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Hong Kong gigs

Comedians from around the world to perform at Hong Kong International Comedy Festival

Top prize of US$5,100 and a mini tour of US draws dozens of overseas comedians to compete at city’s three-week festival. Founder Jami Gong reflects on how the event has grown

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 October, 2018, 1:02pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 09 October, 2018, 11:56am

The Hong Kong International Comedy Festival, which runs from October 11 to November 3, these days can justify the “international” in its title.

This year, 23 of the 30 performers in its main event, the Hong Kong International Comedy Competition, will be travelling in from outside Hong Kong, including four from the United States and one from Europe. When it was founded 12 years ago, all 20 comedians performing were based in Hong Kong.

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They will compete over three nights of preliminary rounds at TakeOut Comedy Club in SoHo from October 18 to 20, followed by the final on October 27 at Cyberport. The winner will receive HK$40,000 (US$5,100) and the chance of a tour featuring up to three dates at top venues in the US.

Before that, the festival kicks off with three shows from October 11 to 13 featuring US comedian Sean Patton, and will close with three shows from November 1 to 3 starring South African comedian Barry Hilton.

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Jami Gong

Both Patton and Hilton’s first nights will be at the Charterhouse Hotel in Wan Chai, followed by two shows at TakeOut. There are also two “Best of Fest” shows at TakeOut on October 25 and 26.

The festival has been organised by TakeOut founder Jami Gong since the start, when the market for stand-up comedy was far smaller and so was the festival, lasting for just two weeks and taking place entirely at TakeOut, which has a capacity of 150. The final moved to a larger venue seven years ago; the one at Cyberport, for example, holds 320.

Gong says he received between 60 and 70 applications from prospective performers this year. “I was rejecting people I’d have accepted a few years ago. It’s an honour to even be in the competition, and it’s so tough to win it.”

Each performer gets seven minutes to impress (at the two Best of Fest shows, favourites from the festival past and present perform longer sets of 15 to 20 minutes), and is judged by an expert panel on the originality of their material, stage presence and audience reaction.

There also used to be an element of audience participation to the judging process, using electronic devices, until an audience member lost one of the gadgets and Gong had to stump up HK$8,000 for a replacement.

“The prize money has got bigger, which means more people want to compete,” says Gong. “And it’s been a priceless experience for the winners who have toured the US; the people they meet there – they get to hang out with top-notch comedians. It’s a dream come true for the winner.

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“Who’d have thought you’d have comedians coming to Hong Kong to get a gig in New York or LA? But it’s so tough to get a gig in those cities.”

Gong set up TakeOut in Chinatown in his native New York after it had been badly affected by the September 11 attack on the nearby World Trade Centre. The club’s origin story involves a trip to see his ailing grandmother in Hong Kong, during which he wrote down the ingredients that would become TakeOut on an airline sick bag.

On arrival, he discovered that his grandmother had passed away during the flight, and felt like she’d been communicating with him.

As well as hosting local and overseas comedians, the club runs stand-up comedy classes in both English and Cantonese. There was a Chinese-language element to the annual competition until 2012 but, as Gong points out, operating a business on Elgin Street in SoHo doesn’t come cheap, and sadly English-language stand-up tends to pay the bills better.

Gong says the Cantonese stand-up comedy that works best tends to rely more on storytelling and physical humour than its English equivalent, and relies less on wordplay and a consistent stream of laugh lines. The type of comedy that works best in Hong Kong generally, he adds, is “clean, silly, and with a regional or local connection and humour”.

First-time visitor Patton’s observational, self-deprecating, mildly absurdist style is perfect for the city, he says. Long-time South African star Hilton, meanwhile, is already an established Hong Kong favourite; this will be his fourth visit. Generally Hong Kong is now well established on the itineraries of overseas comedians, says Gong.

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“These days I get emails all the time from people who want to come over and perform. Anyone can get big overseas comedians, like we do, but it’s always been my dream to discover new talent. It’s amazing to see someone come to one of my classes and then start performing and get successful. With the launch of Comedy Central Asia [in 2012] and Netflix doing specials with Asian comedians, there’s potential for comedians here.

“But mainly it’s great just to see people laughing. Why do we do this? To celebrate laughter in Hong Kong.”

Hong Kong International Comedy Festival, Oct 11 to Nov 3, various times and venues. For full details, visit hkcomedyfestival.com