Jami Gong, founder of the first full-time comedy club in Asia, TakeOut Comedy, talks about growing up in New York and the thrill of watching an audience laugh
My mum was born and raised in Hong Kong and lived through World War II (1939-1945) there, and my dad is from Toisan (in Guangdong province). They met in China in the 1950s and got married.
My brother was born in Hong Kong in 1966 and they moved to New York for a better life for their kids – they left a big Chinatown for a smaller Chinatown.
My older sister was born in 1968 and I was born 10 months later, in 1969. My parents had three more kids – six children in 10 years.My dad was the first acupuncturist to practise on the East Coast in the late 1960s and was doing quite well, but through gambling he lost a lot of money.
He was also a womaniser and I found out later that I have half siblings. My mum got fed up and divorced him when I was 12.
Mum sacrificed a lot to take care of the six of us. All she cared about was us eating, coming home and not being killed somewhere. She never taught us compassion, empathy, sympathy – she didn’t have time. I don’t think I really appreciated all she did until I had a child of my own.
Growing up in Chinatown among all the newly arrived immigrants, I made great friends. We played tag, cops and robbers and kicked a can around.
I grew up watching The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. One night I laughed so hard and it dawned on me that there were millions of people across the United States laughing at just one man. He was powerful.
All six of us went to Stuyvesant High School. In the ’80s, you became either a doctor, lawyer or engineer. I went to Syracuse University to study engineering but that didn’t work out because I always wanted to goof around.
There was a comedy competition on campus and in my second year my friends dared me to enter. I wasn’t prepared and made a fool of myself. I started watching comedy from the comedian’s perspective and noticed things I hadn’t before. I entered the following year and did much better.
In my senior year, I took third out of 16. I punched the air when they called my name; it was one of my greatest highs.
My grades were bad, so I switched to geography. I learned about China; it was the first time I’d learned about my own culture.Growing up I’d hated being Chinese and being picked on as a minority and called names. After learning about China at university, it excited my interest in history and learning about my mum’s story and Hong Kong.
I graduated in 1991 and didn’t know what to do. As a student, I’d worked at The Carrier Dome, a football stadium, selling merchandise, so I went to Madison Square Garden (MSG) and landed a full-time job. I’d been thinking about becoming a full-time comedian, but the retail job would pay the bills, so I took it.
In 1993, I had a super bad experience performing. I blanked on stage in front of a packed audience. It affected me mentally and I couldn’t go on stage again until 1999.
The day the world changed
I was working 80 hours a week at MSG and was burned out after two years. I quit and went travelling and then got another full-time retail job at a clothing store called Structure.I was living at home with my mum and sister in a brownstone building in Chinatown. I worked weekends and was at home on September 11, 2001. My sister woke me up saying that the World Trade Centre was on fire – the first plane had hit the tower; 9/11 really shook me up – I smelled it, saw it, felt it, lived it.
A few months later I was walking home and noticed the street was a lot brighter and realised it was because the World Trade Centre wasn’t there casting a shadow.
A gift from grandma
I knew it was time to do something different. I was 30-something, had no money and was still living at home. I’d been coming to Hong Kong with my mum on holiday for a few years.
In 2002, I was on a flight to Hong Kong to visit my grandmother, who was unwell. During the flight, I came up with a plan to do comedy in Chinatown – it felt like a sign. No one was going to Chinatown after 9/11 and I thought comedy could revitalise the nightlife.
When I landed, my mother met me at the airport and gave me a big hug and told me that my grandmother had passed away during the flight. I believe my grandmother gave me the idea I had on the flight.
We buried her in Hong Kong, and I went back to New York and started planning. One of my friends came up with the name TakeOut Comedy and I registered it. A friend had a bar where we could host the events and I had comedian friends.
We started doing monthly shows in Chinatown and they sold out. I finally quit my day job in 2003.
Just for laughs
In 2004 and 2005, I came to Hong Kong nine times to research why there was no full-time comedy club in the city or even in Asia. John Moorhead was flying in comedians for The Punchline Comedy Club, but no one was teaching comedy, no one was finding the next Jerry Seinfeld or Billy Connolly.
I began teaching comedy in Hong Kong in April 2006. I did three TakeOut Comedy Club shows in Hong Kong and then took a leap of faith and opened our premises on Elgin Street in February 2007 – the first full-time comedy club in Asia.
We began bringing in professional comedians – Paul Ogata, Roy Wood Jnr, Pablo Francisco, Barry Hilton and Tom Cotter. We did shows in Macau and Singapore and then people began flying me to cities to teach and consult on the comedy scene.My passion is teaching, finding and building and developing future comedians. I’ve nurtured talent such as Ben Quinlan, Jim Brewsky and Vivek Mahbubani.
A lot of people regard public speaking as terrifying. For me, it is wonderful to see local comedians develop from scratch because what you learn on stage you use offstage – the confidence, the communication skills, the creativity, body language.
You will improve your public speaking if you can get up on stage and make a room full of strangers laugh.
Take me out
A friend at the club introduced me to Andrea Lomas, a British woman who works in the spa industry. We got married in 2012 and we are one of at least 10 couples who met at TakeOut Comedy.
Andrea is into wellness, I’m into laughter, so we are both into healing. She is a year older than me and we had our son when she was 42. It was natural, so I like to say I have super sperm. We have a beautiful son, Emmett, and live in Pok Fu Lam.
It was wonderful to meet my wife and so many of my closest friends through the club.
China off the table
We used to have a show every Thursday, Friday and Saturday. The past four years have been a struggle.
The protests and Covid changed everything and a lot of our fan base have left Hong Kong. Luckily, I planned for a rainy day and saved during the good years. I have a good relationship with our landlord, and he reduced the rent.
After the introduction of the national security law, we have cut out any references to China. We will not make fun of China, those are the rules now.
After four years, we are finally flying comedians in again. The new generation of audience members is much younger. We have a show every Friday and sometimes on Saturdays.
From September 1 to 23 is our 14th HK International Comedy Festival, 12 shows in 22 days. It would have been our 17th, but we missed a few years because of Covid.
The best medicine
During Covid, when I turned 50, I became a licensed tour guide. I do private tours and started teaching impro to kids. I also do corporate training, teach stand-up and run a comedy club, so I have a lot of part-time jobs, plus looking after my wife and son, and my mum – she’s 86 and isn’t too well, so she’s living with us now.
I always say, “You only live once so make the most of it because you’re not getting out of it alive.” Live stand-up is hard to beat – I get such a thrill watching the audience laugh.
The internet has changed the world, but live stand-up hasn’t changed because it’s simply me talking and you laughing in a room with a microphone and lights.
Young people are our future audience members and our future comedians. I was doing comedy long before many of our audience members were born. Some people say, “You look so young.” Well, that’s the power of laughter and rice.
Original Link: SCMP