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The Hong Kong jester standing up for Cantonese comedy

The city can’t afford to lose its sense of humour, says Eman Lam, who started out as a dancer before discovering comedy and a cause close to her heart

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 April, 2017, 2:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 25 June, 2018, 5:59pm

Hongkongers deserve comedy in their native tongue. With that thought in mind, comedian Eman Lam has set out to revive fading Cantonese stand-up comedy.

The latest show by Stand Up HK, the comedy company Lam founded last June, drew a full house of 30 at the Hive Central on Friday last week.

In a semi open-air terrace lounge beneath a string of low-hanging industrial pendant lights, nine comedians took turns to crack jokes in both English and Cantonese before an audience of various races.

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The 33-year-old Lam, who beams an ear-to-ear grin with almost every other sentence she utters, prides herself on putting on a show that allows comedians in English and Cantonese to mingle and the audience to enjoy humour in both languages.

Although she did not put herself in the line-up of performers this time, she was constantly cracking jokes while schmoozing with visitors.

“My dad is diabetic,” Lam said, “so technically I have a sugar daddy.”

While others in the comedy business had begun to give up on Cantonese comedy, Lam said she would try her utmost to build a stand-up comedy scene in Hong Kong that both expats and locals alike could enjoy.

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The Cantonese stand-up comedy scene has been fading in recent years and the number of active local comedians has dwindled. This all happened after the go-to comedy club in town, Take-out Comedy, scrapped the city’s only Cantonese comedy night about five years ago and decided to focus exclusively on its English programme.

Lam fell in love with comedy as this trend was happening. But she said she was not about to let Cantonese stand-up comedy fall out of style without putting up a fight, even if that meant she had to moonlight to run a comedy company in addition to her day job as an owner of a professional dance studio.

She then founded Stand Up HK and has since hosted four comedy shows that were performed in both English and Cantonese. Her shows typically feature about eight comedians, half Cantonese and half English.

“We speak two languages. So we laugh in both languages. That’s the spirit of Hong Kong,” she said. “I realised if I don’t do it, it’s going to be gone.”

But she said doing comedy in Cantonese was extremely challenging as the language had so many tones that it was difficult to play on words.

If I say anything about sex, the audience would freak out. And I can’t swear
Lam Eman, comedian

Cantonese comedians also had to work with many constraints that were absent in English comedy. Women performers especially have to be extra careful when talking about sex or cursing on stage.

“In Chinese, there are so many stereotypes about women,” she said. “If I say anything about sex, the audience would freak out. And I can’t swear.”

But she said she hoped to unite comedians in the Cantonese comedy circle and, hopefully, be able to put on a bilingual comedy show every month.

She said there were highly experienced and talented local comedians in the city but the existing Cantonese comedy scene, albeit still active, remained largely private.

“Some people have been doing it for nine years, but no one knows about it.”

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During her five years as a comedian, Lam has performed at numerous respected venues abroad, including the Comic Strip and Broadway Comedy Club in New York and the Rooster T. Feathers Comedy Club in California. Although she had only done comedy in English overseas, she hoped she could one day take her comedy troupe abroad.

But most importantly, she said Hong Kong could not afford to lose its sense of humour, especially as the city had grown increasingly stressful and fast-paced.

After all, that is how she picked up comedy – during a period in her life in which she felt cornered by pressure and despair.

“I was a dancer and then I got old. I was at my peak but then everything suddenly went downhill,” she said, while still flashing a smile. “I felt like I was losing a passion. I was quite depressed in my late 20s.”

Being a dancer had been her sole identity until that point. She was talented and successful, training as a ballerina with the Royal Academy of Dance in London at the age of 16.

She worked as a back-up dancer for A-list artists including Britney Spears and Gwen Stefani during a two-year stint in Los Angeles as a commercial dancer before she came back to the city to open her own dance studio.

But her return was also met with tremendous resistance as she found out dancing gigs were much less profitable in Hong Kong than in the States.

“But luckily I found comedy. Comedy is like a therapy which channels negativity. I feel like many comedians start comedy because they bear so much pain.

“So the way to make it through is to make a joke – so be positive and laugh about it.”