Mosaic of China Season 02 Episode 17 – The Swedish Clown (Björn DAHLMAN, Clowns Without Borders)
Clowns are the monarchs of self-mockery, and today's guest is the King. The Frog King, to be precise. Björn Dahlman's story teaches us all a valuable lesson in the dignity of laughter.
BD: Björn, get in the car. You're in the show.
OF: Welcome to Mosaic of China, a podcast about people who are making their mark in China. I’m your host, Oscar Fuchs.
Today's episode is the third in Season 02 which was recorded remotely, because the person who was nominated by the guest from Season 01 has found themselves stranded outside of China due to COVID. The first was Katherine Wong from Episode 04, who was stuck in Peru, the second was Alex Shoer from Episode 11, who was stuck in California, and today's guest Björn Dahlman is stuck in Sweden. So you'll hear the difference in sound quality immediately. In fact, there's quite a loud hiss in Björn's audio, which makes it sound like he's doing his side of the interview from a pit full of snakes. But I hope you can fiddle with your volume controls and find a way to make this a comfortable listen. I promise you it's worth it.
Today's guest Björn is a professional clown, which might make it one of those subjects that can a be polarising love/hate situation. If you love clowns, please listen, you will learn something new. And if you detest clowns, and wish you could vaporise them all with the press of a button, I promise you will also enjoy this conversation. It shouldn't take you long to realise that - at least for some people - it takes a surprising amount of thoughtfulness and intelligence to make yourself the object of stupidity.
OF: Thank you so much, Björn. You are a professional clown, is that right?
BD: Yes, that is right.
OF: And here is what our mutual friend Maple said about you.
[Start of Audio Clip]
Maple ZUO: His name is Björn, he’s from Sweden. I met him in comedy, he’s a very funny clown. And then later on, we worked together in a charity hospital. And we talked more, and I felt like he's very warm-hearted. And he's very professional.
[End of Audio Clip]
OF: How did you and Maple first get to know each other? What's your story?
BD: Well, there was this new comedian at Kung Fu Komedy, and she was absolutely hilarious. And it also turned out she was a super nice person. Simple as that.
OF: So I am guessing what object you have brought today that in some way exemplifies your life here in China. But why don't you explain what do you have brought?
BD: Well, why don't we do this, I will put it on and you tell me what you see. You like this? So this is my red clown nose, the nose that I'm wearing when I'm doing shows. And I will take it off now because I think we will scare listeners away. I just did a tour because in Sweden, kindergartens were kept open right? And we were allowed to do shows for about ten kids.
OF: Well, you mentioned that you are in Sweden. You are one of the people in this series that I am interviewing remotely, which is a shame, but I'm very grateful that we could still do this. Whereabouts in Sweden are you right now?
BD: I'm in my hometown. It's called Uppsala. It's the fourth biggest city of Sweden, I've come to consider it a very, very small town.
OF: It's a different life to what you normally would have been used to in Shanghai, I hope that you can come back as soon as possible. How long have you actually lived in Shanghai?
BD: So I've considered Shanghai my base since 2014, when I started studying Chinese at the Shanghai Theatre Academy. And then I've been, you know, student visas, business visas… I finally got my working visa, and now I couldn't even enter with it, because of the pandemic. So I have to start the process all over. But yes, six years.
OF: But that's not where your China story started, right? You had a connection long before that, didn't you?
BD: Yes. So I guess it started with my hippie parents. So I grew up in a house where, you know, they would talk about Daoism, my mother started doing Tai Chi in the late 80s, and then my father started doing Tai Chi, and they were these kind of parents. I remember I was 14 years old, and I came home from school, and I just felt horrible. And I felt so stressed about everything. And my mother gave me this book that was called “The Tao of Pooh’, as in Winnie the Pooh. And that was my introduction to Daoism, which of course was linked to the Tai Chi they kept talking about. And something just clicked inside of me. And I was like “Wow, this is it”. From that point, I also picked up Tai Chi, 太极拳 [Tàijíquán]. Then in 2010, I was drawn into this international theatre project that toured Sweden, England, and Shanghai. And it was so funny, at the same time as I got this job, I was at the gym, and I saw a guy in the sauna. And I had noticed him in the gym, because he was doing other exercises I’d never seen before, and he did it with an intensity that I'd never seen before. I was like “Who is this weirdo?” And I noticed he had a Chinese dragon tattoo, right? But this was like old style, on his chest. I was like “What?” And then I hear him saying to another guy in the sauna, “I just came back, I've been on a Chinese mountain for a year”. So I asked this guy in Chinese, “Was it the 少林 [Shàolín] mountain?" And he answered in Chinese, “No it was the 武当 [Wǔdāng] mountain.”
BD: And I was like “What?” You know, the 武当 [Wǔdāng] mountain from ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’, the film. I asked “Is this mountain for real?! I thought it was a legend.” He was like “Yeah, I’ve just been there”. So I started training with him, of course. He moved back to the 武当 [Wǔdāng] mountain - Jakob is his name - and when I was in Shanghai performing, I contacted him saying “Hey, I'm in China, can I come to 武当 [Wǔdāng] and just, you know, visit and take some pictures?” He said “No. If you come here, you have to practice”. So I went there for ten days. I practiced, I was literally laying on the schoolyard next to the temple, crying in pain. And I was like “This is it.” And I had just started my company back in Sweden, we had just started to receive funding, we were doing well. No, this is it. So I changed my life, and I was like “OK, I'm gonna do a 100-day basic course on this mountain.”
OF: Whoa. 100 days.
BD: …Of pain.
BD: Of painful Tai Chi practice.
OF: Well, we have got to the part of the story where you are doing Tai Chi on a mountain.
OF: And I can't see how that is connected to you now working as a clown.
BD: Well, I wish I had a super smart answer. The answer is: no connection. I've always been interested in clowning. There was a company in Sweden - 123 Schtunk - they found a way to do clowning for grown-ups. So what they did was that, instead of making these slapstick kind of mistakes - like, you know, falling on your ass - they found a way to translate these kind of mistakes to psychological mistakes. So they started to do Shakespeare plays as clowns. And this totally blew my mind. I saw their version of Macbeth, it was a huge game changer for me, I was like “Wow”. So since that day, I was like “I have to be a clown”. And I had also heard about this organisation called ‘Clowns Without Borders’. They went to war zones playing clown shows for kids in refugee camps. And then nowadays they go to all kinds of underprivileged children ‘in crisis’, so to say. So I wrote to them, saying “Hey, I really want to work with you guys, I heard about you what you do, it’s amazing.” And they said “Well, we don't have a budget to create shows, you have to have your own routine already.” And I was like “Well I never did clowning, I never studied clowning.” But then in 2012, I worked with a guy, an Indian actor named Rupesh Tillu. So he was working with Clowns Without Borders. I directed him, we did a clown play about environmental refugees. We went on a tour to the USA with that play, the UNESCO Center for Peace invited us to play. And on the last day of that tour, he was supposed to go to school for deaf children to do the show. And he wakes me up in the morning, staring at me with big eyes, saying “Bee-yawn” - he couldn’t pronounce my name, Björn - “Bee-yawn, did you ever do clowning?” I was like “I did a one-hour workshop six years ago, why? He said "Get in the car! You're in the show!” I was like “How do I develop a clown character?” And he said “Find a costume”. So Rupesh gave me a crown, that he uses in another show. And he gave me the flippers that we did in this show about environmental refugees. And he looked at the crown, and he looked at the flippers, and he said “OK you're the Frog King, get in the car”. And in the car he said “OK, if the kids laugh, stay. And your goal is to stay for one minute.” And I entered the stage, and then I have no idea what happened. Ten minutes later, I see Rupesh waving, like “Get off the stage, it’s my turn.” And so the Frog King was born.
OF: That actually is your character now?
BD: Oh totally, I did more than 400 shows with the Frog King.
OF: So there it was, the birth of the Frog King.
BD: That was the birth of the Frog King. And then Rupesh said “OK, now we have a clown show. Let's go to Clowns without Borders Sweden and say we want to make a Clowns without Borders tour to India.” And that was another life-changer. Because we played for children living on the streets; we went to orphanages for kids infected with HIV from birth; and we also went to the red light districts, where women who were trafficked as children are being locked into brothels, and their kids, they hide under their mothers’ beds when their mothers have customers. And we performed for these kids. And the way those kids laughed when we performed, I’d never heard anything like that.
BD: I’m not a religious person. But seeing those kids laugh, that's the only religion I need. I don't understand how there can still be happiness and hope and laughter in them. We kept doing this project year after year, we went back to these kids. In the second year, they were laughing as much. In the third year, they said “We want our mothers to see the show.” Because there were kids there who never in their entire life had seen their mothers laugh. They fell off their chairs laughing. So of course, this gave me some new perspectives on what art can do, and what clowning can do. Then I came to Shanghai in 2014. I was at the Shanghai Theatre Academy to study Chinese. And at the school, there was this Swedish lady who was at that time doing a PhD in directing, her name is Maja-Stina Johansson Wang - Maja 老师 [Lǎoshī]. And she ran a company doing children's theatre - in the way that Sweden got world famous for back in the 80s - in Shanghai. And I was like “Oh, my god”. And she was gonna reopen a play, she asked me to direct the reopening, which I did. I said, “Let's do test shows. And since we’re anyway doing test shows, we might just as well give them for free. And since we're giving it away for free, why don't we find these underprivileged children here in Shanghai?” And we did, and it went so well, we had amazing workshops afterwards. And we were like “Whoa, this is it”. So in 2015, we created a Clowns Without Borders project, the first ever in China. We targeted children of migrant workers, and we started touring schools and kindergartens, with a new clown show that we made. And nowadays, it is the Frog King going around, and I involve Chinese actors. I train them in my workshops, and then they go with me as my sidekicks. I let them learn the way I learned. I say “OK, get on the stage, stay for a minute, then I'll take over,” and then we just build and build around it. Nowadays I’m mostly touring with a Chinese actor named 边萧 [Biān Xiāo], I am the Frog King, he's the Toad Emperor. The whole concept is that the audience should feel that it's their show, they are the most important people in the world.
OF: In that case, do you see a difference between, let's say, when you're doing the Frog King in India, with that particular audience, versus a Chinese audience?
BD: When it comes to the children, not at all. Because children understand it. But the grown-ups? I mean, India has a very, very rich theatre tradition, a lot of variety, all that. In India, they kind of accept this with an open mind. But in China, you have this… Well, first you have this concept of 表演 [biǎoyǎn] right? Performance here is always, someone is showing a skill, and then it's up to the audience to judge it. So just this talking to the audience, you can see that grown-ups are like “What is going on here?” And then also, like, when we go to schools in China, the first thing they asked me is “What are you gonna teach the children?” And I say to these teachers “Nothing, I just want them to be happy". And they say “Why?” But then I do the show, and they come up afterwards, and they say “Oh, the kids were laughing!” I say “I know”. “No, but they were so happy!” I say “I know!” Everything, you know, has to serve a purpose. And when I say "No, I'm not interested in that”, that is a huge cultural barrier.
OF: Wow, well we've come across something interesting, which is the deeper philosophy behind the clowning. And have you just said what it is? Like, is it simply to make people laugh, and that's it? Or is there something more to it?
BD: Well, I'm the kind of person who likes to think there's always something more to it. I think the key word is ‘here’. And ‘now’. Because if we meet in laughter, then that is the only thing that exists right now. You can't feel angry when you're laughing; you can't feel sad at the very moment you're laughing. And as simple as it sounds, that is the key. And you can connect a whole life philosophy around that, I would say it's about dignity. My recent trip was to Nigeria, we were playing for former child soldiers, 20-year-old guys who, from the age of 9,10, were forced to be soldiers, and then they were liberated, put into prison. You don't want to know what these guys have been through, or what they have done to other people. But at that very moment - you look in their eyes, you make them laugh, and you share the joy - there is no history. There is only this sacred room, where we are who we are deep inside.
OF: Yeah. Well, we've talked about the aspects that are positive with clowning. I've got to mention the negative aspects, which are all the more prevalent these days, right? I mean, you know where I'm going with this.
OF: It’s the archetypal image of the clown being something scary, especially for adults. So where does that come from? And what's your reaction to it?
BD: Well, I think there are many angles to that. I think one is this - now I forgot that the word - but there's this psychological phenomenon which says that the more human something gets, the more we identify, up to a certain point where it's almost human, but not. And then it's just scary.
OF: I know it, it's called ‘uncanny valley’.
BD: Uncanny valley, I should remember that word. So that's one thing. And then there's also this aspect of… because the clown is the trickster, right? It’s the trickster archetype. And the trickster represents chaos. The human need to control chaos, it’s… I mean, you can find it in any mythology. It's very deep, our need to control chaos. And the clown represents chaos. And then there's also this… I mean, characters who have the power to draw children to them are always scary. And should be scary. We should always be careful with people who the children want to run to, right? For obvious reasons. So these are the theoretical, psychological explanations, I think. But then there are so many clowns, they haven't studied the technique. They just wear some s**t, handing out balloons at some events. And kids are so smart, they know this is bulls**t.
BD: And then you have this person with weird makeup, a fake smile - I think the fake smile is a big part of it - they run up to the kids, doing weird stuff. And many times it's a very weird situation where the parents are pushing the kids, like “Go and hug the clown!” And the clown goes “Waah”. The kid just wants to die.
BD: So you cross the border, you cross the border where the kids don't feel safe anymore. I mean, there's a technique. I teach this in my workshops, whenever you enter a kid's personal space, you must ask permission. You look the kid in the eye, you read the body language, “Does this kid want me to take one step closer, or not?” So again, it's about respect. It's the kids - or the person's - experience. Not my need to be funny.
OF: How interesting. And then let's go back to China. If you talk about the traditions of clowning, is there any equivalent at all in Chinese history?
BD: Well, yes, and no. I mean, the Beijing opera has the clown tradition. They had the 小丑 [xiǎochǒu] - the ‘Little Ugly’, literally - which has the white face. But it's believed to be a bad character. It's a character doing wrong, doing bad things, making a mess. And this is very difficult, because when I'm in China, and I say, ”Oh, I'm a 小丑 [xiǎochǒu]”, the association is not ‘a funny guy who makes kids laugh’, the association is ‘a villain’. So we're struggling with this, all of us who are working with this. We’re like "Should we come up with a new name? Should we call it ‘mine artist’”? Because people love Charlie Chaplin. And yeah, it’s… we're working on it. Then there's this other very interesting parallel, I also started teaching clowning in China. And it's been amazing because I really want to teach the philosophy of it. And the philosophy is basically, 'celebrate your mistake’. In China - because the culture is very strong that you can't lose your face, you can't make a mistake - I had Chinese students, grown-up people, starting to cry in my workshop, really saying “It's the first time in my life that I'm allowed to make a mistake”. And this is where clowning becomes really difficult, and - you know, we talked about the scary clowns - it’s not about acting stupid, it's about daring to let people perceive you as stupid.
BD: Which means you have to be as stupid as you actually are. You know, sometimes it hurts you. For real. And then you want to put on a mask that is not the red nose, but this other kind of mask, to protect yourself. But that's when you become the scary clown. That's when you feel it's fake, and something weird is going on. Every joke I do on stage is a mistake I did for real in some show. I panic, but then the art is to share that true panic with the audience, and let them laugh. And it removes the shame. The shame washes away. And you’re able to say to yourself “I'm OK”.
OF: Interesting. Well, I mean, I have been in the camp of not really understanding or enjoying clowns in the past. But you've really explained it to me, you know, the way that you use the art of clowning to almost battle the dehumanising, the isolating nature of modern society. I can definitely see where clowning plays a part in that.
BD: I think so, yeah. Because the concept of presence is so rare these days. It's so important to cherish these moments when we're in the same room, laughing at the same time. And I tell you, standing on a stage or in a schoolyard, seeing 400 kids at the same moment just burst into laughter, it's something else.
BD: It takes you to another world. For a few seconds, you are in a world where what you did not believe was possible, is actually possible. And then you're in a land that is magic for real. And when you're in that land, you can change things.
OF: Yes. Well, thank you so much Björn, I really appreciate that. And I hope that I can see one of your shows when you finally are allowed back into China.
BD: I will invite you.
OF: Let’s move on to Part 2.
OF: Right, well, let's move on to the questions then, my ten questions.
OF: OK, Question Number 1, what is your favourite China-related fact?
BD: The fact that you can walk in a park, and you can meet old men and women who actually have amazing Kung Fu skills. I have this 70-something-year-old teacher in Shanghai, he was teaching me spear fighting, this long three-metre spear. And he showed me and a bunch of other 30-something guys, “OK, so this is how you hold the spear in one hand”. And four of us, we couldn't lift the spear, it was too heavy. And this teacher, without an effort, just takes it up with one hand, holds the very edge of it, and balances it perfectly. And you see these things happening all the time. And it's like “Yes, ‘Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon’ fairytale China is still alive.”
BD: They know s**t.
BD: They know s**t.
OF: Do you have a favourite word or phrase in Chinese?
BD: 太好了 [Tài hǎole], ’too good’. 太 [Tài] is the same word as in Tai Chi, meaning ‘too much’. It refers to this whole Daoist theory of 阴 [yīn] and 阳 [yáng], when something becomes too much of one thing, it turns into its opposite. So 太 [tài] would be the black dot in the white field of the 阴 [yīn] and 阳 [yáng] symbol. And you see these things all the time. I very much like this expression. It has this aspect of very every-day speaking, but there's also this very, very deep philosophical meaning of it. Like, you feel the depth.
OF: What is your favourite destination within China?
BD: My heart will always be on 武当 [Wǔdāng] mountain. But what I heard is that they did what they did in 少林 [Shàolín] mountain. They banned all the schools on the mountains, and they built a village below, which is… Ah.
OF: OK, well, this is a funny question. So the question I normally ask next is, ‘If you left China, what would you miss the most, and what would you miss the least?’ But what was the reality of the situation? What have you missed the most, and what haven’t you?
BD: Well it’s so funny because I don't feel that I left China. I am totally still in China. Well, I miss my friends. I miss the people.
OF: Yeah. And what about the things that you didn't miss? Like, what would you miss the least?
BD: Oh, the silence of Sweden, I love it. I am very sensitive to sound. Cars honking, drilling, people screaming, crowded restaurants, you know. That's the one thing. I feel it in my body, there’s a higher level of tension when all this noise is going on.
OF: Yeah, I was asking you to find a quiet place in your part of the world…
BD: And I was like “Yeah, well, what room should I pick?”
OF: Yeah, and I'm sure that any noise in the background we heard in this recording would have come from outside of my window, not yours. Is there anything that still surprises you about life in China?
BD: Every day. So I do Kung Fu in People's Park. And I just remember going to the public bathroom there, and they'd put in a face scanner, you have to scan your face to get your toilet paper. I understand the logic of it, because I hear people just take the toilet paper and they bring it back home to save money.
BD: But it's just… it's so bizarre. It's so many steps that’s like "Could this have been done in another way?” No, they put in face scanners for toilet paper. Does this machine calculate how much paper I need? Does it see my chubby Western face? And it gives me a lot. Like, every country has their way of craziness.
OF: Yeah. You've reached my level of humour now, talking about toilets, so…
BD: Yeah, that's good. That’s where I feel comfortable as well.
OF: Where is your favourite place to go out, to eat or drink or just hang out?
BD: Well, I love going to new restaurants. And every time I find a small little restaurant that becomes my favourite… Every time I go out from Shanghai and I come back, that restaurant has closed down.
OF: Yeah. Can you think of one particular one?
BD: I had a period when I was totally into 新疆 [Xīnjiāng] food, and there was this one small little 新疆 [Xīnjiāng] restaurant. Or when there was this other one, it was called Seahorse Sushi, that had grilled eel sushi. Oh, it was amazing. And they made their homemade spicy mayo sauce. It was, I think, 2017 or 2018 it disappeared, I don't remember.
OF: Wow. What is the best or worst purchase you have made in China?
BD: If you want to buy magic tricks in Sweden… Like, I have this wand that is so tiny, you can hide it in your hand, and then it becomes two metres. If you want to buy it in Sweden, you have to pay like 800RMB. And you buy it in China for like 50RMB. And I didn't know any magic when i started doing the magic show, so I bought things that go with the character, like “What can I do?” Now I try to make a flower go big, I say “Go big, BAM”, and the wand goes big. And I look at the flower, getting angry with the flower. The kid goes bananas, screaming “Look at the wand! Look at the wand!” I say “Yeah, the wand is big, whatever, the flower is…Oh my god, the wand is big!” I could never do that in Sweden, because it would cost me 30,000RMB, which I very much don't have. But this show happened in China because I could buy it. I had two suitcases full of magic gadgets that I was just playing around with.
OF: Yeah. What is your favourite WeChat sticker?
BD: It's a pink dragon hugging a girl, and there’s a story to it. In 2015, I met this Chinese girl on what was then called ‘China Love Cupid’, I think. This was before the Tinder era. She didn't speak English at all, so it was this total cliché of trying to communicate, trying to figure out "Are we dating, or what?” She was talking about marriage on, I think, the fourth date. You know, all the clichés were there. But she looked like that little girl in the sticker, and when I talked to her I felt like a big pink fluffy dragon. So to me, that series of dragon and little girl stickers became our little story. So it's a sticker attached to memories, more than anything else.
OF: Beautiful. Thank you.
BD: Yeah, it was beautiful.
OF: How long did it last in the end?
BD: I don't know if it even started. We're still in touch, though, as friends. It's no drama. Just, I wish I could speak Chinese.
OF: Well, it's chicken and egg, you know. Once you have a Chinese girlfriend, that's when the language comes to you, right?
BD: Yeah, and you know that's what the Chinese teacher said at the school. “OK, step number one, find girlfriend. Step number two, here's your textbook.”
OF: What is your go-to song to sing at KTV?
BD: The title song of ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ of course, because it's so beautiful. And me trying to hit tones, it's just… it's a mess.
OF: What’s it called, does it have a name in Chinese?
BD: 为了爱 [Wèile ài], ‘Because of Love’, or ‘For the Sake of Love’.
OF: Brilliant. OK, I don't actually know that, I’m gonna have to find that out, how does it go?
BD: Oh, I hate you. It’s a girl singing, and yeah… I'm having fun, the audience is like “Ah, bloody hell.”
OF: Have you ever thought about incorporating it into a show, in that case?
BD: Oh that's brilliant. That is so… No, I think Frog King will have to sing this…
OF: And finally, what other China-related media or sources of information do you rely on?
BD: I try to listen to friends from different places. Like I have my Chinese friends who rely on what they hear from their friends; and I have my Chinese friends who really try to dig into things; and I have my American friends; my English friends; my Australian friends; my Swedish friends. So I try to hear all the stories, and try to not fall into conspiracies, but then also try to be critical.
OF: Yes. Well on that note, thank you so much Björn.
BD: Thank you.
OF: We've talked about Tai Chi, we’ve talked about toads, thank you so much.
BD: Thank you, this was a true pleasure.
OF: Well the only thing I have to ask you is the final question which is, out of everyone you know in China, who should I interview for the next season of Mosaic of China?
BD: Well I have a very good friend, she's in a way part of my China history, because he was an Associate Director in that project that brought me to Shanghai. Her name is Elaine, or 黄绮玲 [Huáng Qǐlíng]. She's a very good friend, a film director mainly these days. I think you should have a chat with her, I think she might have some really nice perspectives on things.
OF: Amazing, I can’t wait to meet her. I think that would be the first film director on the series, so I look forward to that.
OF: Today's episode is a long one, so let me try to race through this outro. First off, there is also a longer PREMIUM version of every episode of the season, you can find them at Patreon internationally and on 爱发电 [Àifādiàn] in China. There was so much more of Björn's story that we couldn't squeeze into half an hour, and here are a few clips…
BD: It's a horrible city to do theatre in. And I guess that's why I want to do it.
BD: This is a show where we're constantly angry with each other.
BD: Babies can screen “Mom, Mom Mom” for an hour without getting hurt. And we actually use the same technique.
BD: Every silly little dream, you project into China.
BD: You know, my teacher hits me if I make a mistake.
BD: Me falling on my ass. I mean, how beautiful can life get?
BD: Bill Skarsgård, he’s a Swedish actor.
OF: Oh god, of course!
BD: We had the same clown teacher.
[End of Audio Clips]
Please also follow the images of today's episode on social media, type in ‘mosaicofchina’ on Instagram or Facebook, and the right page will appear. Otherwise add me on WeChat using my ID: mosaicofchina, and I'll add you to the group there myself. Highlights from today's episode include of course Björn's object, the red nose; his favourite WeChat sticker, featuring the love story of the little girl and the big pink dragon; and lots of photos of the Frog King in action.
You may also have made some connections to other episodes of the show. For example the 武当 [Wǔdāng] mountain at the heart of Björn's love story with China was the favourite destination of Abe Deyo, the tour manager from Season 01 Episode 27. There's also a Shakespeare connection, because the effect that MacBeth played in Björn's life was very similar to the effect that seeing Othello had on the life of Nick Yu, the playwright from Season 01 Episode 13. But maybe the biggest connection I made was between the story of clowning in China and that of drag, told by the drag queen Cocosanti in Season 02 Episode 05. Björn said that clowning is about celebrating your mistakes, and this concept of ‘daring to let people see your stupidity’ is very similar to Cocosanti’s philosophy of 'daring to let people see your weirdness and your imperfections'. In a culture where cohesion and social conformity is the norm, and where opportunities are fought for competitively, it’s rare to see people allowing themselves to be this vulnerable. But it's not just China, we all have different personas that we exhibit differently depending on the context. So maybe the inspiration that we should take from the likes of Björn and Cocosanti is to try and be more like your authentic self, and let’s all make sure we aren’t being the scary clown.
Mosaic of China is me, Oscar Fuchs, with artwork by Denny Newell. And since Björn was referred to Season 02 by the comedian Maple Zuo from Season 01, there follows a catch-up chat with Maple coming right up.
OF: Hello, Maple.
Maple ZUO: Hi, Oscar.
OF: I'm so excited to see you again, it's been too long.
MZ: Too long, yeah.
OF: What happened to you during COVID? Where were you?
OF: You were here too?
MZ: Yeah. There were no shows. And then some people starting doing online comedy. But it's weird, you know.
MZ: There’s no audience to give you immediate feedback. And you’re talking to a computer. And people want to laugh, but they’re not laughing. It's really strange. Because sometimes the people won't turn their camera on. They’re just a name, right?
OF: Oh god.
MZ: You look at the computer, it's all names.
OF: So when you did that one online event, did you already have material that was relating to Coronavirus? Or was it too soon at that point?
MZ: It was too soon, because it was too depressing. I couldn’t think about anything funny. So I was just doing the old material.
OF: Yeah. And this actually relates to what you were talking about in our episode. Because you had that really ‘interesting’ - I would say - childhood.
OF: But you were saying that with the darker parts, you weren't ready to start making jokes about it. And I think everyone can appreciate that these days, you know. And I have the darkest sense of humour - you know, you can shock me, I love that - but I don't want to hear jokes about COVID right now myself.
OF: So I can totally understand where you came from, about how you can't access that content right now.
MZ: But then what's funny is, I just came back from my parents house. I think I recovered a lot.
OF: Tell me.
MZ: Yeah, so when I look back, my childhood was very sad; very dark; there was family violence. So I was always feeling really, really bad about it. After I was 18, throughout adulthood, I tried to avoid my parents. However, this time when I went back, you know, they're getting old, so they're getting emotional. So my mom and me were shopping, and then we just brought this up. And my mom admitted what she had done to me. And then she said “Oh, we were busy surviving, we couldn’t look after you, that’s why we sent you away” and “Your dad has a temper issue, but he's getting better now” and then “We love you both. We love you and your brother both.” Like, I was crying, but I don't want my mom to see my tears, right. I just turned away and just switched to another topic. But it was so touching, because she never admitted that. And then she said, “I'll look after your kid, if you have one. We'll make it up to you. We'll give you more love. And I know we didn't give you much love”. You know, it's just… how do you say? You know, it ‘recovered’ me. It’s… I don't know how to say this.
OF: No, I mean, you said it very well. And that's something which, even in the West, it would be a very cathartic experience. But here in China, where parents don't talk about their emotions to their children, that's a huge deal.
MZ: Yeah. You know, all that hate and all those thoughts of revenge… are just relaxed now. So when I look at my family, I can maybe talk about it. Like, try to write some… maybe not straightforward comedy, but stories. I can write the story, talk to my mom. And then maybe in the future I can make it into comedy, because myself I already feel some relief from that.
OF: Wow. That is such a big deal.
OF: I’m so happy for you, really. I'm looking forward to more content in that case.
MZ: I feel like sometimes people are just “Oh I am a comedian, so I turn everything into comedy". But for me, I feel like comedy is just a way of expressing yourself. But there are other ways to express yourself. So I'm not very keen to be like “Everything has to be comedy”. And then the comedians here, I think we're all amateur. So we're still finding our way, like, what kind of comedians we want to be. I don't think people are ready for that ‘big story’ yet. Yeah. I feel like comedy is a way - in a bigger sense - to be critical about the culture, right? And if you're in the culture, and you can't critique it, then what's the point of doing comedy? So in September, I started this online master's degree. It was about education and psychology. I feel like it's opened my mind. And I need to learn more, and read more. Maybe after COVID, I can find a better job. And if I want to reopen my school, I have better knowledge. So this is a challenge. I feel like, if the situation is bad, and you can't do something, then you just stay and learn.
MZ: You can't earn, you just learn. It's just like that.
OF: That's well said. So you're using this time to just expand your knowledge on a certain area. You're saying that maybe comedy won't be the option. Maybe you'll say goodbye to comedy.
MZ: It's just for now, because I can't really do comedy.
MZ: So I'm thinking maybe deep down get more material. I already started writing more material. I just haven't tested it out yet.
MZ: So I'm just writing and waiting for the right time. I went back to Beijing, and did a comedy set.
MZ: Just, like, two days ago.
MZ: It was great. I missed that feeling. The thing is, after the last time we talked, I was talking about how I do Chinese comedy or English comedy in China, right?
[Outside noise interruption]
OF: Oh, wait a minute…
OF: Let’s wait for this guy to go…
OF: Remember your point.
MZ: OK. It's finished?
MZ: OK. So last time we met, I talked about how I do comedy in China. But after the interview, I joined the Mongolia Comedy Festival, and I did pretty good. Really, really good.
OF: I remember that. Yes, you messaged me when you were there. That's great, yes!
MZ: Yeah. And I did a three headliners in…
[Outside noise interruption]
OF: They’re coming back! F**king hell! Oh my god, this is comedy right now.
OF: Hang on.
MZ: That’s OK.
OF: We haven't got any f**king 手机 [shǒujī]! 没有洗衣机 [Méiyǒu xǐyījī]! Who the hell gives them 洗衣机 [xǐyījī]]?!
MZ: If you got that, it was very funny. You should just leave that in.
OF: OK. OK, carry on.
MZ: OK. So I joined the Mongolia Comedy Festival. It was great. And then I went to South Korea, I did three headliners.
MZ: In Seoul, 울산 [Ulsan], and 부산 [Busan].
MZ: And I represented China in the Thailand comedy competition. And I went to the Philippines, did gigs. All over the Asia, I tried.
MZ: That was since the last time we talked. So in Mongolia, I did one joke about Mongolia, and they laughed. So it was like “Oh, maybe I can try more”. So it’s like you're always pushing the audience - push, push, push - and then you just get it. So right now, I think my comedy has some normal jokes, old jokes, structured joke, but sometimes I just improvise.
MZ: That was good, that was good.
OF: It's just that ability to anticipate what the audience are projecting on you…
OF: …And undercutting that impression. And surprising them.
MZ: Yeah. If you're doing comedy, don’t think of “What I want to say, what I want to say.” Don’t focus on you. You should think about what your audience wants to hear. And different audiences want to hear different stuff. But then sometimes if you just focus on audience, you can't express yourself. So you need to balance both. Like OK, say what I want to say. But say it in an acceptable way.
OF: Well, it sounds like it's gonna work. Thank you so much for the update.
MZ: Thank you.
OF: And, you know, it has been a hard year. You've been very honest about that. But it sounds like you're still motivated. And I know that you are going to be a success. So please continue.
MZ: Thank you so much. Please invite me back in three years.
OF: Yes! Well, that was the joke we said last time. You'll be far too big for me in three years. I was saying 10 years before, but it sounds like you're on track to do well in three years. And before you leave, so… I am going to be releasing this at the same time as Björn’s episode is coming out. So have you been in touch with him? He has been stuck in Sweden the whole time.
MZ: Yeah. I haven't been in contact with him for ages.
OF: Yeah, he's stuck out. But I hope he'll come back soon.
MZ: Yeah, hopefully.
OF: Well, here is a message to you, Björn, when you do come back…
MZ: Please visit us!
OF: There you go, you heard it here. Thanks again, Maple.
MZ: Thank you, Oscar.