On my street here in Beijing, I'm kind of famous as "hey, it's that white guy that lives over there." I'm a pretty big deal for that.
Canadian transplant Mark Rowswell AKA "Dashan" kinda has the same thing going on for him as well, except it's on every single street in China. After moving to the country in the late '80s, Rowswell's parlayed early comedic performance work on CCTV into a massive, almost 30-year media career as a host, presenter, MC, sometimes actor, lately comedian, on into cultural ambassadorial work for his native Canada. He's the most recognized China-based foreign national in Chinese media, a frequent erstwhile performer on CCTV's New Year's Gala, and the recipient of numerous Canadian and Chinese awards for all his media and cultural work, bridging the gap between East and West.
Oh yeah, he's also the best Mandarin speaker ever.
That's right, I said, EVER. NO DEBATE. HE'S NUMBER 1.
In the "second half of his career" as he calls it, Rowswell's getting into stand-up comedy, bringing his Dashan persona back to the stage performing an act about his life in China. Dashan on Dashan. SmartShanghai had a long talk with Rowswell about his amazing life in China's media and cultural life.
Dashan: I came first as a tourist in '86. I just wanted to see what it was like. Stopped a couple of days in Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, went to Guilin, came up to Beijing…
Dashan: Actually, I remember the first burger joint. It was Frank's Place. The Frank's Place now, it's just somebody that bought the name, but the original Frank's Place was an American guy who opened it up, like a real authentic burger joint.
That opened in like '89 or something like that, right? Terrible timing…
But, yeah, I came as a student in '86, then went back home to university to finish my degree. And then came back out here in '88 with four years of Chinese under my belt. I was thinking that there was an off chance that learning Chinese was going to be useful out in the world. Then I was just trying to figure out what to do next. I was at Beijing University, Bei Da from '88 to '91.
And then the whole "Dashan" thing took off…
You have the key to the city in Ottawa? I'm FROM Ottawa. You have the key to the city where I'm from. This blows my mind.
Dashan: You're from Ottawa?
Dashan: Ah, I went to Nepean, across town.
Dashan: [Laughs.] My Wikipedia page -- it's pretty accurate actually. I check it out every once in a while…
Dashan: Here's the thing, right. I'm studying in university, right. Well, actually I'd already got my university degree at that point, which puts me two or three years above the average foreign student at Beijing university. At the time, most people do a year or two of Chinese in China, and then they go back to get their degree.
So, at the time I was a couple years ahead of the people at university, and then this TV station came to the university -- they'd invited a couple of professional singers coming in from Europe. They were pros, these singers from Europe. They weren't big stars or anything but they were professionals, and on the Chinese side, they had on newer, up-and-coming singers as well -- Liu Huan was one.
And this TV station thought, "Well, we need to have an international host. We have to make this international."
So the TV station went to Beijing University just trying to find a foreigner. They thought, "Well, this is the best university, they must have the best foreigners."
I happened to be there. And I was the right size. I was tall. They were looking for the typical tall, Western, Caucasian guy. And I already had the four years of Chinese, so I was above average.
Dashan: Yeah, so from that gig, the idea came about for me to do this skit. But, yeah, I just wanted to get out of the university. I didn't want to get into any show business thing or anything. For me, I already had my degree and I was here, and this was just the cherry on top. I'm like 23 years old. I had a year or two to figure out what I wanted to do. I figured, I'd gotten my degree and now I just want to see China.
You want to take me somewhere? Yes! Let's go!
So from that, they came for New Year's Eve and said, "You know what, we want you to do this skit. We like you." and everything. This was New Year's Eve. This is the big deal show, right? The big one. And from that skit it's where the name "Dashan" comes from.
That's when it blew up.
Dashan: You see the thing is, it's "fame" but it's not really a silver screen idol sort of fame. The image itself is a down to earth image. It's not like a Tom Cruise or a Kobe Bryant kind of thing. Like, "Oh! I've just seen God!" kind of thing. It's familiarity. People are familiar with me but not starstruck. Traveling around, I'd say, going into a venue or wherever, I'd say it's 80% of the people know who I am. But it's just a "familiarity".
Dashan: Well, Chinese people are more reserved right? So they don't do wacky things just because they recognize you. It's just friendly recognition. But it's also context for these things. Like an event is an event, and there is a herd mentality with people treating it like that. I've gone to places and we needed a police escort out of the crowd kind of thing, and then we could go 2 kilometers down the street and eat in a restaurant and no one would care.
But, yeah, for example if I walk through a university campus I get like, "Oh, is that Dashan? Is that Dashan?" And I might get stopped once to say "Hi" or do a photo. But if it's a big event and there's posters and it's a formal thing, then people can go a little crazy. It's a crowd mentality.
Dashan: No, that's afterwards. The skit is, basically… well, it's this mind-blower, where foreigners are using real colloquial Chinese. That's it. But for Chinese people that's a bit of shock. Colloquial Chinese, I mean like maybe like they way internet slang is now. This is not proper textbook Chinese, this is like taxi driver Chinese.
And it was two foreigners doing this skit using this kind of language, and it was just so… down to earth for Chinese people. You know, like when foreigners learn Chinese, it's like they're learning Tang poetry, calligraphy, and martial arts. You know, this "glorious essence of Chinese culture" kind of thing, and this skit was, "here are two foreigners talking like taxi drivers".
And it was a mind-blower. In 1988.
And, you know what, to be honest, it's still a mind-blower now. People nowadays, there's this assumption that foreigners speaking Chinese is not unique anymore, but, honestly, I have to say that even after 26 years living in China, I still get the same reaction when I speak Chinese to someone.
You get into a taxi and you tell them where to go, it's still, "Oh! Your Chinese is really good!" The reaction from Chinese people is really not that different than it was 20 years ago.
There's still a big gap there, and that's "Dashan".
It's bridging that gap. "Dashan" is bridging this gap.
Dashan: Yeah, 500 people in the audience. At that time, for some reason it stays in my mind, this number -- 500 people in the audience -- but 50 million people watching, you know. David Moser did an interview with me last year and he used to word "viral". And that's really what it was. It was "viral" even before such a thing existed. There wasn't any internet or anything. It was viral through television.
In China, television is really ubiquitous. Even at that time. Television is everywhere. In every home. Everyone had a TV. Or, everyone has a neighborhood TV that they would watch. Like in the villages, people would gather around and watch the community TV. Television penetration, even at that point, was over 80% or something. And there was only a couple of channels to choose from anyways.
But this is the big show. And nobody expected that that little skit that we did, would get such a reaction. You know, when people watch a two-hour television special, they only remember about 5 minutes of it… and it was that five minutes.
Dashan: Well, we recorded it mid-December to be shown on New Year's Eve. December 31. It wasn't Spring Festival this time. It was the international New Year's Eve.
And then next day, January 1, I remember walking on campus, and people calling out, "Dashan! Dashan!" and pointing. [Laughs.]
My first reaction was, "Oh, these people just happened to be in the audience to see the skit. That's nice." I'm thinking these students had been in the audience. But then I went into a store, and the old woman behind the counter would go, "Oh Dashan!"
So I knew something was happening….
Dashan: Well, it wasn't perfect, right? It was colloquial Chinese, right? And that's the thing. The joke was that we were speaking incredibly colloquial Chinese. Slang. The equivalent now would be internet slang.
Dashan: So, that's when the offers started coming in. All of a sudden it was this name-brand. So, it was all these offers to do other shows. And then one of my teachers at the university had this idea to introduce me to Jiang Kun, who is like the Jay Leno or Jerry Seinfeld of China.
So, it was, "Well, here's this foreigner, everyone loves him, you've seen him, he's seen you and loves your stuff. Can you take him as a pupil?" And he agreed. So, the next year I went back on the show, and that was what solidified the image. At first it was this viral thing, and then the next year I went back on at it was equally viral. It was a real mind-blower. And that solidified the character.
Here's this foreigner speaking colloquial Chinese with this heavy foreigner accent, and now he's back again doing this crosstalk -- doing word plays and rapid back-and-forth, banter, and tongue twisters. And this is the foreigner guy doing it with the top professional at this in China. It was a one-two punch -- the foreigner and the Chinese teacher. And for that, the comic flip there was that he was the "teacher" taking me as a pupil of culture and language, but then I was coming back with the tongue twisters and things better than him. Like, the joke is that this guy is like a Jerry Seinfeld of China teaching me comedy, but all of a sudden I'm better than the Jerry Seinfeld figure. That was the joke there, know what I mean?
So that momentum came from there for a couple of years and I got into performing more actively.
I always thought, "Well, I'll do this for a year or two and then go back to Canada to get a proper job." You know?
Dashan: That's what I thought, and then I got a job at the embassy. And I was working there and still going around and perfomring. The next step, it was like '94 or '95, and I thought, "Well, I can make a career out of this. I don't need to go back to Canada to work at Nortel or anything."
Dashan: Well… Not really a "performer".
Dashan: Well, I wanted to be this "thing". I never wanted to be a comedian and I've spent my whole career trying to convince people that I'm not a comedian. I'm not this crosstalk performer. I spent a good 15 years avoiding comedy.
But, for me, Dashan is just this… thing. It's not really a comedic phenomenon. It's more of a cultural phenomenon. It's this guy who's Western who's also Chinese and it blows your mind. It's between cultures. I'm not really trying to tell funny jokes and one-liners, it's the whole set-up of the thing. Here's this guy who is Western but not really Western, Chinese but not really Chinese. Like, what is he? Know what I mean?
So, that has an application to comedy. But it also applies to anything, really. Like being a television host or an ambassador. My demeanor, my schtick, is like down to earth, colloquial, and whatever.
Dashan: Yeah, it's all sort of blown over by now. That starts in like 2003. And it peaks by around 2006. After the Olympics it sort of peters out.
A lot of that expat backlash, I took with a grain of salt, you know. If you look at some of the criticism I used to receive, it was from people who didn't even watch my shows. They just didn't like this idea of Dashan. I was the poster child for foreigners on Chinese TV…
Dashan: Yeah. It's this "the Westerner has gone native". I was this poster child for the white face on Chinese TV. Then it became anytime anyone saw any Westerner doing anything dumb on TV, they'd get pissed at me. The "token foreigner". But it was never like that. Every show I did, I made sure they were looking for Dashan and not just a white face. They were looking for the character Dashan, which is not just another white face.
That sounds stuffed up to say, but, for me, that's what it was. You can get Dashan, which is it's own thing, or you could get just any other foreigner. And I kept the bar high, by charging a certain fee. I made sure people were wanting to book Dashan, and not just a typical foreigner.
Dashan: Well, there was never really anything that was typical. My bread and butter was being a host for cultural and international festival events.
Dashan: Yes, because my capacity in that was that I immediately made the event seem more international. "This is an international show because Dashan is hosting it." So that was my bread and butter, being a TV host or a live host for international events.
Dashan: Well, the life of a performer here -- like a professional performer -- you're sort of half in the state-planned economy and half in this capitalist thing. It's state television, so it's all planned out. It doesn't matter how famous you are or anything -- there's this set pay. And then basically you do that to get your cred, and then you go out to do commercial work based off of that.
Dashan: Yeah, Order of Canada, Commissioner General for Canada in 2010. At that point, I realized, "Well, I'm Canada's cultural ambassador to China. I guess I've kind of made it."
Dashan: Well, it's not like an administrative thing.
Dashan: The job of the ambassador is being the ambassador. You get up and talk to people. You're just doing culture. Your job is to promote Canada at the Expo. You're getting up there and doing speeches and going to meetings and representing Canada and being on committees and voting on things…
Dashan: Man, it was a great job. [Laughs.] If it was a full-time thing I would love to stick with it.
Dashan: It was a great gig, just around the Expo. Like an 18-month gig. And then after that…
Dashan: It was good. It was good. It was this government thing and it was a high ranking position. In terms of rankings and pay grade, that gig I was second in China only to the Canadian ambassador.
Dashan: Yeah, level 7 or whatever it was that they set it at. It's all this government stuff…
Dashan: Yeah, with Team Canada. I was in the Opening Ceremony.
Dashan: Well, the thing is for most of the show, you're outside of the arena in this holding area waiting to go on. You're sitting there, like 300 yards from the action, but still watching it on TV because you're in this holding area waiting to go on. You sort of feel like you're missing the show, really. The athletes come on like two-thirds of the way through this thing anyways.
And then it's time to go on… but, yeah, you're in this area, and then you're in line waiting, with thousands of people in front of you. And then it's time to walk around the track.
Dashan: Waving. Yeah. Well, I was looking for my family. I was trying to find where my family was. But it was like being on stage. There's lights in your face, the noise of the crowd. And then standing over there is Kobe Bryant. Tracy McGrady. Yao Ming. They're easy to recognize, right?
But that was quite an honor. A volunteer job. Didn't get paid for that one. But how am I going to say no?
Dashan: Yeah, I've met all the Prime Ministers since Chrétien really [Canada's Prime Minister, 1993-2003]…
Dashan: You know, they're all really nice to meet and talk to in person. They're just ordinary people. Politically, they are whoever they are, but when you actually sit down to talk to them backstage somewhere it's just small talk…
Dashan: Well, actually, we usually just talked about what I'm doing. So it would be us talking about me [laughs.]
Dashan: That was a mind-blower. I was… what… 40… 41 years old.
Dashan: Oh, those things are easy.
Dashan: Well, you know they're just trying to sell magazines right?
Dashan: Well, these things just happened, you know. You were asking about being awarded the key to the city for Ottawa?
Dashan: Oh, it's all emails. But the Order of Canada is pretty cool because it's secretive. You don't even know that you've been nominated until you've already been approved, and then they just ask you if you accept or not. The approval process is like a year and a half…
Dashan: Yes. Really. As I was saying, after the Expo, around 2010 or so I'd felt I'd made it. This was my peak I guess. But that was an 18-month gig, this Cultural Ambassador and that wave peaked, and now I'm just thinking, what's the next wave, right? What's the next wave.
I've been Commissioner General, what do I do next?
Dashan: [Laughs.] Well, that's my idea. Not a band, but I'm going back to performing.
I feel like, "Well, that was half of my career, what am I going to do for my second half?"
And it's not until late 2013 that I've started to latch on to stand-up comedy and it feels like it fits.
Dashan: Well, growing up, it's like Eddie Murphy, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Bill Cosby…
Dashan: Steve Martin, you know I used to memorize his albums. "Wild and crazy guy," you know. But the big influence here for me locally is Des Bishop. You know Des?
Dashan: Yeah, he's really the guy that got me into it. I had a resistance to it at first. Because like… the stand-up in Beijing, it's expats talking to expats, really. Along with maybe half a dozen hip, English speaking Chinese. But it's expats talking to expats, with nothing to do with China really. Just expats who happen to be here.
Dashan: For me, yeah. That's the thing. That's always been the thing. For me, anyways, to cross this cultural divide. If I'm speaking in English to Westerners, I'm not really crossing this cultural divide. That's the opposite. You're talking to your own audience and your own people. I've always though, well.. this is my audience. On the other side.
But Des has been the guy to show me that there is this grass roots comedy community and it is kind of a vanguard thing. So, for me professionally, it's been a way to get back to performing and back to a grass roots level.
I've spent 15 years telling people, "I'm not a comedian" and now, I'm doing a 180 degree turn, doing comedy. I'm also regaining a certain confidence too as well, you know. Regaining my confidence to perform. I've just stopped saying "no" to things. I'm just going to open up and try new things. It's been a while and I didn't think I could do it, but going back into it.
But it's kind of cool, you know. I'm in my late 40s and getting back into this grass roots thing. Like at the beginning of something.
Also, another reason is that over the years, I've built up this thing. This "Dashan" thing, but all the same there aren't really very many shows that I've done that stand the test of time. They're not things that you would watch ten years later. The first thing I did was Jian Kun is not that bad. It's still watchable. But a lot of it is forgettable. It's more disposable.
My comedy is like me telling my own stories. It's Dashan telling stories. What I'm trying to do is Western inspired but suited to what works in China. I'm trying to do something that's suited to the audience. So people come because they might be familiar with the public image, and then it's me telling stories that are funny or informative -- kind of a different side to it. It's this television character they know, but it's a different side to this character. But it's funny stories of things that have happened to me. Or maybe like the backside to stories that everyone knows.
It's an evening with Dashan…
Dashan: Well, more so than television, that's for sure. Chinese humor is like that too. It's riskier in a live theater.
Dashan: Well, coming up, I'm in Toronto hosting a Chinese New Year's event with the National Symphony…
Dashan: [Laughs.] Seriously.
I always have cool things to do…