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Why British-born Chinese comedian swapped poker for writing

edit:casino time:2018-06-02

Almost 85 years ago, an unknown post­graduate student morphed into the most celebrated Chinese person in Britain, his play having become an unlikely smash hit. The inter­pretation of an ancient Peking opera by Hsiung Shih-I – the first Chinese director to work in the West End as well as on Broadway, in the United States – was beloved by the public, literati and royalty alike, and would shape British ideas of Asia for generations to come.

Almost a century on, Hsiung’s great-grandson is wowing British audiences with his own take on Chinese culture. Though, it has to be said, their art forms are slightly different.

Ken Cheng is a BBC. That could stand for “bloody brilliant comic”, which he is; an award-winning performer who has been hailed by The Scotsman newspaper as “a fiercely accom­plished talent”. It also stands for “British-born Chinese”. But it should most certainly not, as one of Cheng’s gags has it, “be confused with the more popular usage of that acronym – ‘big black c**k’”.

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The 29-year-old is at pains to make clear that the joke is not part of his set any more. “I don’t know, I just feel like I shouldn’t be saying ‘big black c**k’ as often as I did. I feel like that’s not my brand.”

Whatever his brand is, it will soon be promoted by the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation), just like that of his great-grandfather. Cheng has been commissioned by Radio 4 to produce a four-part series inspired by his first hit comedy show, Ken Cheng: Chinese Comedian, revealing “how his Chinese upbringing in the UK has made his brain so weird”.

Cheng shot to fame last year, when he won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, beating comedy veterans including Frankie Boyle, Alexei Sayle, Tim Vine and Ed Byrne. Cheng’s winning one-liner? “I’m not a fan of the new pound coin, but then again, I hate all change.”

He has, in a short space of time, made a name for himself for his abstract wordplay, painfully logical deconstruction of common phrases and ultra-rational take on life.

I don’t let my parents come to my gigs. No! I just am very weird about that. I just can’t have them see me in that light

Comedian, Ken Cheng

Born and raised in Cambridge, in eastern England, Cheng is the son of parents who emigrated from Beijing in the 1980s. His mother, Xin, is a freelance Mandarin interpreter for the British police, mainly on call to help with immigration cases, while his father, Jen, whose own parents were from Hong Kong, designs “some kind of internet bank security software” in China, to where he returned when Ken was 11 (“I know a few British-Chinese people who have their parents in two places, but they’re still together, so yeah, it’s an interesting arrangement”).

Chatting in the basement of a central London bar, Cheng, dressed all in black, cuts a slightly apprehensive figure at times. He sits with his legs contorted and shuffles nervously as our conversation is punctuated by the sound of the sole of his trainer repeatedly squeaking against the table leg.

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