is half Chinese - that his grandfather was a missionary who impregnated one of his converted flock. 'The story of my grandfather has been around and it's got a little twisted,' he says. 'He was a missionary doctor for the Canadian Anglican Church in China and he helped set up a hospital in 1922 in Henan [province]. 'He was married to my [Canadian] grandmother and they lost two children to TB in China. Prior to his arrival, he served in the first world war as a surgeon in the trenches of Passchendaele [in Belgium]. But there is no link with China [then],' he says, dismissing recent claims by historians that his grandfather served in the Chinese Labour Corps, a civilian division that laboured on the battlefields of Europe. 'I am an honorary citizen of the city of Shangqiu, where he built the hospital,' he says. 'We knew vaguely about his Chinese links but he passed away long before I started my interest in China.' The rumours and the expat derision clearly hurt. Throughout the interview, Rowswell refers to Dashan in the third person. 'Dashan is a character,' he explains, using his hands to illustrate a box in which to put his alter-ego, which he then places on the empty seat beside him. 'I am Mark and I am Dashan. But I stand apart from the character ... When I do drama, I am Mark Rowswell.' In recent years, he has branched out into dramatic acting to prove he is more than just an accidental celebrity. In 2005, he played the lead role - the 18th-century Italian Jesuit painter Giuseppe Castiglione - in 24-part CCTV series Palace Artist. And in 2007-08, he starred in the Chinese stage adaptation of the French comedy Le Diner de Cons, or The Dinner Game. It's hard to summarise why Dashan still has appeal, he says. 'It's an aggregate of what I've done over the years, so I have become this uber-friend of China. Lots of people can do what I can do - act, language-teaching, comedy. But I have put it into a package and that's what sets me apart.' In a documentary, filmed in 1996 by the Canadian National Film Board, Dashan is in a pedal boat on Beijing's imperial lakes, explaining his phenomenon and refuting claims he is an apologist for the communist regime. His fledgling career was only six months old when the tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square, on June 4, 1989, to confront pro-democracy students, some of whom studied alongside him at Beijing University, and their supporters. As Beijing brooded and the world looked on in shock, many foreigners were either kicked out of or left the Middle Kingdom. Rowswell was one of the first to return. 'I didn't see staying away or coming back as a statement for or against the Chinese government,' he says in the film. 'I frankly find people who believe foreigners should not have gone back to China as just stupid. It is so imbecilic, I cannot argue against it. Dashan is neither pro-Chinese government nor against it.' He says politics still fail to have an impact on him. 'The main criticism I get in China is that being a non-political celebrity is wrong,' he says. 'I think it's important to be non-political, not just in terms of being safe, but politics is not everything. The way I can do my job effectively is to just stay out of politics. I am just not interested in it anyway. 'There have been times where the Chinese [officials] have asked me to do something and I have refused and they are quite respectful of that,' he says. 'But they don't want me to be involved in politics, anyway, especially the issues they feel sensitive about. I have never been asked to give a propaganda speech about Tibet and Taiwan, or how wonderful human rights are in China. The Chinese just want me to talk about culture or comedy. 'Sometimes they don't realise they have asked me to do something that I have to say no to, such as on National Day,' he says. Last year, CCTV producers gave him a script that praised the 'motherland'. 'I had to tell them it was not my motherland,' he says. He also refused to appear on the country's military channel, which features wall-to-wall programming in praise of the People's Liberation Army. 'I told them the military has nothing to do with me,' he says. 'They don't realise they are crossing the line because they treat me as one of their own. But I have never pretended I am Chinese.' One wonders, though, if Rowswell has lasted because he has been careful not to cause his Chinese friends to lose face, even at the expense of his own. Doesn't that make him an all-singing, joking, thespian stooge for the government? Has he been, in the parlance of our time, harmonised? '[Western] people never know where to put me, where to fit me in,' he says. 'I'm a public figure but I am completely independent. I have worked for 22 years as a freelance,' he says, ordering his fourth free refill of coffee. A freelance what? 'I even get caught on the word 'performer' because performing is something I do ... I am a freelance media person,' he says. 'At some point I came to realise it was not as important what I did; it was more important what I was. In some ways, I have become a symbol.' A symbol of what? 'Of ...,' he pauses. 'East meets West in a friendly, harmonious kind of way,' he says, ignoring his reference to President Hu Jintao's much-derided phrase. 'Usually, when we talk about East and West it's all about culture clashes,' he says. 'And the Chinese, of course, are very aware of that in their history. They always go back to their humiliation at the hands of foreigners and they have a very deep sense of being misunderstood - this is a huge sense. But they don't appreciate that it's a two-way street. They don't realise they misunderstand the rest of the world, too. They think people resent the rise of China and that there is a fundamental clash between Eastern and Western cultures.' As he sees it, China is caught between complaining that it is still a poor developing country and often belligerently asserting its modernity and strength. This passive-aggressive, reverse snobbery is holding the nation back as it seeks international respect, he says. 'Dashan is a character who breaks through,' he says. 'He is somebody completely on the outside, a foreigner, a Westerner - yet he seems to be one of 'us'. He seems to be the guy that gets it, that gets China. They say, 'Ah Dashan, he's a foreigner but not an outsider.' That's the ultimate praise.' Nevertheless, Rowswell spends half the year in Canada, where he owns a four-hectare farm outside Toronto and where his children go to school. Is that because he is not prepared to let his children live and be educated in a harsh, authoritarian state? 'I think we in the West are stuck on the communist aspect of China and this becomes a barrier to understanding the country,' he says. 'The country is far more cosmopolitan, with its emerging middle classes, and I think China has moved way beyond having another cultural revolution. It's still a country of contrasts and internal conflict and that can always spill over. In general, it's much more confident, much more stable, much more open and transparent than it ever has been. 'But yes, it's still a one-party state. It has a dark side, the rise of nationalism, but the rise of confidence is a crucial thing,' he says. Rowswell spends every other month in China and his agents regularly hand him job offers. So many, he says, he can pick and choose. He has an offer to star in a Sino-French film, a modern romantic comedy that goes into production next year. Money is not an issue when you appeal to half of a county's 1.3 billion people but, he says, 'I'm not a commercially orientated person. I could have cashed in more than I have. I don't think I have ever topped US$1 million in a year but I have topped US$850,000. 'I am a freelance celebrity,' he says, and he's happy to remain a megastar star in a complicated, vulnerable nation. He has no plans to break into the United States or Europe - or even through the Lo Wu border. 'These days, people are famous for being famous. Even Paris Hilton is famous for something. Although we don't know what yet,' jokes Rowswell. 'But I do work hard.'