She skewers white privilege, racial politics, sexual preconceptions and the message of the Islamic State, among other things – and does it with a ukulele and a melodic voice that is completely at odds with her often hilariously inappropriate subject matter.
Hannan Azlan is a bookish-looking 22-year-old Malaysian woman who grew up as a precocious musician and theatre student, and just last year decided to give stand-up comedy a try. Now she’s the youngest comedian and the first woman ever to win the Hong Kong International Comedy Competition since its inception a decade ago.
“I give her a lot of credit, she was the only female comedian out of the 30 comedians who competed and she won it all… Her act is quite unique, definitely unusual, with the ukulele, funny, funny songs, charisma, stage presence – people love her,” says Jami Gong, founder and director of the Hong Kong International Comedy Festival.
“For someone so young… you can definitely tell, a star is born. Afterwards with her winning, many other comedians, especially female comedians, came up to me and were inspired.”
She shrugs off a question about whether she feels more free to do “edgy” jokes in Hong Kong than she would back at home in Malaysia
“I wouldn’t say so, I’ve done edgy jokes, I’ve done really dirty jokes, I’ve done whaaa? jokes in Malaysia, depending on the crowd, so not every time, same here in Hong Kong.”
She speaks with the presence and maturity of someone who’s worked the scene for years, comparing the cultural differences between Kuala Lumpur with Hong Kong in the context of the eternal question for any comedian – what do people find funny?
“I’ve done things that work really well one night, and doesn’t work on other nights. Comedy’s like that. It’s about presence, it’s about being present for the people you’re with at the time. I’ve got jokes I can’t do in Hong Kong because people won’t understand the cultural context. I’ve got jokes in Malay as well – I would love to do that here – if we could find 25 Malaysians, and Singaporeans, maybe some Filipinos...”
For only her second time in Hong Kong – and only her second week as a touring comedian – she’s keenly observed the differences in the crowds and the crowd behaviour between the clubs of Kuala Lumpur and the clubs she’s been playing in Lan Kwai Fong and SoHo.
“Based on my experience here in Hong Kong, most of the crowd is expat, and they all come from a certain socio-economic background. In Malaysia, we have that as well – we have expat crowds and expat rooms – but we also have comedy for Malaysians. We have a Malay comedy scene as well, which is a whole different audience.
“We don’t really have hecklers in Malaysia ... people are a bit shy to draw attention to themselves, so they won’t laugh so loud, whereas here in Hong Kong I’ve seen drunk Americans do that, laugh so loud they start banging tables. We don’t get that in Malaysia.”
When she says “expat”, why doesn’t she just say ”rich white people”?
“Because they’re not all rich white people. Some of them are rich Chinese people. Some of them are rich Indian people and rich Arab people...” she replies with a coy smile.
Azlan gives much credit to the comedians and writers working in Malaysia, and is quick to pay tribute to the scene that inspires her to greater heights.
“The Malaysian comedy scene is so vibrant. We have such a diverse pool of talent. It’s very raw, very honest comedy as well, it’s relevant to the state of things back home, and it’s quite sad, la – it’s not just comedy, it’s arts in general, it’s not supported so much, it’s hard to make money, and hard to get opportunities...”
The opportunities for Hannan are only just beginning, with the first prize in the Hong Kong International Comedy Festival, including a series of dates across the US at some of the most prestigious and well-known comedy venues – along with the HK$40,000 in cash.
She’s calmly considering her plan of attack upon the US – she talks about the bookings at the Laugh Factory in LA, Punchline in San Francisco, Zanies in Chicago and Gotham in New York City as just the beginning of her campaign to make big-time.
“Everyone has heard so many good things about the comedy scene, about the comedy community in the US, because it’s so big. They have a lot of shows, they have a lot of talent, they have a lot of clubs. I’m hoping for a lot of options that will help me. In terms of how my work will be received, or in terms of the people I’m going to meet, I try not to worry – I don’t have control over that – I expect to have fun. Because if I don’t, what’s the point?”