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A Taipei comedy club becomes an unlikely venue for working out Taiwan-China tensions


I'm Ailsa Chang in Taipei, Taiwan, where I have been hanging out at a comedy club to cover the upcoming presidential election.


CHANG: I'm totally serious. Because if there is any way right now people can work out tensions between Taiwan and China, it might be through comedy.

JAMIE WANG: My name is Jamie. I'm from China. Thank you for the awkward silence.


CHANG: Jamie Wang is from Shanghai but came across the Taiwan Strait to Taipei for grad school, and that's when she started doing stand-up.

J WANG: Treat me like an individual, right? Treat me like a human being. If when we meet, the first thing you notice is just my nationality and that's the only thing you want to talk about, that's just outrageous. Like, do you ever notice, like, I have a nice [expletive]?


CHANG: Jamie Wang - not to be mixed up with her friend Vickie Wang - no relation.

VICKIE WANG: And before anyone gets confused, I do not have the passport that goes with this accent. I am Taiwanese through and through. (Non-English language spoken).

CHANG: I know. Vickie totally sounds American, but she was born and raised here in Taiwan, though she actually got into stand-up comedy when she was in China, living in Shanghai for about a decade. She came back home to Taipei a year and a half ago, and that's when she met Jamie right here at Two Three Comedy Club.

V WANG: And I realized, like, oh, my God, you're a Shanghai comedian who started doing comedy in Taipei. I'm a Taipei comedian who started doing comedy in Shanghai. And we were like, oh, my God, we're, like, the flip side of each other.

CHANG: And as Vickie and Jamie started performing together, they began to realize that maybe the secret to Chinese and Taiwanese people getting along better is to make fun of each other more or turn against a common enemy, like white people.

J WANG: You know, when I was in Europe, people kept asking me, like, do you eat dog? Did that happen to you too? And this Taiwanese was like, yeah, so annoying, all the time. I was like, yes, I know, right?


J WANG: How did you react then? And he was like, oh, of course I told them, no, we don't eat dogs. That's what Chinese people do.


CHANG: I brought Jamie and Vickie back together at the very bar where they first met, just outside the performance space.

So, so much of both of your comedy acts deals with what Taiwanese people think of Chinese people or vice versa. What are the stereotypes that you think Taiwanese people often have about Chinese people?

V WANG: I grew up thinking that people in mainland China are not to be trusted, that they spit, and that they're really aggressive and they're not, like, polite and civilized like Taiwanese people. And it took years in Shanghai to, like, consciously undo that kind of stereotype and prejudice.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, what about vice versa? Let's turn the tables. What are some stereotypes about Taiwanese people that you think Chinese people have?

J WANG: I think people kind of have this stereotype about Taiwanese where they're, like, villagers 'cause they live in, like, a small island, and they haven't seen much of the world. They're very, like, backwards.

CHANG: And, Jamie, I think a lot of people outside of Taiwan may not realize that Chinese people actually have fewer rights here in Taiwan.

J WANG: Yes. Yes.

CHANG: Talk about that.

J WANG: Well, yeah. I live like a refugee. I feel like - OK, sorry (laughter).

CHANG: No, no. Say what you feel.

J WANG: 'Cause I'm a Chinese student here, and there's a lot of unfair regulation towards us. Like, Chinese students are the only international students who cannot work here. Luckily, this February, Chinese people can have health insurance in Taiwan now.


J WANG: But before, the past seven years, I couldn't.

CHANG: Wow, I had no idea. I want to talk a little bit about what it's like to perform here in Taiwan versus in China.

V WANG: When I first started doing stand-up in China, I was immediately brief on the three T's - so Tibet, Tiananmen Square and Taiwan. These are hard red lines that we're not supposed to talk about.

CHANG: Comedy's all about taboo, though.

V WANG: Yeah. It's interesting. It means that, like, I can't talk about politics. I can't really talk about, like, LGBTQ issues. I had a great time in Shanghai, but right now, I'm also revenge binging on democracy and freedom of speech. Like, I'm really enjoying being able to say whatever I want. I'm very excited to vote. Like, I'm just psyched.

CHANG: Oh, yeah. Well, Jamie, have you ever had a joke of yours go viral? Or are you scared if a joke goes viral? What's happened?

J WANG: I posted, like, two jokes, and they were all viral, obviously because I'm very funny. But...


J WANG: ...One of the joke touched the fine line. And I thought it was OK, but a lot of Chinese people were trolling me on the internet.

CHANG: What were they saying to you?

J WANG: They were like, how dare you do this to your own country? I also received, like, death threats.

CHANG: Really?

J WANG: Trolls DMed me. They were like, I'm going to kill you. I'm like, you can't. You can't get a visa here.


CHANG: Just try to kill me (laughter).

J WANG: Yeah. Also, I don't think I could ever be, like, totally free as long as you are Chinese 'cause even - like, you - they're going to - I don't think I can talk about that. I'm sorry.

CHANG: You don't want to say that?

J WANG: I couldn't. Yeah.


V WANG: I'll talk about it. So there are a lot of things that I can say that Jamie can't say. And I don't want to speak over my Chinese friends, but I'm also very aware that, like, there's things that I have to amplify for them. And in the meantime, I can also call out my own people. Ever since COVID started, I had Taiwanese friends on my Facebook feed who were saying things like, oh, yeah, they deserve it. These commies - they deserve...


V WANG: ...A plague on their house. And I was so, so devastated to feel, like, oh, my God, my people, who I'd like to think are generally decent, kind people, have so dehumanized this other population that they've never actually encountered. And, you know, I feel like having both of us on stage performing together, I hope that somehow bridges the gap. Like, I have friends who have been asking me, like, oh, do you guys want to go on tour? I'm like, it feels like a peace and reconciliation tour...

CHANG: (Laughter).

V WANG: ...Somehow. Like, we're trying to bridge the...

CHANG: Cross-state...

V WANG: ...Cross-strait...

CHANG: ...Cross-strait tensions.

V WANG: ...Tensions just one [expletive] joke at a time.

CHANG: (Laughter).

So here we are, sitting in a comedy club, and there's a really good reason for that. I think you both can clarify for people. What do you think is the power of comedy to help people deal with tense issues?

J WANG: I think comedy is a very powerful thing 'cause it's not, like, a debate. You're like, one, two, three. This is the logic, therefore I'm right. You're wrong. But comedy is like, I make you like me. I make you feel weird together, and then let me tell you what I have to say.

CHANG: Yeah.

J WANG: I think it's a very nonhostile, very friendly way to make people listen to you.

V WANG: When someone laughs with you, it's the closest thing you get to changing someone's mind. When you're laughing with someone, it means you - in that moment, you get their perspective. To a degree, you agree with them. It's a very proactive kind of empathy.

CHANG: Yeah.

V WANG: And it's a very joyful kind of empathy. Like, the world's on fire. I think that's the best thing we can do, is to make jokes about it. I just still struggle to make everything funny. I'll get there. I'll figure it out, or Jamie will first.

CHANG: (Laughter).


CHANG: A Taiwanese comedian and a Chinese comedian walked into a bar. Their names are Vickie and Jamie Wang - no relation.



This story was produced by Jonaki Mehta and Mallory Yu. It was edited by Patrick Jarenwattananon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.