As Mark Rowswell walks toward me down a tree-lined street in Shanghai's French Concession, a young Chinese couple stroll past him, going the opposite direction. They immediately stop and look back at my lunch guest, who is by far the most famous Westerner, and certainly the most famous Canadian, in China.
The couple run back and tap Mr. Rowswell on the shoulder. They both seem unable to believe they have met him in the flesh, and want to take selfies with him. He obliges, smiling a sparkling smile familiar to hundreds of millions of Chinese who grew up watching Mr. Rowswell on Chinese television performing as Dashan, a name that means "Big Mountain" in Chinese.
"This is a peasant name, the kind of name you pick for your child when you're illiterate," Mr. Rowswell explains. "It's like Billy Bob."
The name came from a television skit Mr. Rowswell appeared on in 1988, when he was studying at Beijing University. TV producers had prowled for a foreigner with excellent Mandarin, and partly because Mr. Rowswell had already graduated with a degree in Chinese studies from the University of Toronto, the producers picked him over others – at first, to co-host a singing competition. His more famous appearance came next. The skit, in which Mr. Rowswell played a wise-cracking Chinese peasant returning to a no-nonsense wife late at night, ran on China Central Television as part of the state-broadcaster's Chinese New Year special. In China, this TV show is a holiday tradition. And that night, Mr. Rowswell was watched by 550 million people.
Dashan was born. And since the late 1980s, Mr. Rowswell has spun his impeccable Mandarin and his warm affection for the Middle Kingdom into a remarkably long-lasting career in China. He has hosted and appeared on countless Chinese television shows and historical dramas, graced billboards and endorsed a wide variety of products in China – from Nortel Networks gadgets to Saskatchewan potash. He's a staple of Canadian trade missions, from Brian Mulroney and Jean Chrétien to Stephen Harper, and also marched Canada's athletes into the stadium at the Beijing Olympics.
The selfie request is a small glimpse of the fame Mr. Rowswell has gained in China as the country transitioned from the poor and tumultuous 1980s to a more confident era as the world's second-largest economy. Mr. Rowswell's unique vantage point makes his insights on China fascinating. But after a long and profitable career, Mr. Rowswell is trying to move in a surprising new direction: stand-up comedy.
In the process, he almost gave up on China entirely.
The worst and best of China
It's a Saturday afternoon in late October, and Mr. Rowswell, who is taller than I thought and looks much younger than his 50 years, relaxes into the plush seating at the busy Boxing Cat microbrewery. We both order burgers and an American pale ale called the Sucker Punch.
After performing in front of hundreds of millions of people on TV, Mr. Rowswell is trying to reinvent himself on the stand-up circuit. He chose this microbrewery because it is close to the small, bohemian venue he will be performing at this afternoon.
"This is really tough slogging," Mr. Rowswell says with a self-deprecating laugh. "I kind of see the angle, 'Here's this senior performer trying to make a comeback' kind of thing. It looks kind of pathetic. But actually, I'm really into this. I honestly think if I do this right, this is what people will remember me for."
Mr. Rowswell's shift to the core of Western comedy must be hard for his Chinese audience to understand. For years, he has appeared on Chinese TV wearing every sort of imperial robe Chinese history can muster, and became widely known for performing xiang sheng, or "cross-talk," a form of Chinese comedy that involves wordplay too tricky for most native Chinese speakers.
Mr. Rowswell parlayed that fame into a career in Chinese media and advertising, doing educational programs and cultural consulting with businesses. This success allowed him to branch into what he describes as his "cultural ambassador phase" – acting as a bridge between east and west. Mr. Rowswell was Canada's face at the 2010 World Expo in Shanghai and former prime minister Stephen Harper named him Canada's goodwill ambassador to China.
Now, Mr. Rowswell hopes Chinese audiences find the humour as he transitions to being an ambassador of Western comedic traditions. "This is the culture that's in my bones," he says. "This might totally fall apart. Who knows. But if I do this well, this will be my legacy."
Mr. Rowswell began learning Chinese in 1979 from a refugee he worked with at a camera store on Bank Street in Ottawa, where he grew up.
She taught him some words and Mr. Rowswell bought books and lessons on cassette tapes. When he went to U of T the following year, his parents discouraged him from taking Chinese courses, saying he could study abroad if he wanted to learn. He took philosophy.
"And I literally fell asleep in the first class," he says. "Falling asleep in the very first class of the first semester is a really bad sign, so I thought, I'm not even going to tell my family – I went straight to the registrar, dropped philosophy and took that Chinese course."
When he finished at the University of Toronto, Mr. Rowswell said he was a shoo-in for an exchange to Beijing University, China's most prestigious school. But not long after Mr. Rowswell arrived came the unforgettable Spring of 1989. Mr. Rowswell's colleagues boycotted classes to demonstrate in Tiananmen square as China teetered on the edge of revolution – and then descended into violence.
"In the space of a few short weeks, I saw the best and the worst that China has to offer," he says. "Everything that was beautiful and inspiring and promising about China. And everything that was ugly and dark about China, all together. … It was like, this thing was open, and it was just a mind-blowing, incredible scene. And then poof, the curtain closed again."
After the June 4 massacre, foreigners left, Western countries applied harsh sanctions and Mr. Rowswell found himself in a precarious position. His career was just beginning, and he had dedicated his entire adult life to the Chinese language. He decided to stay and continue to perform on state-owned Chinese television, which, of course, is basically the only television in China.
"That's the original sin of Dashan: When everyone else left China, Dashan stayed," Mr. Rowswell says.
"On the other hand, that's what defined me for that generation of television viewers, too. I don't think Westerners get this perspective. People who left were considered fair-weather friends. And the fact that our country has just undergone this huge tragedy, and you stayed on – that was actually, in terms of Chinese viewers' eyes, a defining moment. This guy really is here. He really is a friend."
When I ask about whether he has greater leeway than Chinese comics for social or political criticism, he is blunt.
"Chinese people aren't interested in foreign criticism. They get it all the time," he says.
The world changed in 2008, he says, the year China had its coming out party with the Beijing Olympics while the global financial crisis, to some, heralded a shift in the global economic order. With regard to whether his comedy touches on politics, he adds: "Westerners approach [stand-up] from a political standpoint … some see it as subversive, and how can you do that here? But I mean, Jerry Seinfeld isn't subversive. It's comedy from real life."
Picking up the pieces
Mr. Rowswell now divides his time between Canada and China, spending five weeks on the road before returning home to his family on a farm just outside Newmarket, Ont., a habit he has kept up since the late 1990s. But near the end of our conversation, Mr. Rowswell says he came close to leaving China for good.
"I almost gave up in May, I tell ya," he says softly. "Just gave up everything."
Mr. Rowswell showed up for an important gig in Suzhou, and the local government – or police, no one is quite sure – shut the whole thing down. The audience was already there, and Mr. Rowswell wanted to get on stage and apologize that they couldn't put on the show.
"Somebody said, you know, they've actually got plainclothes police in the venue already, waiting for you to get on stage, because as soon as you get on stage, they'll take photos and videos and that will be proof that you engaged in an illegal performance – and you're looking at jail time," Mr. Rowswell says.
He's not sure it would have come to that, since illegality in China, including for foreign business people, is often vague – a matter of crossing an invisible line, or accidentally angering the wrong people. But another show soon fell apart. And then his wife was diagnosed with cancer. Mr. Rowswell could take no more. He took the whole summer off, and went with his wife – who was born in Beijing – to their cottage near Algonquin Park.
"It really wasn't until the end of September that I said, okay, let's come back, and pick up the pieces," he says.
Things have looked up since. His wife had a successful surgery and he did three sold-out shows in Beijing.
We head to his show. The venue is smaller than he expected. Dashan is headlining, and scores big laughs with a joke that riffs off his age, the youth of the audience and the questions many Chinese earnestly ask foreign visitors. The jokes are playful and cheeky, but warm-hearted. That they are delivered by Dashan – a celebrity the audience grew up watching on TV – is central to their understanding of the jokes.
He asks the audience: Who was born in the 1990s? He gets a big cheer.
"I came to this country before you did," he yells, drawing laughs.
"I'm curious about you late-comers," he continues. "Do you like Chinese food? Can you use chopsticks?"