For years, Canadians have been hearing about so-called astronaut fathers. This term is usually applied to dads of Asian ancestry who fly across the Pacific Ocean to work in China so they can support their wife and kids in Vancouver.
But not all astronaut fathers are Chinese. Mark Rowswell, a.k.a. Dashan, is a white comedian living in Toronto who’s been doing this since 1995.
In the process, he’s become the most famous Canadian in China, thanks to his many appearances on Chinese national television.
“I can walk into any room [in China] and pretty well be assured that eight out of 10 people know who I am,” Rowswell told the Georgia Straight by phone from his home. “But it’s not comparable to Justin Bieber or Avril Lavigne, because those are international celebrities. I’m pretty much a domestic celebrity. I’m part of the local scene there.”
Rowswell will be in Vancouver as part of SFU Public Square’s 2017 Community Summit, which looks at the role of Canada in the world. On Wednesday evening (March 1), he’ll join Goh Ballet director Chan Hon Goh, dancer-choreographer Wen Wei Wang, artist Hank Bull, curator/artist/academic Zheng Shengtian, and artist Howie Tsui on a panel to discuss how artists are shaping Canada’s relationship with China. Rowswell will also perform standup comedy in Mandarin earlier in the day at SFU’s Burnaby campus.
He revealed that he first learned Cantonese, then Mandarin, while attending the University of Toronto in the mid-1980s. Back then, he recalled, about 80 percent of the Chinese spoken in Canada was Cantonese, which is a regional dialect centred in the southern province of Guangdong and Hong Kong. After graduating from university in 1988, he moved to China for seven years, thinking this would be a stepping-stone to a career in business, diplomacy, or academia.
“That’s sort of where my mind was when I went to do a TV show, just for fun,” Rowswell recalled. “You’re in China. Somebody asks you if you want to be on TV. Why not? Right?”
More appearances followed as hundreds of millions of Chinese became fascinated with this white Canadian who could perform traditional Chinese comedy sketches and recite Tang poetry in his sleep. It was only after getting married that he moved back to Canada, but he continued flying back to China for work.
“On the surface, I’m more Chinese than the Chinese,” he quipped. “I’m the uber China hand.”
Naturally, Rowswell came to the attention of Canadian officials as he embraced the role of a cultural ambassador, helping promote greater understanding between the two cultures. Almost everywhere he went in China, he was instantly recognizable because of the reach of Chinese national television. The only exception was in Hong Kong, which has its own television stations.
Rowswell has met two presidents of China, Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin, and the past four Canadian prime ministers. He was also commissioner general for Canada at Expo 2010 in Shanghai. “I was at all of the functions, sort of waving the flag as Mr. Canada,” he recalled. “I met all the big guys.”
After the world’s fair in Shanghai, Rowswell developed an itch to move away from his safe, squeaky-clean TV image and do more daring, counterculture-style comedy in theatres. He likened it to George Carlin’s shift from being a mainstream-TV comedian to performing more biting, observational humour.
In Rowswell’s autobiographical routine, he doesn’t obliterate his previous identity but rather playfully twists it. “It’s a challenge for audiences,” he acknowledged. “There’s a huge desire to see something [in a live show] that we can’t see on television, but at the same time, not everybody wants to see really edgy, raw comedy.”
So is there any risk to his new style of humour in China? Rowswell responded that Chinese audiences are in no mood to hear a foreigner make fun of their political system, so he doesn’t go there. “It’s not a question of government censorship,” he emphasized. “It’s a question of, ‘Who the hell are you to make fun of our government?’ ”
Janet Webber is the executive director of SFU Public Square, which organized the 2017 Community Summit. She said Rowswell fits into the summit’s theme of looking at Canada’s role in the world. Speakers at other events will include famed Lebanon-based journalist Robert Fisk, climate-change activist and author Sheila Watt-Cloutier, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau adviser Roland Paris, and former Stephen Harper adviser Shuvaloy Majumdar.
Webber pointed out that as a middle power, Canada is interdependent with other nations. According to her, Canada doesn't have a choice to be an "insular country".
"We have to keep our arms stretched out and work in collaboration and in coordination with other nations in the world," Webber told the Straight by phone. "We have to...take what's happened in the world as a wake-up call."
She noted that some of what we've weaved as a tapestry in Canada has occurred as a result of luck, but some of it also arose as a result of having a strong neighbour to the south and being bounded by large bodies of water that are difficult to cross.
Webber also revealed that planning for the Community Summit occurred before last year's Brexit vote and the U.S. presidential election, so it wasn't created as a response to these developments.
“We want to extend the invitation to anyone and everyone—foreign-policy wonk or not—to come and engage with each other,” Webber told the Straight by phone. “These are really important conversations to be having. You don’t need to have a master’s degree in public policy to be able to come into this event, feel comfortable, learn something, and have something to offer."
Mark Rowswell will speak at Culture/Diplomacy: A Celebration of Artists Shaping Canada’s Relationship With China at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Wednesday (March 1). It's copresented by SFU Public Square and the Vancouver Art Gallery and tickets are available here. For more information on SFU Public Square’s 2017 Community Summit, entitled Who Needs Canada?, visit the SFU website.