By Duncan Gordon
He is a household name in the most populous nation on Earth but almost nobody recognizes him in his home country. “China’s most famous foreigner” Mark Rowswell, aka Dashan (大山), has worked as a freelance entertainer in China since he first arrived in the country in 1988. Last night he told stories about his life in China and discussed his latest reincarnation, “Dashan 3.0”, with a small audience at the Bookworm in Beijing.
Dashan says that, looking back on his career, he divides it into three eras. The “Dashan 1.0” era was the identity he first carved out after he arrived in Beijing as a fresh-faced student in 1988. But how did Dashan end up coming to China in the first place?
A curiosity in China and the potential opportunities that might come about through learning the country’s language led Rowswell to study Chinese, he explains, “The reform and opening up policy had really just started to kick in back then and people were talking about ‘China’s century’.” After four years studying Mandarin at the University of Toronto, Beijing beckoned.
“Within three months of arriving in China I was on TV doing a skit. I was nervous about the 500 people in the audience. I only found out later that there were 550 million people watching on TV.”
That first performance, the first time most Chinese people would have seen a foreigner speaking in Chinese slang, ended up being the most popular act of the show and set the wheels in motion on Dashan’s eclectic career. “The Dashan phenomenon just dropped out of sky and hit me on the head. So I just went with it.”
Dashan began touring the country with performance groups, going to places he would never have had the chance to visit as a regular foreign student in Beijing. The added benefit was that none of his co-performers spoke a word of English, ensuring that Dashan’s Chinese could really improve quickly. Nonetheless, at this stage Rowswell says he still saw his entertainment career as a stepping stone. He didn’t expect to still be performing at the age of 52.
“In 1992 or 1993 I was presented with an opportunity to work for Nortel, which at the time was Canada’s biggest and best regarded company. In the end I gave up the chance. But, hey, Nortel went bankrupt and doesn’t exist anymore. At least I still have two employees: me, and my wife.”
Dashan’s stage skills are clearly not lost in translation as he paints a picture of his life in China while keeping the laughs going throughout his chat.
Rowswell identifies the second part of his career as his move towards becoming a cultural ambassador between East and West. He realized that communicating with a Chinese audience in their own language as a Westerner put him in a unique position.
“I didn’t want to come to China for a few years and then write a book in English to tell Westerners all about it. I wanted to talk directly to Chinese people. I think we can learn more about each other’s cultures in this way.”
Dashan’s efforts to become a cultural ambassador reached a pinnacle at the 2010 Shanghai Expo. He was selected as the Commissioner General for Canada, an accolade he is clearly proud of. “As a cultural ambassador it doesn’t get much better than that.”
So where to go from there? Dashan flips the atmosphere in the room from jovial to pensive as he opens up about feeling directionless after 2010. “Sometimes you wake up and think, ‘it’s over, man’. What am I going to do now?”
Rowswell has spent the last few years looking for answers to the question of where to go next. At first the internet and social media looked set to play a big role in his future work, but Rowswell believes that they have failed to bring people closer together, “but maybe that’s just the cynic in me talking.”
The comedian says he has now become “Dashan 3.0”, his third professional reincarnation. “Dashan Live” is a counterweight to today’s online, impersonal world: “I wanted to go back to a live career, off camera, talking to people face-to-face.” Rowswell says his new show gives his Chinese fans the chance to see a different side to him; more open, honest, and perhaps not as squeaky-clean as his television persona. It combines elements of traditional Chinese comedy with a Western stand-up format. “This new show gives me the chance to break out of my bubble and burst into somebody else’s. That is something I have been trying to do my whole career.”
He has been touring universities, bars and clubs in China and in Western cities with large Chinese expat populations. In two weeks’ time he will become Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s first Chinese language performer. Rowswell muses that, in a way, he is back to where he started; back on stage, talking to the Chinese public directly.