Hong Kong’s Funniest Comic – Vivek Mahbubani – Part II

Vivek Mahbubani

Photograph by Kenneth Lim Photography

Only 28 years old and already an established comedian in Hong Kong with roles in television and film, and viral attention for his Chinese and English routines online, one would think that Vivek Mahbubani has it made. On the contrary, behind his success he has had his share of challenges. As you will find out in my interview with Vivek, it’s his positive nature, candidness and love of laughter (not to mention determination) that has led him to where he is today.

TM: What was it like for you growing up in Hong Kong?

VM: It was fun and weird at times. I went to a local Chinese school so 99% of the other students were local Chinese. They would go as far as calling me an alien. But, as we all started getting along, growing up was the same as any other person in Hong Kong, except for the initial reaction of:

“Wow, you can speak Chinese?”

TM: How did your parents decision in enrolling you into the public school system rather than the international school system impact you as a student and comedian?

VM: This is one of the biggest things that has shaped my life (having attended public schools where Chinese and English were used and taught). The challenge was having to learn Cantonese without members of my family speaking it.

Everyday after school (primary), I’d be sent down to a tutorial center to work on my Chinese skills for 3 hours, 5 days a week. While all my cousins who were in international schools were playing video games at home, I’d be stuck in these centers working on my Cantonese. I accepted this as part of my reality and kept at it. Had I known I could opt out of these schools, I’m sure back then I would have taken the lazy route. My parents, being stern about my learning the language, definitely helped me a lot.

It helped my comedy immensely because it has allowed me to experience Hong Kong from a true local’s point of view and absorb the culture. It has also helped me with my work, I can deal with an English speaking boss and a Cantonese speaking team of staff.

TM: A lot of your routines relate to ethnic stereotypes. Was this reflective of your own experiences?

VM: I like to talk about my life experiences in stand-up comedy because it’s unique to me. A lot of my material revolves around being a foreigner just wanting to be a part of Hong Kong. I don’t only rely on these stereotypes but they are a great foundation. I’ve learned to write comedy that works in both English and Cantonese without having to worry about the direction.

TM: When did you discover your passion for stand-up? Did you find comedy or did comedy find you?

VM: I enjoyed watching stand-up comedy and admired comedians so much that I promised myself that I would do stand-up comedy at least once before I die. Then one day in September 2007 I saw an ad for a stand-up comedy competition and I knew this was the opportunity. I performed for my first time and it was better than I thought it would feel (yes, even with all the nerves).

TM: Did you have any comedic idols or mentors? Who are some of your favourite performers now?

VM: My idols include Jerry Seinfeld, Kevin Hart, Louis C. K. and many more. I used to watch their routines and imitate them. Today, I get to watch comedians perform live, open for them and talk to them in person. Every comedian I’ve seen live and had the chance to talk to have become my mentors, from overseas professionals or local comedians who are up-and-coming, like myself.

TM: What is it like as a comedic performer in Hong Kong?

VM: It’s a great feeling because American style stand-up comedy in English and in Cantonese is quite new here. In a way I am performing and educating people about this culture. Most people’s first question when they find out I’m a comedian is, “Can you tell me a joke?”  Oddly, it just doesn’t work that way. Performing made me realize that comics are pretty darn serious off stage.

TM: You are multi-talented. Most people know you as a stand-up comedian, but others would know you as a digital media developer and musician. Tell me about your other gifts.

VM: I don’t really consider these as gifts because I’m a firm believer that no one succeeded on being gifted alone. People pay their dues. Being gifted might give you a head start, but it’s rarely enough to get you far.

I suppose I’ve just grown to realize that there’s no right way in life, so I choose to do the 3 things that I look forward to doing. There will still be days where you’re struggling (in either writing comedy, making websites or even coming up with a groove), but because you enjoy what you’re doing, the struggle makes it exciting and fun.

I’m also what they call a lifehacker where I try to become uber-efficient for no real reason other than just wanting to do more in less time or with the least effort. To optimize my life, I read a lot of non-fiction.

TM: More recently, you have added television host to your list of talents. What was that experience like for you and where do you see yourself headed in the future?

VM: It was a real eye opener. I hosted a series called “Hong Kong Stories,”  a 10-episode documentary about ethnic minorities in Hong Kong. Each episode featured a different group. Through the exploration of their worlds, I learned a lot about their cultures and the respect for human kind.

For me, stand-up comedy is still the #1 performance goal. I can’t honestly say my goal is to be a big movie star but, other gigs are always welcome because my best comedy is inspired from my life’s experiences. So, perhaps being a movie star may inspire a great bit for my comedy routine and if that’s what it takes to get an extra giggle from the audience, then I’m up for it!

TM: Where are some places you would want to perform?

VM: I’d love to have comedy take me traveling around the world so that I can share my stories and make people laugh. I’d love to perform in Los Angeles, New York (I did perform a short set there before) and at comedy festivals in general. I try to make the most of any opportunity I get for performing, whether it’s for senior’s homes, people in disadvantaged districts or schools.

TM: For anyone who is thinking about doing what they love as a profession, like you have, what would you say to them?

VM: Believe in yourself. You love something for a reason and it would be disrespectful to yourself to ignore those feelings. When you do something you love everyday, you look forward to it. I’m not saying the ride isn’t bumpy. I’ve had my fair share of days where I’m exhausted and just wish I had a simple life, knowing I could get off work at 5pm and enjoy a peaceful weekend. But when I wake up and realize that today, like everyday, I get to do what I love, it’s all worth it.

To find out more about Vivek Mahbubani visit http://funnyvivek.com/.

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  1. […] himself the title of Hong Kong’s Funniest Person. Learn more about Vivek Mahbubani in a recent interview with Theressa Mah. Here is a clip of Vivek’s bilingual […]

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