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Send in the clowns ‘The house of commons is a posh white peoples’ rap battle’

JAMES WALSH applauds the observations of a new Chinese master of stand-up 

Rice, Alvin Liu 
 

ALVIN LIU is from China, where a thriving stand-up scene has developed in the past few years in Shanghai and Beijing — though your entire venue might get shut down if someone makes a joke that could even vaguely be construed as a slight against the motherland.

No such problems in Britain — yet — and there are some very funny Chinese comics up-and-coming on the London scene, including Chin Wang and the brilliant Blank Peng. Liu definitely has the chops to join them, with his by turns universal and deeply personal observations building up to an excellent debut hour.

The set begins as all comedy shows should: with the performer’s mother singing a karaoke song in Mandarin, and it’s Liu’s relationship with his mother, across decades, continents, viewpoints, and languages, that form the backbone to his material.

He is charm personified, putting this multinational and multilingual crowd immediately at ease — even the people who weren’t expecting it to be in English. We’re hooked into his world with a barrage of well-honed gags interspersed with quieter, more reflective, but still subversive material — some of which flies over the head of the audience, who seem occasionally unsure of how they are supposed to react.

Particularly brilliant are sections on depression — knowingly presented as a decadent Western indulgence — and Chinese schooling, in which one learns that one plus one equals China has a thriving agricultural sector.

Crowd-pleasing dunks on Japan — his perspective on Oppenheimer is worth the price of admission alone — are leavened with clever, unexpected observations on cultural differences over body image, sex, and sexuality. Liu’s thoughts on oppression, and how self-identity is policed even in the very young, are important in any language.

The conclusion to this hour is strong, but could perhaps be better seeded early in the narrative. The bits on racism are beautifully observed but could do with being further unpacked; Liu’s relationship with the West, via English teachers and American hip hop, is a rich seam worthy of further exploration. 

And so, too, is the material about the country Liu and his mother find themselves in. 

“Sure we can’t buy freedom, but you can’t buy eggs,” points out Liu in a gleeful reversal of orientalist assumptions. Britain’s economic, cultural and political decline is skewered brilliantly here, and I’m curious to see how it goes down in, say, Dunstable, or Doncaster.

Liu punches up and exposes the ludicrous nature of our own Parliament, and of our “two party” system — jokes that seem beyond our current, home-grown comedy establishment, but in a way that is inclusive, easy to access, and very, very funny.

He’s definitely one to watch, and I don’t mean in a surveillance-state kind of way.

Alvin Liu performs Rice at Museum of Comedy, London, on May 4, and then tours

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