Phil Wang, The Lowry, 7 October 2017.
With a last name like Wang, it’s likely that most comedians would find it hard to resist a few penis jokes. Phil Wang is no exception, starting the Salford leg of his fourth solo show tour with a heady array of wang-and-wank-related gags. The audience gagged plenty on Phil’s wang, one may say.
Starting his set with jokes about sex and lube (Wang gets around, he quips) clearly offers Phil a familiar territory with which he can set up his routines confidently. While he may still be in the process of working out the right balance between his gags and his desire to offer cutting reflections on the current political climate, his routine offered plenty of well-connected anecdotes and satire. The best section here may well be his critique of the BBC Asian Network, a channel designed to offer an inclusive platform for British-Asians but which he exposes as the almost sole preserve of those with a South Asian heritage. Phil explains, in his ironic terms, that a man named Wang has never appeared on the Asian Network. What he deftly identifies here is that ‘Asian’ is used quite homogenously in Britain to mean ‘South Asian’, and all other forms of Asian heritage can appear subordinate or, worse, forgotten. Wang chews up plenty of East Asian stereotypes, while laughing off the contradiction that he’s somehow not Asian enough for the BBC Asian Network.
Whether making penis jokes about his family name or a perceptive set-piece about the more limited opportunities available to British East Asians, Phil seems acutely aware that even in Britain in 2017 he is still understood by many primarily through racist stereotypes and categorisations. He never introduces the audience to the terms ‘white privilege’ or ‘male privilege’ but is able to tear at these constructs through his routine. The most telling example to this effect was when Phil offered an anecdote about his friend Jason, for which he felt it appropriate to clarify later that his friend Jason is black (“because you probably imagined him white”). There was a smattering of nervous laughter at this line, presumably because some of the audience had indeed imagined Phil’s friend as white by default. It was almost a shame that this joke worked – then again, Wang does say early on that he wanted to do a “stand-up comedy show […] fit for Britain in 2017”.
The politics may strike some as confusing though; while he makes quips about the isolationist and inward movements of such things as Brexit and Donald Trump, he also stakes a claim for his brand of “immigrant nationalism” and argues that the British Empire “wasn’t all bad, and was in many ways quite good”. Of course, the British Empire was in many ways quite good, but that sense of appreciation likely depended on which side of the Slave Trade you fell. Nevertheless, for a few claps of applause, Wang inverts his sense of the postcolonial to a retrograde colonialism. In this way, ‘Kinabulu’, the name of Wang’s current tour, is a reminder of the fallacious nostalgia that persists in Britain over the whole concept of Empire, under which colonial expansion meted out in the name of Britain really only served the interests and accumulation of a small, privileged few at the exploitation of both those in the colonies and the working-class here in the UK. Then again, perhaps in the next Star Wars sequel, second-generation Resistance fighters will tell the survivors of Alderaan that Emperor Palpatine’s reign of terror was not all bad because, hey, at least the Empire completed great infrastructural projects.
Despite Wang’s attempt to hedge his bets between a criticism of Brexit and a defence of the inclusive British Empire, he perceptively asserts towards the end of his show that “We’re all on either side of a Jumper coin: in this world, you’re either buying jumpers or making jumpers”. A maudlin gag but an astute observation that touches on the notion of the divided Global North/South, in both poverty and climate. And while an extended set connecting jumpers, climate, and climate change (and the different ways environmental damage will be managed by richer/poorer parts of the world) never materialises, there is a sense that given more time, and a little less wanking-related material, the budding comedian could do very well in extending this type of satire. Indeed, Wang refers to the pernicious divisions of the ‘Jumper coin’ without any reference to his previous material praising the British Empire, and therefore does not draw attention to the British Empire’s distinct role in setting up the Jumper divide he recognises. “The British Empire gets a lot of stick but it actually did a lot of good as well”, Wang claims, resting his case on the fact that the British occupation of Malaysia is what brought his parents together to conceive the comedian in front of us. We’re certainly the better for having Phil with us, but if anything this fortune only further dramatises the way Empire was set up to extract to Britain all manner of wealth and resources produced in colonies such as Malaya. Reviving the British Empire did get a brief round of applause from parts of the audience though; so, even when it wasn’t necessarily meaning to, the show was still saying a lot about where Britain is in 2017.
All in all, it was a highly engaging show, to another sold out audience, which is testament to Phil Wang’s allure and charm. Wang is a crowd-pleaser. And the Lowry’s well-lit Aldridge Studio offered an appropriately intimate venue for Phil’s banter with the audience. Wang wrapped up his show with a set of characterisations “in case the comedy doesn’t work out”, and, while the characters were very well received, based on his performance in Salford, I’m sure his comedy will continue to flourish. And I hope it does.