Picture this: It’s January 2020. Live audience shows are legal and (mostly) safe. It’s Chinese New Year, and what better way to spend it than a packed show full of Asian Canadian comedians? The Fresh Rice stand up comedy show is the place to be.
Standups with diverse roots across Asia performed in downtown Toronto in front of a predominantly Asian audience, which allowed the comedians to be completely authentic, says the comedian and Fresh Rice director Vong Show.
“I liken it to a Chinese restaurant in a small town” he said.
“It’s still authentically Chinese food, but you have to water it down, you have to change the recipes in order to fit the audience. [The Fresh Rice comedians] get to add as much spiciness as they want, they don’t have to water down their comedy. It’s like being a restaurant in Markham versus a restaurant in Red Deer, Alberta.”
I honestly believe that laughter is the best ammunition against bigotry and intolerance– Vong Show, Comedian, Fresh Rice Producer/Director
Fast forward to May 2021, The web series is launching on YouTube throughout Asian Heritage Month. After a rise in anti-Asian hate during the pandemic, a comedy series like this is exactly what is needed, says Show.
Here’s more on the comedians of Fresh Rice.
Anna Luo: Bold, dark and memorable
Anna Luo has been disappointing her Chinese parents since 1990. Now she gets to do it in front of a lot of people with a microphone in her hand.
“I go for the shock factor. If people aren’t laughing at my jokes, they better be gasping!”
It’s difficult for Luo to do clean jokes, so the jokes in Fresh Rice were her cleanest.
“What Anna does best is make me feel old. In a good way. She’s so unabashedly who she is,” says Show.
Anna’s journey into comedy was inspired during a ‘soul-searching’ trip in Bali, when a stranger asked her, “What’s your passion?”
“I felt these next words come out of my mouth so organically: To heal people through laughter. And at that moment, I realized this is what I want to do. There is something magical about being in Bali, I guess people really find themselves there.”
Back in Toronto, she started working at a cocktail bar and one night, filled in for a comic that dropped out last minute in front of a crowd of two people.
“Let me tell you… that first laugh you get during your first set is like a drug. I am hooked now!”
Favourite rice dish: “Easy. Spam & Eggs on Rice with Maggi Sauce. BON APPETIT!”
Josh Yang: a dry, sarcastic Chandler Bing.
The 29-year-old Chinese-Canadian from Port Coquitlam, B.C. currently works at a tech company while pursuing comedy as his passion project. His humour was deeply influenced by growing up watching the smart, sarcastic Friends character Chandler Bing (played by Canadian actor Matthew Perry).
“In my set, I talk about how my monotone voice affects my dating life, what it’s like not doing drugs, and my views of what a modern Asian family could look like,” says Yang.
Yang wants viewers to “leave thinking that those jokes were obviously written by the guy who sounds like how turtles feel.”
Yang also co-hosts the podcast Have We Made It Yet? and uses his monotone voice to produce a sleep aid podcast called Sleep… with Josh, where he reads genuinely boring materials like laws, the dictionary, manuals, terms of services, and other random ideas like counting sheep for an hour or reading the numbers of Pi.
Favourite rice dish: Broccoli and BBQ Pork on white or fried rice.
Anto Chan: beat-boxing, puns and poetry
Anto Chan’s set highlights the unique experience of the 1st generation Hong-Kong Chinese-Canadian, the unparalleled difficulty of the Cantonese language, and people approaching him to guess his race.
“My parents immigrating here was a huge step and I want my comedy to celebrate the choices they made, but also highlight the challenges through comedy.”
The 35-year-old poet, event MC/Coordinator from Montreal has been performing for 14 years.
“He doesn’t fit into the mold of what people think a comedian is,” says Vong Show.
A lifelong lover of puns and wordplay, Chan showcases a twist on the Cantonese style of witticism in 90’s Hong Kong Stephen Chow comedy films.
Favourite rice dish: “My PawPaw (grandma) used to cook the best Jung, which is sticky rice with salted duck egg, pork belly, and Chinese sausage, choice of peanuts/yellow bean, all wrapped up tightly in dried reed leaves. I personally dipped it in white sugar or Hoisin sauce, so delicious!”
Veronica Antipolo: Sassy La V
Veronica Antipolo is a 47-year-old Filipinx-Canadian single mom. After being let go from “a good job” at 45, she was devastated.
“Though I hated what I did, for the most part, I had also already planned which cake I would have at my retirement party in 20 years. I sat around sad for a few months, watching 13 seasons of Grey’s Anatomy, surrounded by takeout containers.”
Part midlife crisis and “sassy leap of faith,” Antipolo started stand-up comedy and storytelling.
Her comedy aims to normalize viewing women in their 40s and beyond as being “relevant, as being sex symbols, as being great,” says Antipolo.
“I’m trying to shatter the misconception that a woman over a certain age should move into the background as if we have an expiry date that equals our 40th birthday.”
As a single parent, Antipolo couldn’t attend mid-week open mics or shows. Instead of quitting because she couldn’t fit herself into what already existed, she had to redefine the path in order to continue. She started producing her own comedy shows, and co-founded Mosaic Untold Lives, a storytelling platform for women of colour.
“She took the leap early in the pandemic with two kids”, says Show, “and she’s figured out how to monetize comedy, and built a business from ground up.”
Favourite rice dish: “Sinangag. It’s a Filipino garlic fried rice. It’s delicious and comforting. It’s made from that leftover cooked rice when you have no ulam (main dish) left to eat it with it. According to Wikipedia, ‘it results in rice that is slightly fermented and firmer’. So, it’s relatable too!”
Tim Wong: “I probably should stop writing jokes while I’m hungry.”
Tim Wong was a TV host for a Cantonese show in Toronto before having a quarter-life crisis and left to study in Europe. After spending several years at sea working on a cruise ship, he decided to come back once and for all and disappoint his parents on a local level.
“I was back home on vacation and decided to take a stab at an open mic. I remember the thrill and adrenaline of my first set, and since then I decided to quit my job and focus on comedy full time. I got my training from the Second City stand up comedy program and travelled around the US one summer, just doing open mics.”
The Fresh Rice show was the first time Wong’s parents came to see him perform, said Vong Show.
“I was crying, they were crying, everyone was crying,” says Show. “It was amazing to see that they finally got it. It really brought that family together.”
Wong’s set is inspired by his food obsession.
Favourite rice dish: Cantonese Style BBQ pork (Char Siu) and roasted duck rice. With a singular bok choy.
Nick Fernandes: Mixing it up
“I was really drawn to the idea of highlighting my confused sense of identity,” says Fernandes, a 24-year-old McMaster University graduate from Richmond Hill.
“Even in auditioning for Fresh Rice, I had to ask the question: ‘Am I Asian enough to participate?’ Because being half Indian, half Italian, I have always felt like a member of many groups, but belonging to none of them.”
“I have always been someone who has struggled to claim or define what my identity is and so much of my early comedy has stemmed from highlighting the silliness of even trying to do so.”
Something happened that night, where he just elevated to another level of performance that I’ve never seen before.– Vong Show
“One of my earliest memories of stand up was watching Russell Peters specials with my family, including my extended Indian and Italian sides. It was really powerful for me, sitting on the floor (we ran out of places to sit), having my mom run her fingers through my hair, looking around at the diverse cross-section of people all being united in their laughter.”
Favourite rice dish: “I’d have to say it’s a three way tie between Mushroom Risotto, Italian Rice Balls (Arancini), and Biryani!”
Gina Siva: From sad diary entries to funny stories
Gina Siva is a Tamil-Canadian Comedian who doubles as a Nurse. Born and raised in Scarborough, Ontario, the 28-year-old offers a fresh perspective on being a first generation Canadian in a South Asian Home. She likes long walks by the Scarborough Bluffs and occasionally takes a dip in Lake Ontario no matter what the caution signs read. She enjoys shouting “6IXBUZZ” whenever the opportunity presents itself, and it does present itself quite often.
Her journey into comedy started with writing at home as a young kid.
“It started off as sad little diary entries from a brown girl who wanted to go out and do all the things that my white counterparts could do but was always told ‘No,'” says Siva.
“No sleep overs. No parties. No Family Guy. No Simpson Family. Certain Backstreet Boys songs were even a little too risque.”
Somewhere along the line, Siva got tired of being a sad girl and decided to start writing funny stories.
Favourite rice dish:
“This one is easy! My *Amma’s mutton biryani!
*Amma = mom in Tamil”