Joe Wong: a biochemist turned standup comedian

China Plus Published: 2018-12-14 11:14:05
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Joe Wong is a biochemist turned standup comedian. He established a name for himself in the United States before coming back to Beijing. Now in his 40s, this humble-looking man with a deadpan expression is bringing laughs to audiences from both the West and the East.

Joe Wong: a biochemist turned standup comedian

Standup comedian Joe Wong [Photo: provided to China Plus]

How did he come to make a living from cracking jokes on both sides of the Pacific? Find out in our series "Deep Dive: Talks with Chinese Internationals".

You can also find the shows on Apple Podcasts.


Breaking Bamboo Ceilings with Jest

by Manling, host of China Plus

The famous yet unsung standup comedian Joe Wong, or Huang Xi in Chinese, came to my show for the second time. It has been five or six years since the first broadcast in which we talked about how he switched his career from biochemistry to standup comedy and how he had chosen the most difficult career as a non-native English speaker. Today I still hold this notion that to crack jokes to native English speakers, even for an English major student like myself, is beyond the bounds of possibility. And consensus has also been reached among peers that understanding jokes in foreign languages is an equally indomitable task, let alone creating jokes, staging them for public scrutiny and making a living out of it. This is exactly what Joe Wong has been doing, something that I'd never venture to do in life. So, last time after the interview I prayed secretly that he would survive.

Well he did! And he is still very much alive, as I humorously put it. Still appearing humble and wearing a facial expression of deadpan humor, he appeared for the second time on my show with increased yet still rather limited stardom. He didn't receive any abnormal attention, with most people passing by, without recognizing him. After the show, a few colleagues of mine wowed his presence and one even came to share with me their judgement of him.

Joe Wong: a biochemist turned standup comedian

Standup comedian Joe Wong [Photo: provided to China Plus]

The list of questions was designed more or less the same, since there had been noticeable ups and downs that have occurred in his life. The only difference was that this time our show was being livestreamed on Facebook and we, especially Joe as a comedian, were expected and requested by some viewers to crack jokes spontaneously, which we did throughout the hour and a half long interview. But unfortunately our improvised comic interview seemed not enough to keep our viewers entertained and Joe had to suggest that they search online for his classic jokes. I remember we did banter each other from the very beginning to the end. One joke stands out in my memory. When I said to him that this time I'd dig deep into his personal life and present what I find about him to our viewers, he replied: "Oh, now I understand why your studio is right near the Municipal Procuratorate. This WAS so clever instantaneous!"

"You don't look funny at all" was how I opened our conversation. In his youth, he was naughty, loved Charlie Chaplin and listening to jokes, yet he was never the funniest among peers and siblings. However, he was quite astute, talented enough to later earn himself a doctorate in biochemistry at Rice University in Houston and settle down in the US with a decent job at the pharmaceutical giant Aventis, in Cambridge, Mass. At that time he was just an ordinary grain of sand among the Chinese community pursuing their American dream in the US. Before long, Joe started to feel bored at the repetitive DNA experiments and he realized that he had hit the so-called "bamboo ceiling," just as many Asian immigrants there did while climbing social ladders.

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