If you think Dashan is squeaky clean — what with the tame, wordplay-heavy Mandarin crosstalk routines that made him megastar on Chinese television in the ’90s and ’00s — then you’re in for a shock. That’s because the 53-year-old Canadian performer (born Mark Rowswell) confessed on Twitter on Feb 8 to wearing blackface as a high school student.
“There really is no reason or motivation for coming forward other than what is happening in Virginia now, which is all over the news,” Rowswell told the Beijinger (via Twitter DM), referencing the recent blackface row marring Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam in the U.S. He said there’s now “an opportunity for me to stand up and speak out, and not miss another opportunity like we did in 1984.”
Rowswell’s Twitter thread began with a photo of him covered in dark face paint for a performance of the Temptations song “My Girl” for an assembly at his school in suburban Ottawa, Canada. Rowswell also Tweeted that he and his friends only applied that taboo face paint to emulate one of their favorite musical acts. He recalls being oblivious to blackface’s offensiveness, along with his drama teacher insisting it was fine.
Numerous commenters praised Rowswell for being honest and sensitive, while some rejected his apology and others decried the current PC climate. Aside from the responses on Twitter, some of China’s entertainment and media insiders had more nuanced takes. Keely Stanley, a Beijing based African American expat from Texas who has worked as a producer for CGTN in Beijing and at NBC back home, says: “I commend him for coming out an speaking up on what’s right, and trying to educate people, in his way, about trying to do the right thing. But, and there is a but, this happened in 1984, 20 years after civil rights passed in the US.”
She said the education system should’ve made Rowswell well aware of blackface’s offensiveness by then. Although the Canadian performer says blackface was not nearly as incendiary in his native Ottawa as in the U.S. at the time, Stanley nevertheless thinks Rowswell’s teachers failed him, which galls her because of the discrimination and in-depth Jim Crow education she was exposed to growing up Stateside in roughly the same period.
Storm Xu, a Shanghai-based Chinese standup who performs in English, tells TBJ that Rowswell was wrong to wear blackface back then. “But he admitted to it and knows it’s wrong now. I can’t speak for all Chinese, but most Chinese people know of Dashan and think he is genuinely a nice dude.” Xu’s sentiment was shared by David Jacobs, who heads up Beijing’s Comedy Club China (a collective of local standups that also brings comics from abroad to China). Jacobs says Rowswell’s apology “Sounds legit. I think he handled it about as well as he could have.” He also thinks that any backlash won’t hurt the Dashan brand in the Middle Kingdom. Indeed, given the rampant use of blackface in Chinese film and television over the years, Rowswell’s apology might not phase Middle Kingdom audiences in the least, while his following outside of China likely isn’t large enough to make waves about it either. As Jacobs puts it: “He’s doing standup shows to all Chinese audiences these days. Chinese don’t know why it is a big deal, as evidenced by last year’s New Year special.”
Jacobs is, of course, referring to the contentious 2018 CCTV New Year gala performance which featured a black performer playing a monkey alongside a Chinese actress wearing blackface.
A year after that racially tinged CCTV row, with blackface once again making headlines thanks to Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, Rowswell decided it was time to speak up. “Some people don’t accept the apology, and that hurts, but you can’t expect or demand forgiveness. It has to be given freely, and often takes time,” Rowswell tells TBJ.
While Stanley gives Rowswell credit for coming forward, she points out the first responder to his Tweet downplayed the controversy and derided P.C. culture. Though Rowswell pushed back against that, and other such comments on Twitter, Stanley sees that as only the first small step.
“If someone like me or another black person tries to speak against those who ignore racism, it’ll just be us versus them,” Stanley says. “They need someone they can relate to to speak out more. So if [Rowswell] is apologetic, he needs to make some call to action.”
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