Looking at Hong Kong Humor

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The Chinese have no sense of humor. At least that’s what the title of a recent study published in the October 2011 issue of HUMOR would have you believe. “The Chinese Ambivalence to Humor: Views from undergraduates in Hong Kong and China” postulates that Chinese (1) “tend to value humor but consider themselves to lack humor,” (2) do not associate being humorous “with being orthodox Chinese” and (3) “humor is important but not for everyone.” In actuality, it is not so much that the Chinese are a humorless people, but rather they do not necessarily aspire to be funny.

According to Xiao Dong Yue’s study, their Taoist roots influence them to appreciate comedy as a harmonious encounter with nature. But directly in conflict with this appreciation is the stronger influence Confucianism still holds on Chinese society – specifically, the Confucian belief that humor is “a sign of intellectual shallowness and social informality.” In other words, comedy is low class.

I’ve written about comedy in China before, and dating back to older literature and operas there are certainly plenty of examples of comedy, but as modern humor master Lin Yu-Tang points out to the researchers that the culture marginalizes comedy so “the serious becomes too serious and the non-serious too vulgar.” It is perhaps for this reason that there has been relatively little research done on humor in China until recently. This particular study was intended to test this idea of ambivalence in the younger generations — specifically university students to see if these three elements still hold true. In fact, the researchers discovered that most of the test subjects considered humor to be pretty essential to everyday life, but they did not consider themselves to be very funny.

It’s difficult to draw any major conclusions from the study because researchers only polled university students from two regions out of the entire country: northern Mainland China and Hong Kong. What surprised me, however, was that the reactions were fairly consistent between those students from the north and the students from the former British colony. I spent half a year in Beijing in college, but I would hardly call myself an expert on Chinese culture. In fact, I would argue the longer you’re there the less you understand. But I assumed Hong Kong, having enjoyed a great deal more freedom of expression under British rule until the handover to China in 1997, would have responded much differently. Cultural heritage was stronger than cultural imperialism in this case — that’s typically a good thing. While the digestion of humor as entertainment might be consistent throughout the Middle Kingdom, I was still curious about the if’s, the what’s, the how’s of a unique Hong Kong comedic sensibility in the 20th century. Turns out it exists, it’s just not necessarily mutually exclusive with Mainland audiences.

The most discernible difference between the students surveyed was in the humorists they identified as the funniest personalities in their culture. The 10 most popular names selected by Hong Kong students were all comedians, and predominantly Hong Kong-born Cantonese comedians. Whereas the Chinese students’ nominations included “six comedians, two talk-show hosts, one TV host, one politician and one writer.” For those curious, the politician was Zhou Enlai, the man under Mao who oversaw such stunning achievements in Human Rights as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. I have to wonder if his nomination is a brilliant stroke of humor in and of itself, but I’ll leave it up to speculation for now. The humorist topping the Hong Kong students’ list was none other than Stephen Chow.

You might recognize him from this:

Or this:

What you might not know is Stephen Chow, who grew to fame in Hong Kong during the 1980’s, is responsible for popularizing a form of Cantonese humor called “mo lei tau,” found in movies like Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle, among many others. Probably one of the many reasons Stephen Chow is currently known as the King of Cantonese Comedy — coincidentally he starred in a 1999 Hong Kong film called King of Comedy that was ironically a departure from his mou lei tau fare.

Mo Lei Tau basically translates to “makes no sense,” is either verbal or slapstick or both. According to a Tumblr devoted to Mo Lei Tau, it is “a Cantonese genre…verbal nonsense comedy that relies on quality writing of rapid-fire dialogue, witty ripostes and punning…includes ribald repartee, broad and low-brow humor, anachronistic gags and biting satire of every social convention and custom.” In other words, its sense of humor is that it makes no sense. The fourth wall is often broken and narrative rules ignored, mo lei tau is almost a kind of anarchy comedy in which you ignore everything you know and just go with the flow. It probably helps to know some Cantonese slang as well, because there’s plenty of that as well. Unfortunately, mo lei tau is so intrinsic and specific to Hong Kong culture and Cantonese wordplay that it’s considered almost impossibly to fully translate.

The predecessors to both Stephen Chow and Mo Lei Tau were the Hui Brothers. The 1970’s saw new life breathed in Cantonese cinema, ushered in predominantly by comedies. The comedy The House of 72 Tenants shattered box office records at the time, and would later provide inspiration for Pig Sty Alley in Kung Fu Hustle.

Around the same time, the Hui Brothers were rising in popularity on television, particularly with their aptly named variety show: Hui Brothers Show. He and his brothers started a film production company by a strikingly similar name, Hui Brothers Company, and would go on to produce nearly two-dozen gag-filled comedies usually dealing with themes of get-rich-quick schemes. Apparently, these movies were quite popular with the working class of Hong Kong, which somewhat supports aforementioned study’s hypothesis about the Chinese perception of comedy. Their first smash hit followed on the heels of The House of 72 Tenants in 1974 and is widely considered a classic. Here’s the trailer for Games Gamblers Play:

The eldest and widely thought to be Stephen Chow’s officially royal predecessor, Michael Hui was the only brother of the Brothers Hui to make the top 10 list of humorists as chosen by the Hong Kong students involved in the study. However, all three Huis are still highly regarded in Hong Kong.

One of the other comedians on the list was Eric Tsang, who has starred in what appears to be over 100 films but is best known for hosting the Cantonese variety show Super Trio which ran from 1995-2005, and then again in 2008 to coincide with the launch of Super Trio Supreme. You can see episode 1 in its entirety below, but really the first 2 minutes give you a good idea of the wacky hijinx that ensue on the show.

Game shows in the US probably cost five times as much as shows like these, and are a fraction of the fun. America for the lose.

Hong Kong’s film and television industry has produced some pretty big names, particularly in the action genre: Jackie Chan, John Woo, Chow Yun-Fat. But during Cantonese cinema’s heyday, comedies were just as popular and influential. But blame it on the age-old problem that comedy doesn’t translate, for some reason comedians like the Hui Brothers, or more current popular comedians like Eric Tsang or Ronald Cheng or Dayo Wong, have not enjoyed the same international crossover success. To some extent, Stephen Chow made some progress for the Canton comedian with films like Kung Fu Hustle — that also borrows heavily from the Gambler comedy model popularized by the Huis — but it was still as a hybrid action-comedy.

Perhaps the difficulty in its translation protects the sanctity of Mou Le Tai: vulgar, nihilistic, slapstick and uniquely Cantonese. The art of comedy might still be considered lower class, but the celebrity comedians enjoy might be worth the supposed “slumming.” I personally think the next step in Mandarin/Cantonese humor studies should not be how the average person considers herself/himself not funny, but rather how someone like Stephen Chow comes to discover he is.