Spotlight Interview: Comedian Vivek Mahbubani
We’d like to start today’s article with a little recipe. First, take your mixing bowl, add a tablespoon of Indian heritage, 4 cups of Hong Kong upbringing, a dash of bilingualism, and a bucketful of funny. What do you get? Vivek Mahbubani, Hong Kong’s comedy man.
From entertaining intimate comedy clubs in SoHo, Lan Kwai Fong and Wan Chai to performing on cruise ships and in international venues, being crowned Hong Kong’s Funniest Person both in Chinese and English in 2007 and 2008 respectively, and finally being hand-picked by Comedy Central Asia to represent the region in their first ever Asia-Production called Stand Up Asia, Vivek is certainly growing used to his celebrity status.
As we all know, Hong Kong is full of a wide range of diverse people, food, language, culture and humour. Well this guy is the embodiment of all of the above, and lucky for this panda, I got the opportunity to sit down with Vivek, eat some fantastic Thai cuisine and talk food, funny and everything favourite.
Hi, Vivek, thank you so much for meeting me here today!
Hey, no problem at all, it’s great to be here!
We would love to know more about your relationship with food. Now, I’m not asking if you are married with a pizza but rather what your favourite food is! Do you have a food addiction?
Usually for me, if its in the daytime, its about convenience. If its convenient to eat, then I like that food. Otherwise, you give me meat and I’m a very happy guy. So for example, Thai food, I know I’m happy because the satays are there, you got the curry. My senses are excited.
Actually my favourite food would have to be something that’s boneless, you don’t want it to be too challenging, I don’t want to waste my time, right? It’s got to be efficient food. So let’s say a chicken breast in a sandwich which is nicely wrapped up so I don’t have it all over my hands and I can still be on the go, just walk around and eat that. That would be a typical thing I would enjoy.
So is chicken your favourite meat then?
I like chicken a lot.
How do you see the Hong Kong culinary scene from your perspective?
It’s extremely exciting. The good side is that there is so much to choose from, the bad side is that you had better choose quick because it keeps changing! A lot of things come and go and I’m always thinking “Oh no, I didn’t go there yet!” Basically you can not get bored of the stuff to eat here, I don’t believe you can finish eating everything that is available in Hong Kong.
If you started eating A-Z, by the time you get to Z, A is completely different and you have to start all over again. I think it is awesome the fact that there is so much to choose from.
Do you think that is exciting that there is always something to look forward to or do you get sad that places are constantly changing?
Sometimes I do get sad, sometimes I do feel I want seconds, but the cool thing is that you don’t have to worry about streets getting boring, you walk down again and it’ll be completely different.
I find it exciting because it gives me new choices every time, without trying too much or too hard.
Do you have a favourite restaurant in Hong Kong?
Honestly, no. I don’t have a favourite restaurant. It literally is a matter of my mood and my time. One day I’ll be walking down the street and feeling hungry and Dai Pai Dong – done!
Next thing I’m like “I want something spicy, I feel like Thai today” and oh, Thai food – done! It’s just a matter of that day and that choice.
If I had to choose, I’d have to say maybe Tsui Wah though simply because it’s just everywhere and it feels less unhealthy than McDonald’s. It’s just a little less guilty, you know!
So you’re pretty spontaneous then?
In many ways, if I’m out and about, yes. If I’m on my own then I’m actually a very boring guy, I’ll just boil a chicken breast, put some bread in my backpack and that’s my lunch for me, but every now and then I’ll try to go out and show myself up.
How does your day look like from a food perspective?
Basically I wake up and have a fixed breakfast. Always granola and cereal, I don’t know why, I just wake up and my brain is still off so I know “okay, granola, get in my mouth!” then I’ll wake up and go “oh that’s my coffee!”
After that its pretty much lunchtime and if I make it myself I’ll have brown rice, meat and some vegetables stir fried, whereas if I’m out and about I’ll be a bit more exciting.
During the day I always think “Ooh it’ll be a great day, let’s try something different” and I’ll seek out whatever is cool. If somewhere has a big set lunch for $99, I think it’s a steal, I go in thinking yes, I’ll get the $99 one and then I’ll see the $128 one looks good… how about the $138… maybe I’ll treat myself to $188. I just go crazy.
I’ll splurge for lunch. Dinnertime I’m usually working, so I’m always off running around. Very often I eat by myself. When I’m with friends I’m like, let’s eat! When I’m by myself I’m like, okay let’s eat…
What is the best food experience you’ve ever had?
I have only ever had emotional eating experiences twice in my life. One time was at a brunch buffet at Ritz Carlton hotel on a Sunday. I remember I went to the dessert section of the buffet and was thinking okay let’s be classy, we don’t have to eat three of everything right now, I can try one of it all, it’s a buffet! So I had one of each and just went “oh my God.”
I had to take a moment. Like wow this is really good. I started going through the mains and desserts and even just the jelly, like whatever, it’s jelly! Wow, best jelly I ever had in my life.
The other one I remember was having barbecue pork at Yung Kee, near Lan Kwai Fong, and thinking wow, this redefines barbecue pork for me.
Obviously you’re not a vegetarian, but what are your thoughts of vegetarianism?
It’s very cool, but don’t try to force it upon me. I’m big on vegetables; I’m getting old so my body has decided I need to eat vegetables to feel good. My parents are vegetarian so my whole life I’ve had to accept it and also live with that mentality, so I’m cool with it.
I have this weird thing though where I don’t understand meat imitation. I just don’t get it! I’m like why do you have to have the taste of chicken when you can just eat chicken. If you can’t eat chicken, why do you crave it then? Soy chicken? No, but I have no problem with people being vegetarian just don’t make me feel guilty for eating meat.
In your sketches you always try to overcome the problem of racism with humor. Our logo is a Panda and, as a famous joke tells, the panda is an example of antiracism: he’s black, he’s white and he’s Asian. This totally represents our company structure and our philosophy. Do you think food can also help overcome racism? How?
Definitely! I mean it’s very hard to continue being a racist when you like someone’s food. You can’t be like “Hey! I hate your people, but you cook really well!” it doesn’t work that way. People can’t get offended and compliment it at the same time. I definitely think food plays a big part.
You see a lot of cultural diversity days with good food because at the end of the day if the food is good you’re going to be like “Yeah, I like these guys! You know how to make me feel good about myself!” Food is definitely a big factor that can overcome a lot of boundaries.
Think about it this way, big business events, there must be food, weddings, there must be food, funeral, got to have food, it is all about food at the end of the day. Food is a big factor in life that can unite people. …As long as the food is tasty from both sides!
You are also a big music fan and a drummer, right? Are you still playing with the band at the moment? Do you have any musical endeavours currently? And can you name some of your favourite bands?
Right now I’m on hiatus because I was always the reason we could never play shows. They’d always call my like say there was a gig on and I always had to say “Ah sorry, I’ve got to be funny. I can’t head bang tonight, sorry guys.” So I took a step out, and said it was fine if they found someone else to replace me. We are keeping it on hold for now, I don’t want to give it up.
Right now the band is not playing any shows. I jam with them every now and then for fun but nothing that we have to practice for. As for bands that I like, oh man! Lamb of God, Chimaira, all these metal guys, metal bands. I love heavy metal. Now that I’m getting older, I’m finding that the heavy metal needs to slow down at night. Before I would wake up to heavy metal, sleep to metal, but now I’m like, maybe a few jazz tunes would be good.
I look at my spotify, go to genres – jazz! Nowadays I find my music changes based on what I am trying to do. For example, when I’m working, I need non-vocal music. It could be rock or whatever, just no vocals. When I’m on the go I like to have gaming music, Need for Speed racing car music where I’m like “come on guys, let’s go! Get me across that road! Let me get that bus! Let me get that train!” It’s exciting for me. When I’m working out obviously I like metal.
When I’m going to a show I have upbeat music on, like “Let’s have a great show! Let’s have a good time!” And when I about to go down for sleep, it’s white noise and brown noise just to tune the brain. Again, it’s more efficiency than musicality to me at the end of the day.
How about we play a quick game: let’s associate the following musicians with food.
Iron Maiden would be a hamburger. That’s a juicy hamburger. Oily. And on a metal plate obviously, diner style.
Justin Bieber would have to be popcorn. Sweet popcorn, not the savoury one. Savoury one I like. Sweet one… Not so much.
The Ramones, I would say, a banana. I don’t really listen to them that much so for me there’s nothing, I don’t know that much about them.
Madonna would have to be a bright, colourful dessert. Have you seen those icy Taiwanese desserts that are basically ice and colourful rainbows? I would say very sweet but sometimes like woah, a bit too overpowering. I think that’s Madonna.
Rihanna would be something that is a little spicy but crunchy as well. I would say like calamari, but it has to be spicy! It can’t be just the sweet calamari, it’s definitely got a bit of a kick to it!
Beyonce would be have to be something brown, so therefore I would say scoops of ice cream that just melt in your mouth, but it would have to be in your mouth not in your hands!
Sichuan. The really spicy oil. If you’ve ever had hotpot and you see there are the different soups, this is the spicy one! The one where you eat it and it’s all exciting but it hurts the next morning. That kind of spice.
That’s what I would say Slayer is all about. You feel like “Wow, that was great!” and the next morning your neck hurts and you can feel the pain now!
The Beach Boys
They would have to be something happy. Say if I were to get a cocktail. Probably a chocolate cocktail or a Piña Colada or something like that. Something to just sit back and enjoy.
He would have to be something that you don’t notice but you enjoy eating and when you finish and you don’t have any left, you want more. Like bread but really nice bread.
I’m not talking about just two slices of bread, I’m talking quality bread that makes you go “Wow, this is really good bread. Can we get more bread before we have the meal?” Would have to be really great bread. It’s BIG, right?
And finally, Kanye West
Would have to be something that is overly decorated, looks beautiful on the plate, but the moment you eat it you’re like… Wait. What? What did I order! It’s edible, but you’re still confused.
Anything that is overly fancy like a 10 Michelin Star fish that costs 10 million dollars and when it comes it’s just one bite.
Do you have any future projects you’re involved with? Web/Comedy/Charity?
For charities, I’m the ambassador for the KELY Support Group, so a lot of their events I help out with, especially their fundraisers. I work with a lot of community businesses when they have the LGBT award ceremony nights out because that is something I’d like to push forward in Hong Kong.
As for projects, I’m actually working a lot on the Cantonese comedy scene in Hong Kong. English comedy is a very mature culture, people know what it is and they know what to expect, but Cantonese is still very in. In other words people don’t know the culture, for example when sitting down people don’t realise they might get picked on, people still wonder, “Why is he talking to me?
I came in early, why would you talk to me! Talk to the guys at the back, they came late!” So I am trying to bring that culture to Hong Kong so that Cantonese and Chinese people will still find it funny. That has been my goal. What I find in Asia is we’re all multilingual, we’re not just English, we have our own language.
How do we take our own language and make it more adaptable to Western comedy. We all have to work in the same parallel but in our different languages. I was running two summer comedy workshops this summer for teenagers and actually when I host the open mic nights in Wan Chai, these guys actually come down from Yuen Long and Tsin Shui Wai just give it a shot and see what it’s like.
Otherwise I am doing a lot of cruise ships, I’m entertaining old people and I also just did the Comedy Central Stand up for Asia which was 12 weeks long. My biggest future project is travelling and hopefully taking my comedy around the world.
Born in London and whisked away to Hong Kong at 2 years old, I have grown up surrounded by fast paced cultures and international events. They have shaped my attitude to the world from a young age: the world is small and I want to explore it all.