Jokes set to fly at Hong Kong comedy festival with HK$40,000 prize and chance at US tour
Hong Kong’s 11th annual international comedy festival is helping make the city a hub for comedy in Asia. Ranked low in happiness surveys, it seems the city is up for a laugh
What is it that makes Hong Kong laugh? That’s the burning question on the minds of 30 people who will be standing in front of a microphone over three nights as part of the Hong Kong International Comedy Festival.
The budding jokesters will be hoping their gags get them to the finals and a chance at the HK$40,000 prize and offer of a tour across the United States, playing the most famous venues in the business.
Now in its 11th year, the Hong Kong International Comedy Competition is attracting comedians from all across Asia with vastly differing experience and backgrounds.
Comedians either raised or resident in Hong Kong will be competing for laughs in a field that includes African residents of mainland China, Singaporeans, Thais, Filipinos, Taiwanese, Cambodians, Europeans and Americans.
Take my husband ... please
One of the comedians performing in her first competition is Maitreyi Karanth, who arrived in Hong Kong 14 years ago with her husband and family, having grown up in a small village in India before moving to Bahrain.
Her background is in theatre and television production, but it wasn’t until she decided to take her talents of sarcastic banter at parties to an open mic session that she discovered her skill as a stand-up comedian.
“They’re not stories that I’ve made up. It’s about life. Twenty-three years I’ve been abroad, a lot of funny things have happened, and the fact I’m Indian, I mix very well, and when you mix, you have a lot of funny experiences.”
If the most classic one-liner in comedy history is Henny Youngman’s “Take my wife ... please”, then Karanth is taking her cues from the best by cracking jokes about her husband, and in turn finding an audience that had previously not been spoken for.
“Mostly it’s about my husband. People wonder how he even comes to watch my gigs. People are like, ‘Wow ... she says that?’ He thinks it’s hilarious and keeps asking me if am I famous yet. Not sure about famous … maybe infamous,” she laughs.
“When I came out of a lot of these performances I had so many women that came up to me and said they loved the fact I was giving them a voice, because they’re always used to men making fun of the women, they’re not used to women making fun about their husbands, about sex, about everything.”
An Egyptian in Shanghai
Mohammed Magdi grew up in Cairo and has been living in Shanghai for the past four years, teaching Chinese children about Western culture – which itself sounds like the set-up to a joke. His comedic inspiration began in Cairo watching Eddie Murphy’s Delirious, an American stand-up comedy television special, and blossomed upon seeing recordings of the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour starring American comics with Egyptian, Iranian and Palestinian backgrounds. He finds his position straddling Arab and Western cultures profoundly influenced by his life in China.
“China has been the target of bashing from the Western media for a while now, and it actually … kind of sucks to be honest, because as a foreigner here, I’m seeing a lot of things unfairly portrayed about China and it just seems there’s an agenda, for want of a better word,” he said, adding that stand-up comedy in China has its own sensitivities depending on the audience.
“For me, from my own personal experience, it’s a bit different to make fun of America than a white comic making fun of America. So for me, I have to be very careful otherwise I’ll just come off as an angry Arab, in which case it’s not funny,” he laughs. “It’s just another guy on CNN yelling ‘Death to America’.”
Magdi notes that Hong Kong’s annual comedy competition doesn’t just bring together a community of working comedians from across Asia - it can be a vital step in a standup comedy career.
“It’s the biggest competition, it’s the longest running competition, it’s the most prestigious competition in Asia for sure and has been running for 11 years… but most important to me is it opens the doors to pretty much every room in Asia. I don’t have to go after bookers anymore, they will go after me if I win the competition.”
Comedy made Canton-easy
Born in the US but raised in Hong Kong with a brief return to America for a college education, Garron Chiu lights up when asked what could make Hongkongers laugh given the number of negative things that seem to surround them.
“That’s what there is to be funny about. If you were never upset about anything, there wouldn’t be anything for you to laugh at,” Chiu says. “Ninety-nine per cent of my material – it’s things I am upset about. You change that anger into comedy. Hong Kong is filled with huge abnormalities, there’s a lot to make fun of.”
Chiu works by day in advertising, but at night has developed a burgeoning career in comedy that has taken him across the world. He is also one of a small but growing number of comics able to work both in English and Cantonese.
In a society where so much pressure is put upon young people to devote their life to study and find a stable, affluent career, Chiu laughs that it wasn’t too hard explaining to his parents that he wanted to be a comedian.
“My brother is a perpetual student and my sister is an artist – for me it was like, ‘I went to business school, let me tell some jokes’,” he says.
“That’s the extra level – in the US you say, ‘Mum, Dad, I want to be a comedian,’ and that’s fine. Hong Kong’s like, ‘Mum, Dad, I’m going to go to business school, get the degree, then I’m going to be a comedian.”
Chiu declares there’s more than just hometown pride on the line for the Hong Kong comedians in this competition.
“It’s not even about representing Hong Kong. I’ve done similar competitions outside of Hong Kong - and that’s when I feel like I’m representing Hong Kong. That’s when people have never heard of comedy in Hong Kong, and actually comedy in Hong Kong is pretty awesome,” he says.
He considers sees the competition that has grown over past decade as more than a battle for laughs.
“It’s the most prestigious and well-known event across Asia. All the top - especially amateur - comics in Asia try to do it at least once, and that makes it an excellent opportunity to network,” he says. “This past year I’ve been able to headline a lot of shows in Taiwan, Shanghai, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia - and these are all through people I’ve met in the Hong Kong competition.”
Laugh, and the world laughs with you
The 11th annual Hong Kong International Comedy Festival is led by Chinese-American comedian and founder Jami Gong.
Gong, 48, was born and raised in New York’s Chinatown and began performing stand-up comedy after his university friends dared him to take part in a contest on campus. In 2003 he founded TakeOut Comedy Club in New York, with a vision to raise awareness of talented Asians, and in 2007 expanded to SoHo in Hong Kong where his family are from.
As the first full-time comedy club in Asia, and voted the No 1 entertainment in Hong Kong by travel guide Lonely Planet, TakeOut Comedy is leading the “thriving comedy scenes all over Asia now”, Gong says.
“Before every show we ask if it is the first time for people in our club,” he says. “About 90 per cent have never been to a club to watch live stand-up. Over here live stand-up comedy is such a brand new art form.”
And it’s possibly an art form that Hong Kong needs.
“Like everywhere, laughter relieves stress,” Gong says. “We try to take people on a ride out of reality, so for 90 minutes we make them laugh as much as possible.”
Starting on Thursday, the annual event will feature 30 selected comedians from all over the world. In groups of 10 they will compete in three rounds before the top three from each perform in the final, in front of a 350-strong audience and a panel of judges at Cyberport on November 4.
Additional reporting by Louise Moon