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Better known as Dashan in China, Mark Rowswell is the only Mandarin-language act at this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival. So how did this Canadian born ‘laowai’ (‘foreigner’ in colloquial Mandarin) become a household name in China?
Any Chinese-Australian would confirm that in China, Mark Rowswell, better known as 'Dashan,' would easily beat Justin Bieber to claim the title of ‘most famous Canadian.'
Rowswell also holds the record of the ‘most-casted non-Chinese performer’ in the national broadcaster CCTV's New Year’s Gala - which is watched annually by over 700 million people.
The state-owned People’s Daily once commented in its overseas edition, that Dashan is ‘a foreigner, but not foreign’.
To a foreigner, being regarded as ‘one of us’ is arguably the highest compliment China could pay as a nation. In his interview with SBS Mandarin’s Happy Weekend segment, the ‘Chinese people’s longtime friend’ Dashan recounted his cross-border life with many comical highlights.
Failing at Learning French
“Many people assume that I am a language genius, in fact I was a very bad student at French," says Rowswell.
Born in 1965 in Ottawa, Rowswell didn’t feel a special bond with his French subject in spite of it being the local co-official language. As a result, he barely passed his Gaokao (college entrance exam) with a score of 78. He did manage to enter the University of Toronto though. There, he found a language that he loved that would later play a very significant role in his life.
“In around 1982 or 1983 I saw the image of Deng Xiaoping on the cover of Time Magazine and the world at that time had already started talking about China,” Rowswell tells SBS Mandarin.
His passion for learning Mandarin propelled him from his mark of a mere 78 to a full scholarship to study Chinese at one of China’s leading universities, Beijing University.
“I think Chinese people should just keep the original order of their names (family name before given name) instead of altering it the English way,” says Rowswell.
Rowswell’s first ‘formal’ Chinese name Lu Shiwei isn’t well known in China. However his stage name ‘Dashan’, meaning ‘big mountain', brings with itself a simple and endearing impression which became known to all.
Living in the Intersection of Cultures
“I am Canadian, but that’s not all I am,” says Rowswell.
Dashan is an example that people should not be put into boxes based on their countries of origin.
“My wife (Dashan married Gan Lin in 1993) and my mother have a lot to talk about, and it strikes me how much they have in common," he says. "On the other hand, my personality also resembles my Chinese father-in-law.”
Dashan comments on the keen similarity between people from different countries and generations.
As his Mandarin improves in China he was still sometimes asked to perform in Mandarin with a foreign accent. “I consider myself already passed this stage and want to continue to work hard on my craft.”
To him there is ‘tribalism’ in play when people expect a foreigner to always act like a foreigner.
Dashan sees himself living in the intersection of cultures. He has won many awards for his work in cross cultural communication. The most recent award is Canada's Goodwill Ambassador to China given by Canadian’s previous Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
Standup with the influence of Chinese 'Crosstalk'
Dashan started his performing career in China in the hundred-year-old art form called Xiangsheng, or Crosstalk, learning from China’s prominent Crosstalker Jiang Kun. It's a rapid-fire pun filled conversational style that Dashan has previously compared to Abbott and Costello's iconic 'Who's On First' sketch.
Dashan's style has evolved though and he now enjoys standup, which is less rehearsed and invites more audience interaction.
"In the 80s, cross-talkers wanted a reform in their performance, but now you see a comeback to tradition which in my opinion is going too far," he says.
Dashan is creating new tradition as he integrates Crosstalk elements in his standup. “Audiences told me my standup is funnier than my Crosstalk. But in my performance I see the fusion of both art forms.”
Dashan’s Melbourne performance is called ‘Dashan Kan Dashan’ which is a clever play of words. ‘Kan dashan’ means talking aimlessly, taking the image of a lumber worker working idly in a big mountain.
But Dashan is all about persistence. He says the secret of living in the public eye for more than 20 years and still able to keep his audiences engaged is to “keep going forward, trying different things and giving my best performance.”
One Aussie bloke went to work in China's corporate world. One Chinese guy studied at TAFE before returning to hometown Shanghai. So how did this unlikely pair find themselves invited to perform at Melbourne International Comedy Festival?