Comedy night to break stereotype of Asian women

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The Independent Culture

A night dedicated to Asian stand-up comediennes is being staged this week, to break the stereotype of the typical Asian woman.

The Pan Asian comedy night, headlined by the British Pakistani comedian, Shazia Mirza, which will introduce a host of new talent whose roots are Indian, Pakistani, Chinese, Japanese and Malaysian, will take place at Asia House, in London, on Thursday 17 June.

Betty Yao, chair of PAWA, said the event was set up with the aim of breaking the stereotype that often surrounded Asian women.

Lynne Parker, producer and founder of Funny Women, which is partnering the event, said comedy had traditionally been the “bastion of the white middle-classes” and she was determined to insert more women – and racial diversity - into the circuit.

“It’s about changing the culture of the circuit. There’s a lot to be gained to have women’s voices in stand-up, and greater racial diversity. Asian women’s comedy often gives a unique take that offers something across cultures and that subverts a certain stereotype,” she said.

The bill includes Mirza, who emerged on the scene shortly after 11 September, wearing a headscarf. She said her act has changed considerably since then.

She removed the headscarf from her act years ago and broadened her comedy beyond jokes about race and religion to write material that was more universal, and personal to her, dealing with issues of love, sex, relationships and marriage.

“Jerry Seinfield once said that, ‘Stand up comedy is a journey of self discovery.’ And it is,” she said.

Jaonne Lau, a forensic scientist turned stand-up comic from Canada who has performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, said she started off her act by assuming a Chinese accent to tell her jokes which divided the audience.

“I used to start my set looking like a nerdy, quietly obedient Chinese girl, who spoke with a Chinese accent, but I was saying stuff that any normal person would say in that accent, and with that look. People were taken aback that someone could look like that yet say things that they could relate to. Other people looked really uncomfortable, particularly by the accent.”

Nimmi Harasgama, a British born Sri Lankan actress, developed a comedy alter ego - Auntie Netta – an unassumingly funny asylum seeker from an unnamed South Asian country, who tells bawdy, observational story of her arrival in Britain to audiences.

“It’s a kind of political satire. She is an ‘auntie’, in her 50s, and she is seeking asylum in Britain. Audiences really love her and respond to her personal story. She tells naughty stories a lot. When my mum first heard my act, she said to me ‘I came all the way from Sri Lanka to hear you talking about your labia?” said Ms Harasgama.

Tina Metha, meanwhile, a teacher from East London who has been on the comedy circuit for a year and a half, said she dresses up in a sari for her act, often surprising audiences who turn up to watch her in pubs and clubs. “I wear a sari on set and I draw on parts of my culture for my comedy, how it was growing up, having an Indian dad, not being able to have boyfriends when I was younger. People are intrigue by the way I’m dressed. I come in with wedding jewellery and some seem embarrassed for me. They think I’ve wandered into a pub by mistake,” she said.

PAWA will donate proceeds from the event to support girls’ education in deprived regions of Asia.