Wonho Chung: On the New Middle East, Racism, and Comedy

Published November 29th, 2017 - 05:00 GMT
But Chung says sensibilities are changing in the Middle East, slowly but surely (Youtube)
But Chung says sensibilities are changing in the Middle East, slowly but surely (Youtube)
  • Wonho Chung is a Korean-Vietnamese comedian
  • He was born in Jeddah and raised as "an Arab" in Jordan
  • His shows are entirely in Arabic
  • He hopes Arabs grow more exposed to ideas of cross-culturalism and mixed marriages
 

In 2007, a TV producer scribbled a handwritten note on a casting tape he had just recorded, before eagerly sending it off to the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour group in Hollywood.

The troupe, composed of laugh-makers from Palestine, Iran, and Egypt, had a longstanding joke that the addition of a North Korean comedian would complete their rogue-state humor.

In Los Angeles, the team opened the package from Dubai and read the attached note: “I’ve found your Korean,” it said.

Ten years later, the “Korean,” Wonho Chung, is a household name — or at least face — in the Arab world. Born in Jeddah to a Korean father and a Vietnamese mother, but raised, in his words, as “an Arab” in Jordan, his routine is entirely in Arabic. He generates howls of laughter from audiences across the region as he explains the difficulty his fans have in remembering and pronouncing his name. In fact, he often settles for “that guy from YouTube.”

Since launching his career with the acclaimed Axis of Evil Comedy Tour a decade ago, Wonho Chung has carved a name and niche space for himself as a cross-cultural entertainer in a region where stand-up comedy is still a young art.

Much of his material is informed by the experiences he faced growing up in the 1980s in Jordan, where Chung admits he and his sisters were subjected to schoolyard taunts from locals who were almost entirely unexposed to other cultures.

But instead of letting the taunts of “Chineeso” get under his skin, Chung says he learned at a young age that he could use the confrontations to his advantage. Rather than waiting for a crowd of youngsters on the roadside to mock him, Chung describes going up to people and asking, in disarmingly-fluent Arabic, “Salaam Alaikum, what time is it?” He stunned them into silence and, after the ice had been broken, introduced himself on his own terms.

“You kind of use that as a survival mechanism, but it also makes new friends,” Chung said.

It is these moments of cross-cultural friction — often toe-curlingly uncomfortable — that form the backbone of Chung’s comedy routine. At a show at London’s Cadogan Hall last weekend, hundreds of Arabic-speaking attendees were doubled-over with laughter as Chung described being mistaken for a salesman at a mall in Dubai.

 

 

It is a scenario he knows well: “In Dubai, the majority of the blue collar workers who work in stores, and waiters, they tend to be Filipino. Now, I can be at a black tie event at a film festival and I’m literally wearing a super expensive tuxedo and I think I look like a million dollars and people will ask me to go get them water,” Chung said with a characteristic smile.

“I take all these situations and I bring them to the stage. The fact that they happen to me means they happen to other people,” he added.

“It strikes a chord with a lot for people because they can relate — whether you’re an Arab or an African living in London and people think you’re this or that.”

Negotiating a routine around ethnic humor in the age of political correctness, however, is far from Chung’s only challenge.

“I live in a region where you can’t say anything you want about politics or religion,” he said. “I have three layers of filter in my head. One small thing could get you into trouble.”

He ensures his social media feeds are perfectly tame and is cautioned by fans when he makes apparent missteps. After leaning in too close to a married woman in an in Instagram post, he was chastised by fans who questioned the pair’s supposed intimacy, for example, and after posting a photo — with an informative Arabic caption — of Michelangelo’s David, he lost 5,000 followers who took issue with the statue’s nudity.

But Chung says sensibilities are changing in the Middle East, slowly but surely.

 

 

“There are things that are promising,” he said. “There is so much happening in Saudi Arabia right now.”

The chance that cinemas will open in the Kingdom is particularly exciting, explained Chung, as it will create an entire new market for local media consumption and add commercial fuel to the Arab film industry.

“It’s going to be a game changer,” he said excitedly. “You can make more films because you’ll have a critical mass of people who can come and buy tickets.”

Chung is not a disinterested observer and recently added drama to his playbook, starring in the Ramadan series “Saq Al Bamboo,” or “The Bamboo Stalk,” as the son of a Filipino maid and wealthy Kuwaiti man who fall in love. The show was praised for its social relevance in a time when the region is beginning to engage in conversations about race, class and Arab identity.

However, Chung admits that roles for Asian Arabic speakers like that do not come around every day.

“I have to meet with producers and directors and convince them to do a project together,” he said. “Roles have to be written for me.”

He hopes, however, that will change as Arabs grow more exposed to ideas of cross-culturalism and mixed marriages.

“Just put me on the stage, put me in a movie. You don’t have to spend that much time explaining the character. Just say ‘oh yeah, this is my friend Ahmed… Yeah, his mom is Chinese, but he’s here now.’ Then it’s over, that’s it,” he said.

“For now, I am pigeonholed as a Korean… but I think we have to have a non-nationality when it comes to art. Art is art.”

 

This article has been adapted from its original source.


Copyright: Arab News © 2021 All rights reserved.

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