Tom Fearon

Professional communicator in Canberra

The Sui Dynasty

May 10, 2012

By Tom Fearon

Weibo sensation Mike Sui found online fame after shooting a video that featured him impersonating a dozen different accents. Photo: Tom Fearon/GT

Weibo sensation Mike Sui found online fame after shooting a video that featured him impersonating a dozen different accents. Photo: Tom Fearon/GT

He might be a nobody back in his US homeland, but performer Mike Sui has become an Internet legend in China, propped up by a legion of fans captivated by his linguistic and comedic talents. Sui's life of obscurity came to an end on April 27, when he uploaded a video of his own unique take on 12 colorful Chinese and foreign stereotypes.

Wandering through the quiet neighborhood of Lido, Chaoyang district, Sui, 27, was mobbed every few blocks by gushing fans, the contributors to more than 6 million views of his video on various websites.

A rising star online

Born to a Chinese father and American mother in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Sui received more than half of his schooling in Beijing. He relocated permanently to the capital, his father's hometown, in 2005 after finishing high school in Madison, Wisconsin.

"I came to China the summer before I was supposed to go to college. I wasn't yet 21 and was here to party hard," he joked in his native, gravelly Midwestern drawl. "The night before I was supposed to return to the US, I told my dad I wanted to pursue something here and that was it."

For Sui, life in Beijing as an adult proved tougher than his carefree childhood days. Aside from sporadic appearances on talent shows where the novelty of Chinese-speaking foreigners never grows old, the former online poker player made ends meet teaching English and bar tending. It wasn't until he teamed up with Chinese friends Wang Xiaokun and Dong Jianxiong that he tried his hand at shooting videos dripping in his self-deprecating humor.

"In China, you have lengxiaohua [cold jokes] where it's just punch lines. No comedian mocks themselves, which I think is what makes my videos popular. It's about not being scared to touch sensitive subjects," he said. "American humor is dominated by sex, race and stereotypes. In China, you can't even make sex jokes on TV. Some comedians are slowly picking up on social issues though, so there's progress."

Sui's earlier videos include a Valentine's Day parody and a comedic hip-hop skit impersonating NBA star Jeremy Lin. Both received modest encouragement online, but his springboard to fame lay in his masterpiece, a 9-minute video of ever-changing accents.

Sui impersonates a surly Beijinger, an effeminate Taiwanese man, a Russian with a penchant for baijiu (Chinese liquor), a sleazy Frenchman and even Li Lei - a fictional character used in Chinese middle school English teaching textbooks. The dialogue alternates between English and Chinese and pokes fun at stereotypes and cultural idiosyncrasies.

"I exaggerated lots of the accents. People in China aren't exposed to many different cultures, so I had to overdo them to ensure viewers connected. They are all horrible stereotypes, but they were necessary," Sui explained.

"If you're tolerant and can have a laugh about it, it's all good. In the US, stereotypes have been overdone so people are disgusted. In China, there are no stereotypes. People don't know the nerdy guy or the hot chick."

Viral sensation

Sui had humble expectations for the video, which was shot over five hours and edited over a day.

He had 2,600 followers on his Sina Weibo microblog account on the eve of his video's online debut. The night after, it had gone viral, and his number of followers snowballed to 180,000. Sui credits his rise to stardom with being tech-savvy, a skill essential for performers of the digital age.

"To be frank, when you don't have acting jobs you may as well have something to show. That was my mentality," explained Sui, who doesn't have an agent. "I started using Weibo relatively early because I knew interacting with people is definitely the key. I wasn't thinking about getting millions of followers, I just wanted to show a side of me to the world."

Sui based many of his accents on people in his life, not least of all his Beijing-born dad whose Chinglish he cheerfully admits mocking as a child. The character he found most challenging was the brash, baseball cap-clad New Yorker. He honed the accent by practicing over the phone to his 22-year-old sister, an actress, who lived in the city.

However, it was his performance of Li Lei, the wide-eyed cartoon character found in textbooks nationwide, that perhaps most resonated with his Chinese audience.

The video inevitably drew criticism, mostly from foreigners accusing him of exploiting his polished Putonghua for cheap laughs. But Sui isn't bothered by "the haters," as he calls them.

"About 98 percent of Chinese viewers gave positive reviews. People who aren't in China don't get it. I'm definitely sucking up a little bit," he said. "Critics think that by being a foreigner and trying to please the Chinese, I'm a sellout, but everyone has to pay the bills. I'd like move out of my mom's apartment, so I'll do whatever it takes."

Capitalizing on fame

Sui describes comedy as "just a hobby," and would like to pursue acting as long as the emphasis is on entertainment.

"I'm still overacting. I can't go back to the US and make it in Hollywood. But overacting is well received in China," he said, adding he is in talks with Hunan Satellite TV to host a weekly entertainment program.

"Life is full of possibilities and I'm not stubborn. I'll go wherever work leads me. I feel comfortable [in Beijing], but work isn't stable. Considering the video has been so popular, I'm hopeful about building on it."

As locals on the street greet Sui, it's easy to tell their respect for him runs deeper than the meek encouragement afforded to most foreigners who make an effort to speak Chinese.

Stereotypes might be at the core of his comedy routine, but Sui isn't comfortable with others applying them to him, particularly over his nationality.

"I don't want anybody to take me as a laowai [foreigner] or hunxue [person of mixed race]. I want people to take me for who I am, whether they like me or not," he shrugged.

"If you look more than 50 percent like an outsider, then you'll be seen as an outsider in China. When I meet people, I perhaps make friends easier because they pay a little more attention to me. But after a while, they learn everyone is the same."

See the original article here.