Three stand-up comedians walk into a comedy club in Hong Kong…
It’s a simple phrase that would have only been a joke before 2006, when Hong Kong got its first dedicated comedy venue, TakeOut Comedy. It was opened by Jami Gong, who initially got into stand-up as an undergraduate in New York nearly 30 years ago. When he launched TakeOut, Gong says, stand-up comedy was little known to the Hong Kong public, and people would call to ask whether the venue had seating (because it’s ‘stand-up’). But things are different now. ‘In addition to regular shows at the weekends, often with overseas performers, we now also organise classes to build more local talent,’ he says.
Vivek Mahbubani is a protégé of Gong’s and has gained renown as one of the few stand-up comedians performing in both Cantonese and English. In fact, Cantonese-language stand-up comedians are few and far between, and Mahbubani says this limits Hongkongers’ experience and understanding of the art form. ‘Many Hongkongers only associate stand-up with the shows of Dayo Wong and Jan Lamb, when there are many different styles of stand-up comedy,’ he says.
One reason Cantonese stand-up is less common is the Asian concept of losing face – people are shy about putting themselves out there. But with stand-up comedy, skills are learnt through failure. A successful comedian, according to Gong, should be able to make the audience laugh six times in one minute, which means a lot of practice.
Although their numbers aren’t huge, Hong Kong’s stand-up comedians form a tight-knit community. And while they want to promote stand-up and teach people what it’s all about, Gong says the most important goal doesn’t change: ‘Of course it’s to make them laugh.’
The Hong Kong International Comedy Festival is held 11 October-3 November. hkcomedyfestival.com