Hong Kong comic Vivek Mahbubani uses multicultural identity to inspire kids

Stand-up comedian has, to his surprise, become an icon to young Hongkongers from ethnic minorities, and now spends much of his time giving talks to various groups

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 June, 2015, 6:52am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 June, 2015, 6:52am

For a stand-up comedian, Vivek Mahbubani has quite an odd schedule. Aside from the evening gigs at clubs and private functions, he also appears on stages from Tung Chung to Tin Shui Wai, sometimes getting up at the crack of dawn to make 7am shows for audiences made up of six-year-olds.

That wasn't part of the plan when Mahbubani started doing stand-up eight years ago. He was carving a niche with his routines (in Cantonese as well as English), often about being an ethnic Indian in Hong Kong; along the way he became identified as an "icon" for ethnic minorities. Before long, invitations poured in for him to share his story with NGOs, schools and at "social integration" events.

He's still a little bemused by the idea.

"I'd never thought about integration of society. It's a joke," he says as he bolts down a bowl of Japanese beef curry at a Mong Kok food court. "I was just talking about stupid ideas like having English oral exams in Hong Kong, and people managed to see deep social meaning behind this."

Hong Kong-born and raised, the 32-year-old in many ways embodies the city's reputation for fast-paced living: he eats fast, walks fast and talks fast. But looking different made him a regular target of bigotry and discrimination. In school, classmates sometimes called him "alien" or "monkey". Even now, he is stopped by the police and customs officers because of his appearance.

Instead of stewing in frustration, Mahbubani turned his experiences into material for stand-up. His style of comedy, more good-natured irony than biting mockery, reminded audiences of the casual racism that members of ethnic minorities encounter even as it had them laughing out loud.

With his confident delivery, he has twice won the Hong Kong International Comedy Competition (in the Cantonese section in 2007 and in English the next year). An invitation to host an RTHK television series on ethnic minorities brought him greater exposure.

WATCH Vivek Mahbubani perform

"I've been trying to say in my jokes that this situation sucks, but I'm twisting it around to make it good," Mahbubani says.

An encounter he has worked into his routine illustrates this: noticing an old Chinese lady on the MTR, he offers her his seat but she declines, only to accept minutes later when a Chinese commuter does the same.

"I could say: 'That grandma is racist.' Or I could say: 'You know what, I've tried, I've got karma and I get the seat.' It's like two sides of the coin. And the choice is yours."

"Comedy is tragedy plus time," American comedian Carol Burnett once said, paraphrasing a Mark Twain quote. And the funnyman couldn't agree more:

"Nothing in my life right now could be bad in a way because the worse it is, the better I can turn it into a joke ... If you give me a good thing, it's good; if you give me a bad thing, it's still good.

"So a lot of things p**s me off but they also make me see Hong Kong in a more humorous way."

Having an optimistic outlook has steadied Mahbubani throughout his life, from fending off bullies in school to dealing with lymphoma and running his own web design business (he studied creative media at City University).

He was diagnosed with cancer in 2006, when he was an instructor at the university. Not surprisingly, he and his family were shocked.

"But as we accepted this reality, we started researching, and finding solutions," he says. "My family helped me all the way through, from planning what to do, to talking to people with better knowledge about cancer, to finding support groups. Everyone was very positive, especially my mum and sister, because they knew I'm not a big sympathy-type person and the last thing I needed was to see them crying and because it'd make me feel guilty for making them sad."

Chemotherapy was difficult, he says. He received six injections, each about three weeks apart. On the day of the injection, he would throw up everything he ate and his body would get weaker until day 10, when he started to feel better.

Although Mahbubani stopped work during that period, he was reading and learning every day at home.

"I didn't want to watch TV and waste six months. I would read books about business and self-employment, watch videos about different techniques of web design."

Then a member of local metal band Eve of Sin, Mahbubani even took the time to hone his drumming technique. "So for six months, my body had to rest but I made sure I kept feeding my mind. I wanted to be an 'upgraded' version of myself."

These days, Mahbubani, or "Ah V" as he is sometimes affectionately called, is not only bringing his humorous take on cultural and racial blinkers to Southeast Asia and the US, where he represented Hong Kong in an international competition organised by the Laugh Factory. He is also increasingly being called on to share his positive outlook with local community groups and youngsters.

"It slowly built into this momentum thing," says Mahbubani, who performs stand-up for social causes almost weekly.

While some speakers derive an income from giving talks and others use the platform to promote their business, the comedian says all he wants to do is "add value" to society.

"I don't want anything out of this other than encouraging youngsters. It's all about making sure that they feel that they can [improve themselves]."

The ChickenSoup Foundation, a charity that helps underprivileged children with education, health and development services, is among the groups for whom Mahbubani volunteers regularly.

Before I was like, 'I'm gonna do some comedy because it would be fun.' But now I realise that comedy allows me to see the world differently
Vivek Mahbubani

ChickenSoup founder Edward Man Ho-wai first met him five years ago at an annual dinner of their alma mater, Diocesan Boys' School. Impressed by his energy and stage presence, Man thought his humour and experience growing up in Hong Kong could help inspire minority children - and he has proved right.

"Vivek performed for us in Tuen Mun where there's a huge population of different ethnic backgrounds. The kids there identified with him very well as he shared similar stories of discrimination and life challenges growing up in Hong Kong," Man recalls.

"For Vivek, every conversation, however unpleasant, serves as a starting point for communication."

An experience from childhood epitomises this approach: on his first day in secondary school, a classmate told him in Cantonese: "Indian boy, you're not welcome here." Instead of getting angry or enduring the bigotry in silence, Mahbubani replied matter-of-factly in perfect Cantonese: "Do you think I'm deaf?" The two started to banter and became best friends in school.

"I didn't get upset because someone called me [names]. Even when I got home, my mum did not suggest that I complain to my teacher. She would not ask me to pass the blame because [being called] an alien doesn't mean discrimination."

Mahbubani believes how we respond is critical: if you react in a way that doesn't correspond with people's stereotypes, it helps open their minds.

Being fluent and literate in Chinese has certainly helped smooth his path.

While many English-speaking families sent their youngsters to international or ESF schools, Mahbubani's parents insisted that their children attend Chinese-language schools. "They knew how hard it was to live in Hong Kong without understanding Cantonese. They believed learning Chinese could help me and my sister," Mahbubani says.

It was tough going: for three years during primary school, he would go a tuition centre every day for another three hours of writing and speaking Chinese. He hated it at the time, but the hard work has paid off.

"He really has first-hand experience to convince the students the importance of learning Chinese and Cantonese," says Jack Chow Kai-chung, a teacher who recently invited Mahbubani to address his To Kwa Wan primary school, which caters to new immigrants.

"It's not easy to crack up Primary Six students, but he did it. I could see that they really enjoyed his session," Chow says.

Mahbubani is now savouring the benefits of his multicultural identity. Between his web business and stand-up gigs, he is constantly on the go. That is why his backpack is always stuffed with extra T-shirts - so he can get changed on the run to save time.

His fame is growing regionally. He has been invited to perform in Shenzhen, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines, India and Australia in recent years.

"It's been mind-blowing!" Mahbubani says of the touring. His comedy now brings in as much income as his web design.

Audiences in different cultures react very differently to the same joke. "White guys tend to be overly sensitive and overcompensate for their 'white guilt'. So they feel they shouldn't be laughing [about race]," he says.

"But the Asian guys, they love it. In Singapore they're like: I don't care, I don't feel bad, you laugh at me and I laugh at you."

Mahbubani has also learned to take a broader perspective of his stand-up work.

"Before I was like, 'I'm gonna do some comedy because it would be fun.' But now I realise that comedy allows me to see the world differently.

"It allows me to do so many more things than I thought I could. And it opens a lot more doors to me."

Check out Mahbubani's future gigs at