Perhaps because there are no tween-pop pretty boys on the restaurant stereo, no Asians slurping noodles at the next table, and no superfine mudabitches to get him hot and bothered, the man known as Peter Chao is remarkably mellow on this sweet summer day.
This will come as a surprise to the millions of viewers who’ve made him a certified star on YouTube. The man who’s kicking back at the Reef on Commercial Drive today is anything but laid-back on the Internet. Fire up Google, punch in “Justin Bieber + Chinese Guy”, and you’ll find him ranting about the fresh-faced teen idol’s “Baby” video, his outrage sparked by the fact the Canadian singer and his “stupid white-ass friends” have the gall to dance in the lanes at a bowling alley. Or, as Chao puts it, “da bowring arrey”. Do a search for “Chinese Guy + Facebook”, and you’ll see him ripping Facebook addicts for the way they’ll update their status with things like “sleeping” when it’s clear that they aren’t really “sreeping”.
And enter “Chinese Guy + Black Man” and you’ll end up watching Chao pushing buttons with a clip in which a rasta who looks suspiciously like Peter Chao in blackface stops by his home for a meal consisting of fried chicken and watermelon.
The latter video ended up getting him suspended by YouTube for two weeks, which, funnily enough, only made him more popular. And make no mistake: Chao, whose clips find him speaking with an accent that suggests a street-smart update of Sixteen Candles icon Long Duk Dong, is insanely popular. “Chinese Guy Eats Sooo Loud!”—one of his 78 videos on YouTube—is sitting at nearly 1.8 million views, with many right around the million mark.
What makes this amazing is that, even now, he’s in many ways flying completely under the radar in Vancouver. If Chad Kroeger or Michael Bublé are out on the town, they can’t step up to a urinal without someone wanting to shake their hand. The Vancouver-based Chao, however, is still at the point where being recognized is a novelty to him. The 23-year-old recalls one of his first public appearances in Lotusland, a few months back at the Modern nightclub in Gastown.
“I sat there in my own VIP section,” he says. “It was very weird—there were girls actually fighting to get in line. I was like, ”˜Why are they treating me like a celebrity?’ I’m just a guy who makes videos on YouTube.”
Chao might be just a guy who makes videos on YouTube, but even he will admit that he’s become a phenomenon. Completely unknown two years ago, he’s now the 62nd-most-popular personality on the world’s biggest video-sharing network. In terms of YouTube celebrities from the Great White North, Bieber holds down top spot, but Chao is currently sitting at number three. Or, as he might say in his hilariously exaggerated, fresh-off-the-boat accent, “numbah free”.
Politically incorrect? In the tradition of Borat, South Park, and Tropic Thunder, totally. Hilarious? Absolutely, which explains why Chao’s status as the most famous Vancouverite you’ve never heard of is quickly changing in a big way.
“I was in Tiffany a while ago—you know, the jewellery store,” he recounts. “This security guard—this massive, buff guy—runs up to me and he gets, like, severely giddy. There’s this massive guy who kicks people’s asses every day for stealing jewellery, and he’s standing in front of me going: ”˜You’re so funny—so fucking funny. Keep it up, man, because you’re awesome.’ That’s when you realize there are people out there who really appreciate your work.”
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For a good idea of just how big a fan base Peter Chao has built in the past year, consider that he has nearly 30,000 followers on Twitter. His official Facebook page lists over 200,000 fans. Most tellingly, though, he’s managed to turn his YouTube clips into a full-time job.
Chao has learned that, if you’re lucky enough to start attracting a following on the site, Google begins attaching paid ads to your clips, at which point you get a cut tied to the number of hits.
He admits that his first cheques, in 2009, didn’t exactly get him thinking that it was time to start shopping for a Porsche and a house on Point Grey Road.
“The first two months, I got $7.28,” Chao says with a laugh.
This year, things have been a tad more lucrative, although he’s not overly eager to give an exact number.
If he’s shocked at where he finds himself today, it’s because Peter Chao’s Internet debut in 2009 was a decidedly low-key one. He was inspired by Mr. Chi-City, a black YouTube performer who riffs on African-American stereotypes.
“One of his things was on how to get laid by having your refrigerator stocked to the max,” Chao explains. “He’d be like, ”˜You gotta have Cherry Coke for the black bitches.’ I loved that video, so I decided to do a video response to that video. And that first Peter Chao video ended up getting 15,000 hits overnight.
“I was like, ”˜Wow,’ ” he continues. “A friend, who was really good at marketing, was like, ”˜This can really go somewhere. You need to grab this opportunity.’ So I started making shitty little videos on a Webcam.”
Those clips—typically coming in at three minutes—find a sunglasses-sporting Chao rattling on in an accent one might expect of someone who flunked, spectacularly, out of ESL class.
“For YouTube videos, the first 10 seconds are the most important,” he argues. “You have to hook them in, and the accent is what does that. It’s like you just have to say, ”˜I ruv titties,’ and bam: that gives them a reason to watch.”
Based on what we see on-screen, Chao’s grasp of the English language seems a tad tenuous, with every third word mangled for maximum impact. His affection for profanity is, however, undeniable, with most clips ending with him looking into the camera and signing off with “Chao outside, mudafucka.”
He started off ranting in his apartment, at first railing against the things that piss off Peter Chao, which is basically everything, including YouTube haters who suggest that he’s (take your pick) a homosexual, underendowed, or sexist. Quickly, he twigged to the fact that the best way to generate hits was to tee off on pop-culture phenoms who were most likely to surface in Google searches.
“I dissed the Jonas Brothers, and that one was a classic,” Chao says. “I got over 100,000 hits pretty quick. The thing that I learned with that is, if you badmouth people on the Internet—badmouth someone popular with a really good reason—it creates a flame war where everybody wants to talk about it.”
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And as his stock has shot up on-line, Chao has found that people are more than eager to talk about him. Predictably, not everyone has found him funny, with more than one YouTube commenter suggesting he’s a racist, a charge that really took off after “Chinese Guy and Black Man Eat Fried Chicken”, the clip that got him temporarily banned by the site.
“The more edge you add to your videos, the more you draw,” Chao says simply. “But yes, I was surprised by the ban.”
Why? Well, to get a full picture of what Chao isn’t—which is to say, an Asian-Canadian version of former Ku Klux Klan grand wizard David Duke—it helps to know a bit about what he is.
For a start, he’s a character, invented and played by New Brunswick–raised Davin Tong. The second son of Chinese immigrants, who speaks in the kind of accentless English you’d expect from someone born and bred in Canada, Tong is nothing like his alter ego.
“I’m very nervous when I’m myself,” he says candidly, “whereas I’m capable of becoming very obnoxious when I’m Peter Chao. Then I don’t care what I say.”
He will allow that he had a Chao-like streak of obnoxiousness as a child.
“In kindergarten, I wasn’t really a bully, but when I wanted something I got it,” he remembers. “I think I was kind of violent because I grew up watching wrestling. I remember this kid always having a steering wheel that I wanted to play with, which is ironic because Chinese people are bad drivers. So I would take it from him. I was that guy in kindergarten—a little bit of an asshole.”
By the time he hit high school, though, the man behind Peter Chao had pretty much resigned himself to the fact that he wasn’t one of the badasses or cool kids, wasn’t overly academically inclined, wasn’t good at sports, and wasn’t exactly a hot commodity with the ladies. Or, if you prefer, the mudabitches.
“I never went out with girls in Grade 7, junior high, high school,” he notes. “It was just me all by my lonesome. And I never had more than, I don’t know, three friends. Mostly, I just kept to myself and got quieter as I grew up.”
Although school didn’t interest him, he did love movies, the first one that blew his mind being Jim Carrey’s The Mask. That obsession would eventually lead him to drop out of university back east and move across the country to attend Vancouver Film School. After graduating in 2008, he worked locally in movies and television.
“I was an extra in 2012—I’m actually featured prominently in one of the shots,” he says. “I worked a lot of gigs on Smallville—not as an extra, but as a PA, a production assistant. That was pretty much my job, coming in at 6:30 in the morning and doing things for other people. I got sick of that pretty quickly.”
And that led to the creation of Peter Chao, who began as a party trick that Tong would pull out when drunk.
“I started doing that accent as a kid,” he relates. “Chinese television, for some reason, will mix English with Chinese. Like Chinglish. They’ll say a bunch of Chinese, and then, for no reason, something in English like ”˜Toy-oh-ta numbah one.’ My mom would always find that funny, like ”˜numbah one.’ So the accent was not hard to develop.”
But enough about the man behind Peter Chao, who contends he’s nowhere near as interesting as the character that’s made him notorious.
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What makes Chao so interesting is the way in which he’s excelled at getting a reaction. He’s hardly, of course, the first to do so. A wise man—Fat Mike of Southern California punk-rock icons NOFX, in case you’re curious—once noted that you can be against racism, but you can’t deny that racism is funny. For proof of that, look no further than comic giants like Don Rickles, Mel Brooks, Damon and Keenen Ivory Wayans, Sacha Baron Cohen, and Eddie Murphy.
“The whole Borat and Jews thing—that’s funny,” Chao says. “It’s making fun of ignorance.”
Chao is smart enough to know that, as a comic, he has to give it to everyone, regardless of their ethnicity. And all ethnicities take their lumps in his clips, including the Chinese, who, he’ll argue, provide no shortage of material to work with.
“They’ll be like, ”˜Okay, you can’t marry a white person into the family because you’ll destroy our whatever,’ ” he says. “It’s kind of appalling, really, that you shouldn’t be accepting of someone your son likes. But even though it’s appalling, it’s also funny in some ways. Like, ”˜Don’ marry da white bitch into da famry. No white devil.’ ”
Does Chao sometimes go too far? He’s the first to admit there are clips that make him wince a little today. If his critics need to cut him slack, though, it’s because he’s in many ways breaking new ground as a comic.
In the past, performers have had years to hone their act, using nightclub stages or comedy troupes as ways to figure out what works and what crosses the line that separates funny from offensive.
Chao is basically a one-man show. Once he’s locked onto a topic, he’ll turn on the camera and riff for a half-hour, off the top of his head. The best bits are then reworked into the three-minute clips that he usually shoots himself. Forget testing them in front of a live audience or a focus group—the first time audiences see them is when they go up on YouTube.
Ultimately, Chao is groundbreaking proof of the power of social media. Something that started out with one guy picking up a video camera one day while he was bored has turned into a juggernaut.
Now that he’s conquered YouTube, the question is where he goes from here. As much as Justin Bieber, the Jonas Brothers, and mudabitches still get him enraged, he’s focused on moving forward, hoping to branch off into live standup comedy (the idea of which actually terrifies him) and film acting. Ultimate dreams include having his own show, complete with song parodies, which he’s been working on perfecting.
In the meantime, Chao has no plans to abandon the formula that’s made him an honest-to-God Internet celebrity. And if it offends you, that’s your problem. All Chao cares about is that there are plenty of fans out there who totally get the joke.
“I kind of look at my humour as South Park humour, although it’s not as well-executed, obviously,” he says self-deprecatingly. “You do something really offensive the whole time, and then come up with something lame-ass at the end to try and make up for it all.”
And in case that’s not in plain-enough Engrish for you, Peter Chao is more than happy, mudafucka, to offer some clarification: “The obvious aim is to offend people to get them talking. If you’re not doing that, you’re just another blogging guy who’s really boring. Talk about things that people are actually thinking about but are afraid to say—that’s how you get people’s attention.”
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