A Story of a Receding Hairline and Canto Comedy from Hong Kong's Funnyman Vivek Mahbubani
December 13, 2021
Vivek Mahbubani is a household name on the comedy circuit in Hong Kong. Born and raised in Hong Kong and Indian by ethnicity, Vivek offers comedy that merges his life lessons of assimilating as a non-Chinese Canto speaker, being an ethnic minority, and navigating the everyday life of his frenetic hometown.
Fourteen years since his debut on the stage in Hong Kong, Vivek is set to perform his largest event in his comedy career, hosting 700 at the Applause Pavilion in Ocean Park for his “Humour Along My Hairline” special.
His “last chance to do a solo comedy show with hair on his head,” Vivek will take audiences on a journey traveling from 2007, when he was proud about his slick, full set of hair, through the different stages of his hairline, joking about his Indian heritage, Cantonese fluency, battles with cancer, and genuine scares of losing his signature hair.
The 90-minute show will take his audiences on an adventure through the ages and his career, capturing the pictures and state of his balding head from 2007 to today.
“Every kid's dream is to become an attraction at Ocean Park, so why not go along with it and find myself at the Hall of Fame with the dolphins and whales!”
Vivek is the city’s first, and arguably largest, Indian-Hong Konger comedian. “This is what I pay my bills with,” he says.
Being Indian to Vivek is important and an inspiration, a reminder of his culture and heritage, but it does not dictate his material or his comedic approach. “Russell Peters was a very big influence [to me] as he let us know that we (Indians) are in the game too. I thought this was something that just observe, but now us Indians can play the game.”
When he began comedy, being a Cantonese-speaking Indian was central to his identity on stage and his comedic material. Now, Vivek is more. “It’s important that I am able to go past my identity rather than have to say all my jokes about being Indian or speaking Canto.”
“I have progressed over time where my audiences know me. I can't keep saying I speak Cantonese, so I have to talk about things where it's no longer about my identity or my race.”
Blending into Hong Kong when Vivek was growing up and at his local school was a challenge where a language barrier and race barrier hindered his assimilation into his Chinese environment. His parents spoke English to him at home, but Vivek was forced to learn Cantonese by survival.
“Very often, whatever worked for someone else would not work for me, so I had to figure out my own way. Comedy in its own weird way has made me realize that my own way is still fine.”
Fluency in Cantonese then and now helps him break through racial barriers and connect with Hong Kong locals, and he hopes that his popularity will give a new wave of non-Chinese or Hong Kong-based comedians to tell their stories.
He blends effortlessly within Hong Kong’s comedic circuit and public consciousness. “People see me from both sides. Canto people will know me from TV shows and [English- [speaking people] will know me from open mic nights and bar shows.”
He can write material for both languages, having developed the ability to translate the same story for both audiences. Whereas expats would understand jokes and stories about the seedy Wan Chai, local Hong Kongers may not; expats may not appreciate the plight of falling asleep on the Tseun Wan Line and finding yourself at the end of the line, but Canto audiences will.
“What I have found is that the identities are blending. I am no longer the Cantonese or the English comedian, I am now just the comedian. I am the household name and telling you the story in whichever language is happening at the moment.”
Vivek likes to identify himself as a culturally misplaced Indian boy, growing up amongst Cantonese friends in local schools and neighbourhoods. “I am Indian, if you look at me, yet I am displaced into Hong Kong but also assimilated.”
“This misplacement allows me to play with my identity and lets me see the world from a different angle that I’m never fitting in so I might as well enjoy it from an angle of discomfort.”
His comedy style is unique amongst the two languages that he uses in his solo shows, stand-ups, and bar work. Speaking both English and Cantonese fluently, one with an American accent and another with a distinct local Hong Kong twang, Vivek can approach both of Hong Kong’s populations with the insider knowledge and jokes.
“People come to me because I have a weird, quirky sense of humour that because of my identity, I cannot fit into society. So, I am forced to look at society as an outsider. But yet I speak fluent Cantonese, I am as local as the next person, I have the insider info.”
“I can dig into the actual society of a local nature but also come from an expat point of view and tell you what’s going on.”
His favourite stories to tell that spill across both groups are the challenges of not knowing when to shout “yau lok” when alighting a racing minibus, refusing to budge someone when blocked on the Mid-Levels escalators, and subtle racism with locals.
Vivek began comedy in 2007 with a desire to see if he could emulate the comedic greats he grew up watching – and a bucket list item.
“I grew up watching Seinfeld on TVB, the only Western comedian shown in Hong Kong, and would love his bitesize stand-up bits that Jerry Seinfeld would do before each episode began [in the sitcom series].”
“I asked myself, ‘why is he telling a story before he starts the show’? I liked the fact that he didn’t have to act just talking about his gripes about life in general. I thought I can do that!”
“I told myself [at] university that one day before I die, I want to try comedy. I saw an article in the newspaper in 2007 about a comedy competition and thought why not.”
Vivek was crowned as the Funniest Person (in Chinese) in a competition hosted by TakeOut Comedy, and then the year later, scooped up the award for winning the English-language category.
“I just joined it for fun, I didn’t care about winning – and then I did well. I remember loving the feeling of being on stage telling these ideas that people are responding to. So I just kept at it.”
Originally, Vivek never thought of comedy becoming a career, and instead treated it more as a passion hobby. Working as a freelance designer, he saw comedy as a night-time activity to earn free beers and make people laugh.
Over the years, Vivek explains that the proportion changed from 5% of his time dedicated to comedy to “60% comedy and 60% freelance work”, earning a salary. “I would be going to a gig in Singapore, fly on a Tuesday morning, get on the plane, do my website design work on the plane, send emails, do the gig, get back on the plane and straight back to work.”
Stressed from the unhealthy balance, Vivek took the leap of faith and dedicated his career to comedy only. Fourteen years later, his brave bet has paid off in healthy dividends.
Vivek is inspired by the likes of Bill Burr, Chris Rock, Dave Chappelle, and of course, the Seinfeldian school of comedy with great Jerry and pal Larry David. “With Burr and Seinfeld, they’re not trying to live a funny life. They live their life and notice things and observe and comment on it.”
When the Indian-Hong Konger first began with comedy, he would spend a while to understand his approach and style to be funny. Roaming about life like Burr does and ranting about the annoying minutiae of life as Seinfeld covers, Vivek found his speciality taking something basic, like a sofa or lift button, and figuring out a funny angle to cover it.
As basic as his favourite joke: finding happiness in Hong Kong.
“People in Hong Kong are actually always happy; we just don’t realise that because we’ve learned happiness differently from the rest of the world. Anywhere else, happiness is a walk in the park, a beautiful family, pure happiness.”
“Happiness is being alone in a lift, the doors closing, seeing someone approach the lift, and jamming the close button to hasten the closing – a button, when pressed, makes us more and more happy ruining someone's day.”
“These jokes make people think, ‘oh, I do that, too. I never thought of it from that angle.’ The inspiration really comes from all these guys that we're talking about, because that’s what they do. They literally just look at the world around them and try to comment on it.”
Vivek explained to The Beat Asia in an interview that he likes to host a comedy event that is somewhat risky and “might not work.”
In previous years, he has done comedy shows in Cantonese at the Melbourne Comedy Festival, covered four back-to-back gigs in Hong Kong, and pitted himself in a competition for the U.S.’ Laugh Factories top 10 comedians in the world.
This year's solo show goes beyond any record that Vivek has set, ranking as the largest solo show in his comedy career.
“The reason I don’t want to go bald yet is not that I don’t want to lose hair, I’ve seen myself bald,” Vivek said, referencing his battle with cancer in 2005., “Trust me, that’s not a good look so I’m trying to help and warn everyone.”
"Humour Along My Hairline” is an opportunity for Vivek to provide his fans with a chance to laugh at himself and host an event with “everyone stuck here for COVID.” The special will offer a space for Vivek to speak with raw emotions about his hair troubles and the dark times in his life and career but manage to make his audiences laugh.
“If I do not do it now, next time I do a big solo show, I'll probably be bald, and I can’t talk about losing hair.”
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