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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.

Manya Koetse

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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 editor-in-chief of www.whatsonweibo.com. She is a writer and consultant (Sinologist, MPhil) on social trends in China, with a focus on social media and digital developments, popular culture, and gender issues. Contact at manya@whatsonweibo.com, or follow on Twitter.

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‘First Lady of Hong Kong TV’ Lily Leung Passes Away at Age 90

Chinese netizens pay their respects to veteran actress Lily Leung Shun-Yin (1929-2019), who passed away on August 13.

Manya Koetse

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Lily in 1996, image via Sing Tao Daily.

While the Hong Kong protests are dominating the headlines, the death of Hong Kong veteran actress Lily Leung Shun-Yin (梁舜燕) has become a top trending topic on social media site Sina Weibo under the hashtag “Hong Kong Actress Liang Shunyan Dies from Illness” (#香港演员梁舜燕病逝#).

Lily Leung, image via http://www.sohu.com/a/333418087_161795.

The actress was born in Hong Kong in 1929. She starred in dozens of television series, including the first TV drama to be locally broadcasted. She became known as “the first lady of Hong Kong TV.”

Leung acted for TVB and other broadcasters. Some of her more well-known roles were those in Kindred Spirit (真情) and Heart of Greed (溏心风暴).

Leung, also nicknamed ‘Sister Lily’ (Lily姐), passed away on August 13. According to various Chinese media reports, the actress passed peacefully surrounded by family after enduring illness. She was 90 years old.

“I’ve seen so much of her work,” many Weibo netizens say, sharing the favorite roles played by Leung. “I always watched her on TVB while growing up, and will cherish her memory,” one commenter wrote.

Another well-known Hong Kong actress, Teresa Ha Ping (夏萍), also passed away this month. She was 81 years old when she died. Her passing away also attracted a lot of attention on Chinese social media (
#演员夏萍去世#).

Many people express their sadness over the fact that not one but two grand ladies from Hong Kong’s 20th-century entertainment era have passed away this month.

“Those people from our memories pass away one by one, and it represents the passing of an era,” one Weibo user wrote.

“Two familiar faces and old troupers of Hong Kong drama – I hope they rest in peace.”

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. Please note that your comment below will need to be manually approved if you’re a first-time poster here.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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China Celebs

Iconic Shanghai Singer Yao Lee Passes Away at the Age of 96

Yao Li, one of the seven great singing stars of Shanghai in the 1940s, has passed away.

Manya Koetse

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Chinese singer Yao Lee (姚莉), the ‘Queen of Mandarin pop,’ passed away on July 19 at the age of 96.

The singer, with her ‘Silvery Voice,’ was known as one of the seven great singing stars (“七大歌星”) of Shanghai of the 1940s.

For those who may not know her name, you might know her music – one of her iconic songs was used in the hit movie Crazy Rich Asians.

Yao’s most famous songs include “Rose, Rose, I Love You” (玫瑰玫瑰我爱你), “Meet Again” (重逢), and “Love That I Can’t Have” (得不到的爱情).

Yao, born in Shanghai in 1922, started singing at the age of 13. Her brother Yao Min was a popular music songwriter.

When popular music was banned under Mao in the 1950s, Hong Kong became a new center of the Mandarin music industry, and Yao continued her career there.

On Weibo, the hashtag Yao Lee Passes Away (#姚莉去世#) already received more than 200 million views at time of writing.

Many Chinese netizens post candles to mourn the death of the popular singer, some call her passing “the end of an era.”

“Shanghai of those years is really where it all started,” others say.

Listen to one of Yao’s songs below:

By Manya Koetse

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. Please note that your comment below will need to be manually approved if you’re a first-time poster here.

©2019 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com

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