Ronny Chieng is one of the few comics to bring an Asian perspective to the Just for Laughs stage. He is playing the Just for Laughs festival as part of his Tone Issues Tour but you can also see him on The Daily Show and in Crazy Rich Asians, his first role in a major motion picture. 

I had the chance to speak to Chieng over the phone. Being half-Asian myself, I know about the expectations Asian parents often have for their children so I asked if his family had different hopes for him career-wise. Chieng appreciated the question because one of his very first jokes at Just for Laughs addressed that.

He spoke of being sent to Australia to study law but he was a poor student. He became a comedian because he couldn’t get a job in law, and comedy ended up paying better. He even said that he didn’t tell his parents about his new career directly – they found out about it when he appeared in the local press in their home country, but they’re okay with his career choice now.

Since Chieng now works in America and a lot of his comedy is political, I asked him if he thinks Trump is good for comedy. He feels it’s fair to say that Trump is good for comedy.

“He’s bad for life, bad for the planet, and bad for the country, and bad for mental health everywhere. At The Daily Show we talk about him every day, so I’d be hard-pressed to say he’s not good for comedy. Would I want that? No, I would rather have someone else – he has more cons than pros for the comedy world.”

Though Chieng doesn’t like the Trump Administration, he doesn’t feel that comedians working in America should feel obligated to criticize it in their comedy.

Great stand-up, in his eyes, comes from really authentic points of view and pandering to trendy topics if you’re not personally passionate about them is not going to make for good comedy. 

While comedians shouldn’t feel obligated to talk about it, he feels that everyone – comedian or not – has an obligation to say something if they feel that something isn’t right.

Chieng’s comedy centers a lot on being Asian in predominantly white countries so I asked if his work was more about dispelling stereotypes or just about laughter. At first he joked that it was about making money, but then said that he is about fighting stereotypes or at least give them a little more nuance. 

“If there’s a stereotype, I would like to explain why that’s a stereotype and maybe take the stereotype to another level – explain the full story behind the stereotype or break the stereotype altogether if I feel a stereotype is unfair. I try to address it because I feel like no one is talking about it in society. I wanted someone to talk about it when I was growing up so that’s the kind of comedy I do. I hope I do the kind of comedy I wanted to see.”

While a lot of Chieng’s comedy is about lived experience, he does research on occasion to make sure he knows what he’s talking about. When it comes to his favourite topics in comedy, he said it’s mostly things that make him angry, saying he has an hour of such examples in his Just for Laughs show.

Crazy Rich Asians was Ronny Chieng’s first film role, so I couldn’t help asking him about it. Chieng loved doing the film because it was shot in Malaysia and Singapore, where he’s from, which allowed him to see family and friends during filming. 

The film was considered ground-breaking because it supposedly opened the door for more Asian characters in film when Hollywood still didn’t think it was possible. While Chieng doesn’t consider the film to be the be-all and end-all of films featuring Asian characters, he thinks the fact it was so well-received is amazing. 

“What the movie was really good at was not over-explaining Asian things and showing Asian characters as complete three-dimensional characters with complicated needs and wants. Some of them are good guys and some of them are bad guys, some of them are in between, they fall in love, they fall out of love, they have complicated lives. I thought that was very useful. I think it also established a baseline for Asian storytelling moving forward. I think there’s no context for Asian stories usually in the West, so a lot of movies can’t be made because there’s no baseline understanding so I feel like Crazy Rich Asians is a very good baseline story for Asian people in the West.”

There have been criticisms of Crazy Rich Asians as only showcasing paler-skinned Asians. For example, Filipinos like myself tend to be darker. Chieng sees the problem in the fact that in North America, Asian is considered a single voting block despite the diversity in Asian nationalities and cultures among the Asian diaspora. 

“You got Koreans, you got Japanese, you got Burmese, you got Thai, you have Filipinos, you have Malaysians, you have Chinese people, not to mention Chinese Indonesians, Chinese Malaysians, Chinese people who live in Japan, Chinese people from different parts of China with all the different dialect groups. Then you have the same number of people Americanized… and each of those groups are very distinct cultures. To expect one movie to cover the entire diaspora of Asia is an unfair burden placed upon it by Western views of what Asia is,”

In terms of criticisms that the film only showcased wealthier Asians, Chieng considers the movie satirical and that it showcases the extreme wealth that’s in Asia right now because that’s how the West experiences Asia in 2019.

Ronny Chieng is playing Just for Laughs from July 23 to 25. Check him out.

I have it on good authority that Genghis Khan would have been a huge Slayer fan. Galloping double-bass drums and furious riff-based thrash seems like a natural fit for the Golden Horde charging through the steppes of Central Asia. Just add booming Mongolian throat singing and horsehead fiddles that sound like a blade being drawn, and you have the perfect recipe for an incredible live performance.

The crowd at Foufounes Electriques got a taste of that Friday evening, when the Nomadic Folk Metal Horde known as Tengger Cavalry charged into town at the end of their North American tour with Incite.

Tengger Cavalry with FTB before the show
Tengger Cavalry with FTB before the show

These guys aren’t just fronting about the whole horse thing, either. In addition to using folk instruments like the Igil, Shanz, Morin Khuur and Throat Singing, Tengger can ride too.

“Yeah, I’m okay on horseback,” muses Nature Ganganbaigal (Guitar, Vocals) at the beginning of our pre-show chat. “One time, I went to the Mongolian grassland and I had to stay on a horse’s back for one hour because he ran off from his owner. I got the bridle on, and I can gallop no problem…I’m more comfortable playing guitar, but I can make a horse go, too.”

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Alex Abayev

While experimental genre-defying music is always exciting, it’s unfortunate that a lot of this blending of traditional music with contemporary styles can be seen as a gimmick, or attempting to cash in on the novelty of “look at us, we combine The Monolythic ‘Old’ with The Monolythic ‘New!’”

The obvious workaround is authenticity and commitment to what the artist is creating as a performance that creates something new, unique, and hybridized instead of just two distinct styles – see Canada’s A Tribe Called Red, and Chile’s Matanza for examples of groups who do this well. Tengger Cavalry does this spectacularly in the studio, but live it’s even more impressive.

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Nature Ganganbaigal

Tengger Cavalry presents a fascinating live show because these musicians focus their stage presence into capturing the sonic rush of stampeding cavalry as opposed to attempting to shoehorn sacred Mongolian traditions into popular contemporary music.

“When you travel a lot, and play from place to place, you’re already living a Nomadic lifestyle,” says Alex Abayev (Bass). “And since we’re all together, it’s like a Unity we can all feel,” chimes in Josh Schifris (Drums). Alex continues that with their music, “we can make people feel connected to the Steppes, even if they’ve never been there.”

To paraphrase from the acclaimed Coeur d’Alene author Sherman Alexie, writers from Indigenous cultures are often better off treading lightly on hallowed ground. Writing about sacred traditions and exhibiting them for public consumption outside that cultural group is an invitation for people searching to give themselves cultural capital via conspicuous consumption of “the other” (“look at how cool and open-minded I am, I saw a ~~Mongolian Metal band~~ last night”).

“When I was in high school, I listened to a lot of metal, which meant I listened to a lot of Scandinavian bands bringing traditional music into their sound,” explains Nature when I asked about the genesis of the band. “I thought, ‘well, why can’t I do this with my own culture? Why not create something brand-fucking-new?’”

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Josh Schifris

The band tells me that “talks are happening” about a future tour in Turkey and Central Asia. “We get a lot of messages from Istanbul, with fans telling us that we are their nomadic brothers.” This current tour has been a blast for the band, and despite weeks on the road, they show no signs of fatigue; if anything, they’re coping with post-tour depression now that the constant gigging has finished.

Canada has treated them well, with some of their favorite shows taking place in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. Josh has asked me to include a note to Neil Peart shouting out Rush (and the Great White North in general) as major inspirations to this band.

“The most important thing is about what’s in your music,” says Nature. “We see ourselves as combining cultures, not combining genres. We’re all from different backgrounds, but we’re all in this band.”

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Nature Ganganbaigal

The band would like to express their sincere appreciation to the tour’s sponsors, Kay’s clothing (UK) Killer B Guitars, Rock N Roller, Reunion Blues, Sinister Guitar Picks, and Strukture.

 

Photos by Cem Ertekin

 

The New Year always seems to bring about the need for change. People commit to their new year’s resolutions in order quit smoking or drinking, lose weight or better themselves in some particular way. Rarely do you see these types of changes taking a place at a national or international level, after all, you never hear of a government resolving to spend less or be more accountable for their actions.

Upon the unexpected death of North Korea’s Kim Jong Il, the hope for such a change was high, especially in the media. The trouble is a totalitarian regime never works that way, in fact no country works that way. The only way to change a democratic or autocratic government is by having its people demand it, just like in North Africa this past year, just like in Washington in 2008. To believe that change comes about with a man’s “heart attack” is as naïve as thinking it comes with the changing of the year. Change is up to us, not them.

The problem with North Korea is that the ruling party has spent decades building up its leader’s cult of personality and shutting the rest of the world out. With the Kim Dynasty now entering its third generation, you would be hard pressed to find anyone who knows of the freedom that those in the west take for granted. However, I would bet if you were to ask the average North Korean if they felt free, they would agree. They just don’t know any better.

Enter Kim Jong Un, youngest son of the late Kim Jong Il, a man supposedly in his late twenties with only two years of grooming under his father’s wing. Kim the third will now take control of twenty-five million people, the world’s fourth largest military and one of the two last state-run economies on earth.

two thirds of the Kim Dynasty

Kim Jong Un will also have to decide what to do with the ongoing famine in his communist country. While famine is not at the levels they were in the mid-nineties when up to three million North Koreans died of famine related diseases, it is still a problem. According to Jimmy Carter who visited the country last year, the North Korean state had reduced daily food intake from 1,400 calories to 700 calories in 2011 (a healthy European takes in about 2000-2500). Another study concluded that roughly 45% of North Korean children under the age of five are stunted from malnutrition.

Thanks to Songun, a term used to describe Kim Jong Il’s “military first” policy, all aspects of North Korean society is secondary to the KPA (Korean People’s Army). This policy helped Kim Jong Il solidify his power after his father died and helped to strengthen the country after the fall of communism in many allied countries. Songun guides domestic policy and international interactions at the expense of its people who struggle to survive. I would argue that the United States has a similar policy in place.

Kim Jong Un has already consolidated his power in the country and last Friday was appointed supreme commander of the country’s 1.2 million-strong armed forces. The state’s annual New Year’s address urged the country to defend the new leader, Kim Jong-un, to the death. The message also said the “burning issue” of food shortages was one the nation’s leaders must work to solve. Of course in a country like North Korea, if that “burning issue” isn’t solved all one has to do is change the message.

The situation in the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea” is virtually hopeless in regards to its citizens. The Kim dynasty’s Stalin-like military rule has made any chance of revolution impossible. The presence of a massive army supported by nuclear weapons has made any intervention undesirable. Furthermore, their state run media brainwashes its people to believe that everything is great no matter how starving and desperate its people become. Kim Jong Un might very well lead the country for fifty years, but the type of country he leads is solely in his hands.

I didn’t write this first essay of the New Year to depress anyone, I wrote it to encourage. We used to live in the freest society the world has ever known. Those freedoms that we took for granted for so long are now slowly being replaced or repealed by the people in government and the corporations and special interests that control them. In 2012 we all must come together to take back what is rightfully ours. Unlike North Korea, we don’t have to wait an eternity…

“I’m thankful I live in a place where I can say the things I do without being taken out and shot. So I’m on guard against the goons trying to take my rights away. We’ve got to rise above the need for cops and laws.” – Taken from Stars and Stripes of Corruption by Jello Biafra

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