Growing up in Hong Kong sure wasn’t easy, especially if you’re from a minority race who possesses a feature that makes you really stand out. Such is the case of stand-up comedian Vivek Mahbubani who is a Sindhi of Indian descent and was born and raised in Hong Kong.
With his ability to speak both English and Cantonese fluently, Vivek manages to tackle racism issues very delicately and turn it into something comical where people can relate to, and thus, earning him more fans along the way.
Vivek first started his stand-up comedy in 2007, and in that same year, he was crowned Hong Kong’s funniest person at the Hong Kong International Comedy Festival for the Cantonese-language category, and in the following year, he won the English language category of the competition.
Some of the comedians who inspired Vivek into taking up stand-up comedy includes Jerry Seinfeld, Eddie Murphy, and Chris Rock, but unlike them, Vivek is more than just a simple entertainer, he is also a multi-award winning web designer with his own design firm and is also the drummer of Hong Kong metalcore band Eve of Sin.
So how does he manage to keep his life in order? Read up on our interview with him and find out more about this funny comedian!
How would you describe your comedy style?
It is mostly fun and about life in general. It does not necessarily have to be too edgy, its more like the silly things that happen to me as a person and also the weird things that people do that catches my attention.
Like for example, these days, when I watch zombie movies, I noticed that they don’t have any Asian zombies. I mean like why isn’t there Asian zombies, are we not good enough for them? [laughs]
So basically, my style is more like I’m having fun with life and I would point out all the silly and quirky things that happen to me every day.
So you grew up in Hong Kong, and in many of your shows you’ve mentioned that people don’t know how to pronounce your name, so why didn’t you give yourself a Chinese name?
I had a Chinese name in primary school because that was the rules, but it never connected to me, I never liked it. People call me Ah Vee, or just Vee. And I find that if you can’t even pronounce the letter “V”, then we can’t be friends anymore, we’re done! [laughs]
Do you speak Hindi or Sindhi?
Not really. Because at home when I was growing up, my parents were afraid that my sister and I could not speak English, so they didn’t allow us to speak Hindi or Sindhi at home. But they don’t realise that we’re not born with the ability to speak Hindi or Sindhi, so that’s why we don’t speak the languages.
In school I spoke Cantonese, so the languages that I know are English and Cantonese. I do understand key words like “Where’s my pocket money” or “Where’s dinner?” but that’s all I know. I can only say the key things to survive but I can’t have a proper conversation in Hindi or Sindhi.
How do the Indians view you then?
They don’t want their daughters to marry me! [laughs]
Some of them look at me like I’m incomplete. But I believe that because today’s world is very global, it’s more than just you not knowing your language. It’s more like, in your heart, what do you consider yourself as?
I don’t really have any problem with that, but there are some really traditional Indians who would condemn me for not speaking my own language, but I will learn one day, there’s plenty of time!
How is Cantonese comedy different from English comedy?
The culture, education and maturity of the audience. For example, if I’m doing a comedy for an English-speaking audience, most of them have watched western comedies before, so they know how stand-up comedy works. But for the Cantonese-speaking audience, many of them may not know the concept of stand-up comedy, so they will be like, “So, you just talk? There’s no singing or dancing?”
I don’t blame them because they’re not used to that mentality. It doesn’t make sense to you until you see it. At the same time, there’s different kind of comedies. For example, Hong Kong people are used to guys like Dayo Wong (Wong Chee Wah) and Jan Lamb (Lam Hoi Fung), these are the kinds of guys who do like two hours of show in big stadiums.
They’re very funny, but they have different styles as their comedy has a slower pace and they have 2-hour of materials that they want to talk about. Meanwhile, I’m trying to come up a 10-minute or 8-minute set, a quick comedy. But some people don’t get it, you know. They’re like, “10 minutes, that’s all?” So, I’m hoping that people will start to know that this is the new form of comedy.
What do you usually do when people don’t laugh at your jokes?
First of all, over the years, I’ve become better so that has reduced. [laughs]
What I do is to try to acknowledge the situation like, “Oh well, that didn’t work” or “That’s awkward”. Sometimes, I try to make jokes out of the situation like, “You know, if you don’t laugh at me, that’s racism.” So that’s what I usually do.
A lot of us, we’re trying to be good at heart, so we don’t want to pressure people into laughing but it’s more like I’m asking them to have fun. We’re trying to push it as a party rather than just have them listen to us perform.
Do you face competition from other comedians in Hong Kong?
Well, in general there are two tiers. There are the celebrity TV comedians and the grassroots guys who do shows at local bars.
It’s different levels because the audience that watch the celebrity comedy are fans of those celebrities, but the comedy that I’m trying to bring about is also celebrity level, but also something that the general public can relate to.
So the competition is different in the sense that, if this is a street full of different restaurants, I would not have to worry that people might not want to eat what I have because people have to eat. It’s just that, today they might have this food, but tomorrow they’re going to try a different food. So I’m not worried.
The biggest challenge would be the competition between different kinds of entertainment, like for example deciding whether you should go sing karaoke or laugh because time is money, so that’s the challenge. Especially in Hong Kong, time is very valuable. People would be like, “You better be really funny if I’m going to spend my night with you.” [laughs]
What is the most interesting thing that you notice when you’re in Malaysia?
The most interesting thing is that I speak better Cantonese than all the locals here. [laughs]
Another interesting thing to me is that I get to eavesdrop so much more here because the Hong Kong people already know who I am, but here nobody knows me. No one would even have the slightest idea. [laughs]
|Vivek with all the other comedians from Asia.|
You’re a web designer, a comedian, and also a drummer, how do you balance your career?
Welcome to Hong Kong mentality, man! You just somehow squeeze them all in! [laughs]
I find that everything has its seasons and periods. Like peak season for comedy would somehow coincide with the lower season of web design. For example, every end of the year, there will be a lot of year end annual parties, and that’s when people want to close down their business, round things up and hold off their projects. So they start a party and that’s when the comedy comes in.
But during the middle of the year, that’s when comedy steps back because everybody is focusing on their work.
Meanwhile, drumming for me is a good way to spend time and do something different, but they all kind of connect together. For example, my web design work requires me to have a logical way of thinking, and that inspires me to make jokes that make sense, so that people can relate.
Also, with drumming you learn rhythm, and comedy is also about timing and rhythm, like the way you say certain things. You have to follow the pace and make sure that you’re not too fast or not too slow because you don’t want to leave the audience hanging.
What else can you tell us about yourself?
Actually, I’m also an MMA ring announcer. So yeah, again, I’m just squeezing everything in.
It’s a lot of fun because people in Hong Kong have very cute names, and saying their names with a ring announcer voice is really funny! For example, there’s this girl named Winky, and I would go like “Wiiiinnnkyyyyyy!” But then I feel like the name doesn’t sound very aggressive, cause it was just a bit too cute. [laughs]