by Abe Sauer
“Cock wire Mike Sui!” yelled one of the young men in the crowd. “Cock wire Sui is awesome!” The kimono robe and mirrored sunglasses, like some kind of last-minute frat-boy Halloween costume, that Mike Sui was wearing when he leapt onto the stage, had been shed, and Sui now prowled the stage in cargo shorts and a Nike t-shirt.
Before April, a slim few, if any, in this Shanghai crowd would have known Sui’s name. And before April, NetEase, one of China’s largest Internet companies, certainly would not have asked Sui to emcee its stage at China Joy, the nation’s largest gaming and digital entertainment exhibition. But now it was late July, and on the same day that Sui was working the stage for NetEase, a movie starring him was hitting theaters. Fearless, a Chinese version of the dance-off series Step Up, was shot in January, with Sui playing the role of MC. Now, thanks to his new fame, he’s become a prominent part of the movie’s marketing. A few weeks after the movie premiere, Sui was back in Shanghai to emcee Nike’s Festival of Sport, where he pitched footballs alongside LeBron James and hammed it up with the New England Patriot cheerleaders. A month after that, he become the face of Puma China’s “Puma Social” campaign and Nescafe’s new coffee.
All thanks to a single viral video, “12 Beijingers,” that last April made Sui one of the most well-known performers in China.
Sui insists that he’s still a “cock wire,” China’s new and evolving term for being a “loser,” and that he’ll always be one. That’s also his act. Part Rodney Dangerfield, part Adam Sandler, and half Chinese, Mike Sui aims to popularize a new style of comedy in China that’s all about being a loser, even when that loser is clearly winning. He could even be the start of an answer to the nagging Gangnam question many in China are asking.
A month after Korean artist Psy’s “Gangnam Style” became a global phenomenon, The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos sagely translated and explained to the west a question that had been bouncing around China for a few weeks, “Why couldn’t we come up with that?” In eight paragraphs, Osnos efficiently lays out the research to answer the question. The conclusion: It’s the “Kung Fu Panda” problem all over again. That is to say, China is incapable of satirizing itself.
Enter Mike Sui.
Sui is heartily laughing at himself and trying to get China to do the same. He has a growing fan base that appreciates his satirical, western style. Forward-looking (which is western) brands that understand the value of that fan base and have long used satire in their advertising are hitching their brandwagons to Sui’s satirical quirk. But first, to understand Sui one must understand the diaosi phenomenon.
“Cock wire” is how Google literally translates diǎo sī (屌丝 ). But there are other literal options, including “cock silk” and “penis thread.” Like a lot of China’s most popular new slang, it’s not easily accessible. State English-language newspaper Global Times defines diaosi as men who “have unsatisfying economic situations, are not good looking, and have difficulty advancing their status. Unlike upper-class men, they lack a powerful family, a useful social network for their career, and most importantly, a suitable woman to marry.” It adds, “Labeling yourself a diaosi offers an outlet for people to mock themselves and relieve pressure.” In simple terms, calling yourself diaosi is China’s equivalent of the storied western tradition of self-deprecating one’s small penis. It’s worth mentioning that the Psy character of the “Gangnam Style” video — if not the real life artist — is quite diaosi.
But the diaosi phenomenon is also a big deal, signaling an important change in self-awareness and humor.
With Sui’s recent success and much expanded fame and employment options (not to mention female attention), whether he’s truly a “cock wire” anymore is open to debate. He insists he is. But that’s all part of his act, which I first caught at the China Joy event.
Everyone in the crowd was sweating through their shirts. Of the four China Joy halls at the Shanghai Exhibition Center the one housing the NetEase stage was the only one without air conditioning. Sui seemed unperturbed. When I messaged him before the show and mentioned the smothering heat, he texted me from backstage, “yea, got coser girls fanning me, life’s alright.”
“Coser” girls are the cosplay girls who were all over the event dressed as video game characters. Some were here to advertise any one of dozens of online games that have become popular in China. Some were just fans of those games. Proving China really isn’t that much different, crowds of young male Chinese gamers swarmed to photograph any of these (often scantily clad) young coser girl. The NetEase stage features a few of NetEase’s own cosplay girls, ostensibly from the new MMO (massive multiplayer online) game Dragon Sword. One of the women was a German student whom NetEase apparently hired. Not by any means a traditional model, the German was bundled in head-to-toe leathers, towering over the rest of the universally petit Chinese cosplay models that line the stage. Twenty years ago, foreign students would be regularly cast in dramas and commercials for TV, the plot details of which were often bizarre (e.g., I once appeared in a toothpaste ad, for which I was told I needed to wear a Speedo). Throughout Sui’s act I worried the German would faint of heatstroke.
Sui’s text reply certainly didn’t seem like a situation in which a true diaosi would ever find himself. A key typical characteristic of diaosi is the inability to attract women, owing to another typical diaosi characteristic, a lack of money or status. Especially in first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai, where China’s preference for boys has, when mixed with exploding wealth and status expectations, perversely led to women gaining tremendous power in the dating scene. A frequent complaint you see online from young Chinese men has to do with the pressure they feel to have an apartment and a car before being considered alluring mates. The pressures for diaosi are best summed up by a now era-defining comment from a young female contestant on one of the nation’s popular dating shows: “I’d rather cry in the backseat of a BMW than smile on the back of a bicycle.”
Asked how he could still be a diaosi when he’d told me that he now makes upwards of 50,000 yuan ($7,950) a month, Sui said, “I am a complete diaosi. I lived on my mom’s couch when the video came out. I don’t care about mianzi [saving face]. I do whatever I want without being annoying or low class. I have big dreams and don’t care about the obstacles in life, that’s diaosi for ya.”
China’s official news organ, Xinhua, is not known for introspection. So, when Xinhua profiled Sui in May, just after his “12 Beijingers” video had come out, it was no surprise that the story’s focus was trained on the inside looking out. The story included speculation about whether Sui’s success “may mark a change in the way Chinese view foreigners.” Beyond the news source’s capability was the idea that Sui might help change the way Chinese view themselves.
China remains obsessed with foreigners doing “Chinese things.” While it’s no longer a major event when a foreigner speaks Mandarin, fluent “laowai” (a common term for “foreigners”) are still a regular point of entertainment. One recent video was passed around social media simply because it showed a white guy speaking fluent Sichuanese. A new arena for this appears to be the regrettable phenomenon of foreigners signing on to serve as Chengguan, the blue-suited “city managers” who are widely despised as thugs by a large part of the Chinese population.
Where once foreign students of Chinese were deemed special largely by virtue of just having made the trip, today’s Chinese students and Sinophiles find a more crowded field. Not that many years ago, being “not Chinese” was every China-residing foreigner’s most defining characteristic, like it or not. Today, economic opportunity has created a much different laowai landscape.
David Moser, the academic director for CET Beijing Chinese Studies and a performer of the Chinese comedy style “xiangsheng,” was one of just a handful of “stars” on Chinese TV in the 1990s. Obvious foreigners who spoke fluent Mandarin were rare, and the skill was a pass to TV and film roles. No longer.
“Now you have a whole gaggle of foreigners who are seriously trying to be media stars here,” said Moser. “They have managers, assistants, makeup artists, the whole lot. Some of them are pretty fiercely competitive and ‘career’ oriented. I find some of them ridiculous, quite frankly.” Not going lightly, Moser called much of the new wave “talent-less,” hauling with them great expectations that “all they have to do is show their face on TV and somehow they’ll be instant celebrities.” He concluded, “I can’t imagine they make a living at going on TV.”
But speaking Chinese is still just rare enough that Sui’s instant fame has scratched a blister of resentment than never really heals in China’s Chinese language-learner community, and his success has highlighted how Chinese demands on laowai entertainers have drastically changed in just a decade.
While reception to Sui’s video was largely positive, a few observers remarked that his command of the language and accents was less impressive because of his background. Sui’s mom is a white American and his father Chinese; he graduated high school in Madison, Wisconsin, but spent his formative years attending school in Beijing. Thus his language attainments were less remarkable, noted these commenters. This jealousy about one’s Chinese proficiency is characteristic of many Chinese learners.
David Moser put it more directly in our conversation. “Any idiot,” he said, can achieve French proficiency in a couple years, but that’s impossible in Chinese. “So there are a lot of foreigners struggling mightily for a long time, and some get frustrated at their lack of progress, and how they still sound like absolutely idiots after years of hard study.”
Brendan O’Kane, a Beijing-based translator and creator of the Popup Chinese podcast, told me he has a couple theories why Chinese learners can be so resentful, “One is that it’s still seen as a rare and special thing for someone who is not ethnically Asian to learn an Asian language, and native speakers of these languages are constantly telling students how clever and special they must be. The other is that it really does take a lot longer for a native speaker of English to get up to speed in Chinese than, say, Spanish. And when was the last time you heard someone credited as a ‘Spain Hand’ or ‘Spain Watcher?’ Or saw someone who studied German in college turn that into a major part of their identity?”
For Sui’s part, he doesn’t see himself as a laowai. “I’m just a dude with a unique background who lives in China. I call myself that to poke fun at people still using such a term in 2012.” To be or not to be a laowai is not a personal decision, a fact lamented recently by at least one long-time China hand who threw in the towel in now infamous fashion.
Sui, said, “Laowai or not, my understanding of all these different angles is going to be a major reason I succeed and make a place for myself on the market.”
Sui is a bit of a chameleon. By turns, he can appear either very Caucasian or very East Asian. He also can be interchangeably handsome or goofy looking. And he’s much larger, more muscular and athletic, in person than he appears on-screen (diaosi are known for being chubby and short). In a Lenovo viral video of Sui working out, he claims to have once been “a fatty,” saying he now weighs 35 jin (38.6 lbs) less than his peak 210 (231.5 lbs). In the Lenovo video, Sui starts off a goofball but ends up using the app’s GPS function to draw a heart. It’s disarmingly sweet. Maybe because I had just caught a few episodes of the show on DVD, the actor he most immediately reminded me of was Adam Driver, the tall, muscular, quixotic breakout male star of HBO’s “Girls.”
This is on display in the “12 Beijingers” video that made him famous. Some of the characters he lampoons — such as the French and the gay men — are typical, over-the-top stereotypes of both China’s expat foreigners and of foreigners in general. But of all 12 of the China-residing foreigners the skit skewers, Sui’s beer-swilling American is maybe the most frighteningly dead on, the impression detailed in ways that might not be immediately obvious to non-expats or even expats living in China who don’t speak the language. Sui doesn’t just perfectly mangle the American’s Chinese pronunciation, but also captures exactly how so many Chinese-speaking Americans — myself included — construct sentences.
One thing Sui has tried to avoid in the months since the “12 Beijingers” video went massively viral was to do the very easy thing and rehash the performance. In interviews, Sui has hinted that, while he finds nothing wrong with it, the stereotypes he exploited to such great acclaim, was hardly exceptional comedy.
But money is money. To launch its new instant coffee, Nescafe got Sui to ham up a few stereotypes, including various Chinese characters and a laowai. Why Nescafe would bring in Sui to launch its new “Premium White Coffee” (雀巢白咖啡) is open to speculation.
Before “12 Beijingers,” Sui struggled to make his way through China’s massive showbiz machinery, where templates rule and ingenuity is rare and often shut down prematurely. Sui was a host of the Henan TV Spring Festival gala show in 2006 and 2007. In 2009, a TV movie cast him as Edgar Snow, the journalist from Kansas who famously covered China’s Communist revolution. In the meantime, he played poker online to help pay the bills. In 2011, he appeared in the romantic comedy Single No More (光棍终结者). In January 2012, he filmed his small role in Fearless. It was about this time that he began using his online comedy shorts to tell stories that were decidedly Chinese. In one, he gets mistaken for Jeremy Lin. In another, he’s the ultimate China diaosi who cannot cover his share of a restaurant check. In March, he created the script for “12 Beijingers.”
How many millions of views Sui’s “12 Beijingers” video has logged is impossible to know. One upload on China video site Youku has 6.36 million. Various other posts of the video around Youku have between 50,000 and 250,000 views apiece. Competing video sharing site Toudou has several versions with more than 20,000 views each. On Youtube, two different uploads alone have over 550,000 views between them. Youtube is blocked in mainland China.
While the production values have shot up, Sui’s gentle satirization of Chinese culture has continued into his partnership with athletic-wear brand Puma. As the face of Puma’s “Puma Social” (“天生玩家” or “Born Player”) lifestyle brand web campaign, Sui anchors videos that are pop culturally modern but with, yes, “Chinese characteristics.” In one, after an opening that has him in the ubiquitous Chinese middle-school track suit seated alongside a grandmotherly woman, singing, Sui and pals — — all in Puma, of course — rap their way through a Chinese neighborhood. In another, an office turns into a musical game room. Another ends with a street party. But in each, Sui appears as a goofy Chinese caricature, be it the middle-school student or the tight ass traffic cop.
One Chinese blog has compared one of Sui’s Puma videos to “The Divine Comedy Oppa Gangnam.”
Sui’s unique style makes him popular with advertisers. But so do his Weibo followers. After the “12 Beijingers” video, Sui picked up hundreds of thousands more followers. He now has over 521,600. By comparison, Jeremy Lin has about 2.9 million. Julian Gaudfroy (朱力安), one of China’s most famous, current laowai performers, has 89,069.
In our conversation, Sui allowed that his strong social media presence helps him a bit. “The more followers and more people that interact with me on Weibo, the more valuable I am to future clients or directors or whatever productions.”
On the stage, Sui told a Hitler joke. Everyone laughed. Hitler is funny in any language. But Sui got his biggest reaction while running through his gaokao material, during which he pulled volunteers from the crowd on stage.
Many of the sticky youngsters in the crowd have just finished the gaokao, China’s test of tests that determines who goes to college and who becomes, well, a true diaosi. To frame the seriousness of the gaokao, here’s some context: one test administrator was recently sentenced to a year on jail for releasing test takers five minutes early. (He received a suspended sentence.)
For an MC, the quiz show format Sui used for the bit was nothing new. But the way Sui roasted the participants, to their embarrassment and to great audience laughter, while at the same time also sending up his diaosi self and the gaokao itself, is rare in China. Without one misstep, Sui very nimbly satirized the system without questioning its importance or legitimacy. This is a very revolutionary thing.
In addition to his role as the academic director for CET Beijing Chinese Studies, David Moser is a performer of and expert on the Chinese comedy style “xiangsheng,” or “crosstalk,” a traditional Chinese humor format, usually performed by a team, where the language’s numerous tones are leveraged for laughs both intellectual and bawdy. As Moser explained, while Chinese humor has traditionally included a few bits that rely on self-deprecation, “by far the most common persona is the bragging, over-confident smart-aleck.”
In American standup, of courses, self-deprecation plays a central role. And Moser believes that has to do with how American comedy is about catharsis, “about alienation, criticizing social phenomena, relating to the audience on the basis of nervousness, outrage, and confusion.” But, he said, “This is not common in Chinese humor, and downright unacceptable in most cases.” Which is why there hasn’t yet been a Chinese equivalent of Rodney Dangerfield.
Sui agreed with Moser’s point. “China definitely appreciates some self-deprecating humor, but very few celebrities are willing to [do it],” he said.
When I asked him if he knows who Rodney Dangerfield is, Sui said he “sounds familiar.”
In an epic treatise from 2004 titled “No laughing Matter: A hilarious investigation into the destruction of modern Chinese humor,” David Moser practically predicted the emergence of Mike Sui, writing, “The Chinese audience, now savvier and more internationalized, craves something spontaneous and honest, but crosstalk performers seem unable to provide it.” Moser tells of a famous, older Chinese crosstalk performer who “laments that his career in the PRC has left him incapable of performing comedy in any other way.” In conclusion, Moser wonders, “[W]here is this new generation to come from?”
Has he seen Mike Sui? I asked him. Yes he had, said Moser: “Mike is awesome. I laughed my head off. He’s got a fantastic ear. I think [Sui’s] is a new kind of direction for Chinese comedy. But as Chinese society, especially urban society, begins to increasingly resemble that of the west, this type of humor will definitely find an audience.”
“I think,” Moser added.
Abe Sauer is the author of the book How to be: North Dakota. Email him at abesauer AT gmail.com.