Cover Photo courtesy of Netflix

Tatler sits down with Phil Wang, one of the biggest rising stars in the British comedy scene, to discuss his comedy career, Malaysian heritage and new book, Sidesplitter.

In the last decade, this British-Malaysian stand-up comedian has been crossing off one career milestone after another—from hosting successful podcasts and appearing in beloved British comedy programmes to starring in his own Netflix special earlier this year, Philly Philly Wang Wang. He has made a name for himself for his unique approach to comedy, offering bold and intelligent dissections of hot button topics—such as race, class and gender—with a side of mischief. He rarely misses an opportunity to poke fun as his last name, which means something quite different in the West.

This month, he celebrates yet another milestone: the release of his new book, Sidesplitter: How To Be From Two Worlds At Once. In this collection of personal anecdotes and short essays, he lets us into his world, which we imagine he would call 'Wang's World'. He shares his experience as a mixed race child—born to a Chinese-Malaysian father and English mother—growing up in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah and England, while commenting on a range of topics from food, comedy and British colonialism.

See also: Comedian Ronny Chieng on Shang-Chi, Asian Representation and More

How did you get into stand-up comedy?

Looking back, the first stand-up show I ever watched was Harith Iskander. My mother brought me along to a conference and he was the entertainment. At the time, I was like, ‘who is this guy talking on stage and being funny?’ I became obsessed with Russell Peters when I was in high school. There were clips of him online, talking about Asian people a lot. I watched loads of them.

Do you remember performing in your first stand-up show?

It was when I first moved to Bath. One of the drama teachers put on a comedy night, where students could do five-minute sets. He was quite surprised I signed up because I was an introvert. I just did five minutes of stolen material from Russell Peters. I swapped out the word ‘Indian’ for ‘Chinese’. I didn’t know how stand-up comedy worked—I thought it was like karaoke.

See also: Jayden Zhang Talks Playing Young Shang-Chi, Acting Alongside Tony Leung and Representation

You went to Cambridge University to study engineering. When did you decide to pursue a career in comedy?

My father is an engineer, so I was always interested in science and physics; it’s in my blood. But by the time I started university, I was already really into comedy in a really nerdy way. I definitely hit the ground running—I started my own comedy show and performed in the comedy circuit around the colleges. In about two years, comedy had completely overtaken engineering. 

What did your parents think about your decision?

At first, they were a bit surprised. But they were happy as long as I finished my degree. Although my mother did suggest for many years that I should maybe get an MBA ‘just in case’. It was only when I appeared on Have I Got News For You—one of her favourite TV programmes that's been around for ages—that she stopped.

What about your family back in Malaysia?

I'm not sure if my uncles fully get it. They used to ask me about my 'comedy speeches'. Maybe they think I'm an after-dinner speaker or emcee at a wedding. Actually, they came to one of my shows in Kota Kinabalu a few years ago but I wasn’t very good so they must still be really confused as to what I do.

Your Malaysian heritage is one of the biggest topics in your book, Sidesplitter. What are some interesting things you discovered while researching for your book?

In terms of personal history, I learned a lot about Malaysia and my family. I found out my grandparents’ names for the first time. They died before I was born, so we always just referred to them ‘gong gong’ and ‘po po’. When we were looking at old photographs of them, my grandfather had these descriptions on the back and his handwriting was exactly the same as mine. It was so weird!

Historically, I learned about the significance of Albert Kwok and the rebellion he led against the Japanese during the occupation. And how that affected my own grandparents. I wasn’t aware of that before. 

You share a lot about how being mixed race affected your childhood growing up in Malaysia and later, the UK. Do you think it has had an impact on your professional life?

When I was first starting out, it made me more interesting and unique—and of course, instantly identifiable. If I did well, people could say, “that Chinese guy was really good.” And if a show was looking for some diversity, I was an easy choice! If not, I’d just be… straight and male. At the same time, I grew up in Malaysia so I was still a little bit foreign. I wasn’t able to talk about all these shared cultural touch points from Britain in the ‘90s, like TV personalities or childhood advertisements.

Do you feel the pressure at being perceived as the default cultural spokesperson in the UK?

Fortunately, that responsibility is quite spread out now. There have been more ethnically Chinese and Malaysian comedians entering the space. To be honest, I realise now that my comedy is actually quite British.

See also: Nigel Ng on Creating His Famous Comedy Persona, 'Uncle Roger'

What do you mean by that?

I always try to talk about things that my audience can understand and relate to—or at least, know about. In terms of content, that means I talk a lot about my life in the West. But recently, there’s been more awareness about Malaysia. A few years ago, I did a short tour of Malaysia, Singapore and Hong Kong with the Melbourne Comedy Festival and I really enjoyed it. I made jokes about how Chinese aunties always call you fat and the difference between 'xie xie' and 'mm goi'. I would love to get deeper into our culture.

During lockdown, my Malaysian accent has started to come back. I catch myself throwing in a few ‘you know’s’ at the end of my sentences. With the noises and intonation, it can get really quite Malaysian. The dream is to come back to do a Malaysian special but right now, I’m just trying to keep doing as much as I can and hopefully, people like it. We’ll see how it goes. 

See also: The Best Comedy Podcasts To Listen To Right Now

© 2022 Tatler Asia Limited. All rights reserved.