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China’s “Most Famous Foreigner” Mark Rowswell: Ready for Dashan 3.0

He has been China’s most famous foreigner for nearly three decades: Canadian Mark Rowswell aka Dashan. On March 30, he talked about his life as a household name and his work as a comedian in the PRC at Beijing’s the Bookworm. What’s on Weibo was there to take note.

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He is China’s “most famous foreigner” since the late 1980s: Canadian Mark Rowswell, better known as Dashan. On March 30, he talked about his life as a Chinese household name and his work as a comedian at Beijing’s The Bookworm. After a fruitful China career of nearly three decades, Rowswell says he’s now ready for ‘Dashan 3.0.’ What’s on Weibo reports.

Canadian Mark Rowswell aka Dashan (大山) has been working as a comedian and media personality in China since the late 1980s. His excellent Chinese made him instantly famous when he starred in the most-watched televised show in the world, the CCTV Spring Gala. Since then he has appeared on countless Chinese TV shows and dramas, and has appeared on the Spring Gala a total of four times.

On Sina Weibo, Dashan (@大山) now has over 3.8 million fans. He might not be the most popular non-Chinese person on Weibo (Stephen Hawking gained 4.2 million followers since he joined Weibo), but he certainly is the most famous Canadian in China ever since Norman Bethune.

One of the reasons for Rowswell to talk about his work during a special talk at Beijing’s the Bookworm on March 30 (moderated by Asia correspondent Nathan VanderKlippe), is his upcoming show in Australia at the Melbourne Comedy Fest, where he will be performing in Chinese. It’s now all about the physical audiences for Rowswell, who says he’s disappointed with Weibo and the virtual world, and wants to do comedy offline – up close and personal.

 

THE BIRTH OF DASHAN

“I thought it was just an audience of 500 people; nobody told me there were 550 million people watching the show on TV.”

 

As Dashan’s career in China will soon hit the 30-year mark, the Ottowa-born performer is perpetually known as “the foreigner who speaks fluent Chinese.”

Perhaps surprising for someone who masters Mandarin so well, Rowswell did not speak a word of Chinese until the age of 19. He chose to study the language out of curiosity after the phrase “the next century belongs to China” started to make its rounds in Canada. From 1984 to 1988, he studied Chinese at the University of Toronto and then headed to China.

Mark Rowswell aka Dashan talks at The Bookworm, March 30.

“We all knew that China was going to be a big part of the world, that many Chinese would come to Canada – but how many Canadians were going to China?”, Rowswell tells his audience at the Bookworm. He set out to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to “ride the wave”, although he was not sure about his exact plans yet.

Within 3 months after starting his studies at Beijing University, Rowswell was asked to participate in a TV show and ‘Dashan’ was born. His Chinese name (that literally means ‘big mountain’) is a peasant one, which in itself already was a joke.

But the name Dashan grew bigger than Rowswell could have ever imagined when he later appeared at the national CCTV gala. “I had no background in performing, and I thought it was just an audience of 500 people; nobody told me there were 550 million people watching the show on television. The little skit that we did somehow hit a sweet spot somewhere, and it ended up being the most popular act of that particular show,” Dashan recalls.

Dashan performing at the 1998 Spring Festival Gala, the best-watched televised event in the world (appears at 3.00 minute mark).

Rowswell’s career soon set off and ‘Dashan’ became a national hype. For a long time, Rowswell did not see his work at the time as a goal in itself: “I thought of it as a stepping stone to get into Chinese society, and to get away from campus and my study books. I traveled with a Chinese performing group and experienced things other foreign students in China would never experience – I even went to places foreigners were not allowed to go.”

Although Rowswell at the time still aspired to work at the Canadian embassy or somewhere else, his work as a freelance performer eventually turned out to be decisive for his eclectic career path, that has brought him to where he is today at the age of 52.

 

DISAPPOINTED IN SOCIAL MEDIA

“I have trouble reading Weibo because I just don’t find anything interesting on it. It’s very hard to keep engaged on a platform that you don’t find interesting.”

 

Looking back on the past thirty years, Rowswell says he can roughly divide his story into three parts. “Dashan 1.0” is the foreign student who appeared on TV as a comedian and TV host. That first stage led him to the “2.0” stage, where his role as a freelance performer also grew into one of being more of a cultural ambassador.

Rowswell received official recognition for this cultural role when he was part of Canada’s Team Attaché during the 2008 Olympics, and later became the Commissioner General for Canada at Expo 2010 in Shanghai. After this period, he searched for a new goal and hoped to find it online.

“After 2010 I thought the answer was Weibo,” Rowswell says: “I really got into Weibo around 2010, 2011, 2012. But post-2012 or so, Weibo is really…I mean, I still maintain it, but I really have trouble reading Weibo now because I just don’t find anything interesting on it. It’s very hard to keep engaged on a platform that you don’t find interesting.”

Rowswell expresses his disappointment when he says he feels that “the promise of social media has not played out.” Although he says he thought that internet was the channel to lead the next stage of his career, “it did not work out that way.”

It is not just Sina Weibo that has not brought Dashan what he had hoped for: “I just think social media in general.. (..) We used to think technology was going to make it easier to communicate and that social media was going to bring people together but that has not worked; social media has unleashed the basic human tribalism and reinforced it.”

As Rowswell felt that the future of his career would not take place online in front of a virtual audience, he decided to focus on physical audiences and returned to the offline stage.

 

THE THIRD ACT

“Stand-up comedy is something that is closely tied to the rise of counter-culture and individualism in China.”

 

From foreign comedian to cultural ambassador, Rowswell reveals that he has always felt he was not truly doing his own things as a freelancer. “I was always doing stuff for someone else, doing someone else’s show. But where is my show?!,” he laughingly says.

It is stand-up comedy in which Dashan has found the next stage of his career, which he calls “Dashan 3.0” or “the third act.” Rowswell stresses that he does not want to be the foreigner in China performing solely for foreign audiences in expat bars. He specifically wants to connect with Chinese audiences; Chinese-language comedy is giving Dashan the stage and the possibility to directly speak to them.

As stand-up comedy (站立喜剧) is finding more channels and bigger audiences in China, Rowswell feels this is the right niche to explore: “It allows me to build on something new. It is not mainstream comedy here, but is something that is closely tied to the rise of counter-culture and individualism in China.”

Rowswell also finds that his eclectic career and experiences now give him the opportunity to take on some kind of mentoring role as a performer. The upcoming Chinese “Dashan Live” show at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival – where he will be the only “non-Chinese Chinese performer” – is an important part of this new journey.

“It takes time to find your own voice,” Rowswell remarks. As Dashan 3.0, he now has the opportunity to finally share his own experiences and his own stories, in his own Dashan show.

“Dashan Live” will take place from April 12-16 at The Forum, Melbourne.

– By Manya Koetse

©2017 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

Manya Koetse is the founder and editor-in-chief of whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer, public speaker, and researcher (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends, digital developments, and new media in an ever-changing China, with a focus on Chinese society, pop culture, and gender issues. She shares her love for hotpot on hotpotambassador.com. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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China and Covid19

King of Workout Livestream: Liu Genghong Has Become an Online Hit During Shanghai Lockdown

Liu Genghong (Will Liu) is leading his best lockdown life.

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With their exercise livestreams, Liu and his wife are bringing some positive vibes to Shanghai and the rest of China in Covid times, getting thousands of social media users to jump along with them.

On Friday, April 22, the hashtag “Why Has Liu Genghong Become An Online Hit” (#为什么刘畊宏突然爆火#) was top trending on Chinese social media platform Weibo.

Liu Genghong (刘畊宏, 1972), who is also known as Will Liu, is a Taiwanese singer and actor who is known for playing in dramas (Pandamen 熊貓人), films (True Legend 苏乞儿), and releasing various music albums (Rainbow Heaven 彩虹天堂). He is a devout Christian.

Besides all of his work in the entertainment business, Liu is also a fitness expert. In 2013, Liu participated in the CCTV2 weight loss programme Super Diet King (超级减肥王, aka The Biggest Loser) as a motivational coach, and later also became a fitness instructor for the Jiangsu TV show Changing My Life (减出我人生), in which he also helped overweight people to become fit. After that, more fitness programs followed, including the 2017 Challenge the Limit (全能极限王) show.

During the Covid outbreak in Shanghai, the 50-year-old Liu Genghong has unexpectedly become an online hit for livestreaming fitness routines from his home. Together with his wife Vivi Wang, he streams exercise and dance videos five days of the week via the Xiaohongshu app and Douyin.

In his livestreams, Liu and his wife appear energetic, friendly, happy and super fit. They exercise and dance to up-beat songs while explaining and showing their moves, often encouraging those participating from their own living rooms (“Yeah, very good, you’re doing well!”). Some of their livestreams attract up to 400,000 viewers tuning in at the same time.

The couple, both in lockdown at their Shanghai home, try to motivate other Shanghai residents and social media users to stay fit. Sometimes, Liu’s 66-year-old mother in law also exercises with them, along with the children.

“I’ve been exercising watching Liu and his wife for half an hour, they’re so energetic and familiar, they’ve already become my only family in Shanghai,” one Weibo user says.

“I never expected Liu Genghong to be a ‘winner’ during this Covid epidemic in Shanghai,” another person writes.

Along with Liu’s online success, there’s also a renewed interest in the Jay Chou song Herbalist’s Manual (本草纲目), which is used as a workout tune, combined with a specific dance routine. Liu is also a good friend and fitness pal to Taiwanese superstar Jay Chou.

This week, various Chinese news outlets such as Fengmian News and The Paper have reported on Liu’s sudden lockdown success. Livestreaming workout classes in general have become more popular in China since the start of Covid-19, but there reportedly has been no channel as popular as that of Liu Genghong.

The channel’s success is partly because of Liu’s fame and contagious enthusiasm, but it is also because of Vivi Wang, whose comical expressions during the workouts have also become an online hit.

While many netizens are sharing their own videos of exercizing to Liu’s videos, there are also some who warn others not to strain themselves too quickly.

“I’ve been inside for over 40 days with no exercise” one person writes: “I did one of the workouts yesterday and my heart nearly exploded.” “I feel fine just watching,” others say: “I just can’t keep up.”

Watch one of Liu’s routines via Youtube here, or here, or here.

For more articles on the Covid-19 topics on Chinese social media, check here.

By Manya Koetse

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China Celebs

Weibo Shuts Down Rumors of Tong Liya’s Alleged Marriage to CMG President Shen Haixiong

The censorship surrounding the Tong Liya story almost drew more attention than the actual rumors themselves.

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The famous actress and dancer Tong Liya (佟丽娅, 1983) has had an eventful year. After hosting the CCTV Spring Festival Gala in 2020, she performed at the CCTV Spring Festival Gala in February of 2021 and in May she announced that after seven years of marriage, she finalized her divorce with actor and director Chen Sicheng (陈思诚).

Tong Liya is of Xibe ethnicity and was born in Xinjiang. The former beauty pageant and award-winning actress is known for her roles in many films and TV series, such as those in The Queens and Beijing Love Story. She also starred in the 2021 Chinese historical film 1921, which focuses on the founding of the Communist Party of China.

This month, online rumors about Tong flooded the internet, alleging that she was recently remarried to Shen Haixiong (慎海雄, 1967), the deputy minister of the Party’s Central Propaganda Department and the President of the CMG (China Media Group), which includes CCTV, China National Radio, and China Radio International.

Some of the rumors included those claiming the actress was previously Shen’s mistress, or netizens connecting Tong Liya’s relations with such an influential and powerful person to her role at the previous CCTV Spring Gala Festival.

But these rumors did not stay online for long, and the quick censorship itself became somewhat of a spectacle. As reported by China Digital Times, the topic ‘Tong Liya’s Remarriage’ (‘佟丽娅再婚’) was completely taken offline.

Following the rumors and censorship, it first was announced that Tong reported the online rumors about her to the police, with the hashtag “Tong Liya Reports the Case to Authorities” (#佟丽娅报案#) receiving over 310 million clicks. On December 23rd, the hashtag “Beijing Police is Handling Tong Liya’s Report” (#北京警方受理佟丽娅报案#) went viral online, attracting over 1.7 billion (!) views on Weibo within three days.

The Beijing Haidian police statement on Weibo is as follows:

In response to the recent rumors on the Internet, the public security authorities have accepted Tong Liya’s report, and the case is now under investigation. The internet is not a place beyond the law, and illegal acts such as starting rumors and provoking trouble will be investigated and punished according to the law.”

The statement led to some confused responses among netizens who wanted to know more about what was actually reported and what it is the police are exactly ‘investigating.’

On Twitter, Vice reporter Viola Zhou wrote that the censorship “angered many young people,” some of whom lost their social media accounts for discussing Tong Liya’s second marriage: “It’s now prompting a mass pushback against the potential abuse of censorship power.”

In an attempt to circumvent censorship, and perhaps also ridicule it, some netizens even resorted to morse code to write about Tong Liya.

One Weibo post about the issue by Legal Daily received over 3000 comments, yet none were displayed at the time of writing.

The case is allegedly still being investigated by Beijing authorities.

By Manya Koetse

With contributions by Miranda Barnes.

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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