HK Magazine Archive

Comedian Vivek Mahbubani On Being "That Indian" in Hong Kong

Comedy was just an item on Vivek Mahbubani's to-do list until he won the Chinese division of the HK International Comedy Festival in 2007. Hong Kong born and bred, he now splits his time between running a web design business and making people laugh.

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 18 August, 2016, 2:46pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 October, 2016, 5:22pm

I grew up in the best of times in Hong Kong: The 80s. When I was little, I wanted to be a bus driver. Bus drivers were to me the closest thing to a race car driver. They would decide if you got to your destination fast, or slow. I liked the idea of being in control.

Being a kid is cool because it’s simple: You get up, go to school, meet your friends, watch cartoons, play games outside. Without the internet, it was obviously even better. Today, kids have to deal with a lot more peer pressure because of the internet. To those living overseas, happiness is a walk in the park, a coffee with a friend. But happiness today in Hong Kong is when you’re alone in the lift with your finger on the “door close” button as you see someone running towards it. As the doors are closing you’re like, “Oh my god, I’m getting better at this!”

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Comedians joke about these things, but then you realize it’s actually pretty tragic. Hongkongers are too competitive, but instead of being competitive with the rest of the world, we’re competitive with ourselves. If you asked me if I’d leave Hong Kong, five years ago, I would’ve said no. Now, I cannot say I’ll never leave Hong Kong.

Hong Kong has evolved. The mentality has shifted, everyone is thinking a certain way. They’re thinking about China issues. But life is much more than politics. The more I travel, the more I realize that Hong Kong has got a lot of good stuff as well. Why are we all complaining? Rather than whine about not being able to buy a flat, let’s enjoy what we do have. You’re never going to have everything perfect, anyway.

I was in Sydney and had a couple of hours before a gig, so I wanted to go explore. I looked at the sign and it said, “Next train: 28 minutes.” Then I came back to Hong Kong, where we complain about the next train taking three minutes. Things here are declining in noticeable ways. Do I want to raise kids in an environment where English usage is getting worse? I’d want them to grow up in a more international, multilingual environment, but nowadays everything is subtitled, translated, and there aren’t many English TV programs anymore.

But I would want my kids to go to a local school. I firmly believe that if you’re in a different country or city, you must blend in and be as local as the next guy. I went to a local school. After I came in second from last in Primary Two Chinese, I spent three hours a day after school practising my Chinese at a tutorial centre, right up to Primary Six. There were no celebrity tutors back then, just a bunch of aunties and uncles making sure you wrote Chinese characters in the correct order. I hated it. While my friends were like, “Woohoo! School’s over!” I was like, “Nooo—can I get detention?!” just so I could avoid having those after-school lessons.

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"Happiness in Hong Kong is when you have your finger on the ‘door close’ button as you see someone running towards it."

There have been times when I’ve been with my Chinese friends and just wanted to fit in. I try to remind myself what my mom told me, that my race is not my fault. I get the benefit of being applauded for speaking Cantonese, but when a local person speaks English, people ask them if they’re “too good” for Cantonese. Nine years ago, people saw me and went, “Indian.” Now, they’re like, “Is he that Indian?” People now know I speak Cantonese, so my jokes have to be more than just an Indian speaking Cantonese.

I used to talk about the weird misunderstandings people had about me. Now, I talk about life in general, and people identify with that. Without realizing it, I’ve been building bridges. We’re all the same. We all want to get on that train, or that minibus. I appreciate it when people come up to tell me I’ve done a good job: In Hong Kong, it’s not common for people to come up to say something. 

The most difficult part about being a comedian is people expect you to be funny 24/7, and they get disappointed when you aren’t. I was booed offstage once, like nobody cared whether I existed. There are moments when I get really annoyed, but never to the point of quitting. After graduating from the City University of Hong Kong, I taught creative media there for one semester.

Then I got cancer. I learned that time is valuable and you’ll never be ready for stuff. Maybe if it wasn’t for cancer, I’d still be waiting to be ready for comedy. If cancer didn’t kill me, what’s a room full of people not laughing going to do? What I love most about my job is that I’m in control. Nobody can take my rewards, but at the same time I have no one but myself to blame. When you die on stage, you can’t be like, “Oh, that’s ‘cause the lights weren’t good.” No, dude, you were not good. You just have to suck it up.