Friday, April 15, 2005

The Life and Times of Big Ell

Two Thumbs Up
for Chang Fei & Big Ell

When I lived in Canada I watched a lot of TV. I’m not talking about watching the Simpsons or Seinfeld. I’m talking about 10-12 hours in front of the TV. Normally these days would begin early with a wake and bake session with my trusty cohort the Socialist Redneck. Sometimes we would luck into an All 80's Weekend on Much Music, which meant an easily accomplished 12-14 hours of serious TV time. Our only breaks came when we were smoking du Maurier lights, getting stoned, cooking food or getting stoned while cooking food. We both knew all sorts of inane stuff with my specialties being hour long ‘dramas’ (90210 not X-Files), classic sitcoms (Small Wonder not MASH) and infomercials (RONCO not Anthony Robbins).

Before I came to Taiwan I knew nothing about Taiwan pop culture. I figured that my ignorance about Taiwan pop culture was going to be an advantage. Instead of spending copious amounts of time in front of the tube I would be able to spend my free time focusing on learning Chinese and studying the culture (Ask Mrs. Big Ell if I have accomplished either of these goals). After a while I needed a pop culture fix and tried to rectify the situation. If I couldn’t understand the language or culture I would at least try to figure out the major players in Taiwan pop culture. I rationalized that I would at least have something to talk about with my students. I soon learned that this goal was easily identified but not easily attained. I soon realized that almost all Taiwanese TV was in Mandarin (Big Ell isn’t very bright). Then I realized that all the pop culture stars were essentially the same. Cookie cutter Mando pop singers and wacky variety show hosts were the flavor of the day and surprise, surprise still are. (with the noted exception of Wubai and China Blue, the Bruce Springsteen of Mando Pop) I am not saying that North American pop culture is any better, just different. The idea of irony doesn’t translate that well in Taiwan. Undaunted, I spent months trying to get a handle on Taiwanese pop culture.

After hours of TV watching with Alice Chen (my unpaid translator) I came to the realization that I had no idea what these people were on about. While I could appreciate the soap operas, there were too many people crying. The hour long historical dramas were equally difficult to get a handle on as I had zero cultural references. Try watching Roots with no understanding of pertinent historical facts like African Americans were once slaves. Or for you Canadians try coming to grips with the gritty realism of He Shoots He Scores without ever having skated. The comedies were also incomprehensible, picture Jerry Lewis on crystal meth or Jim Carey on Quaaludes. I had no idea what was funny or why people thought it funny and I still don’t. I did and do love Kung Fu movies but they are from Hong Kong and Hong Kong and China aren’t Taiwan, unless you are some CCP/KMT lapdog. Then amidst this sea of despair I found Chang Fei. Chang Fei was and is the host of a popular Saturday Night Variety Show. I don’t need to tell you how cool he looks, you can check out our picture together. His commanding stage presence, super hot female co hosts and aura of invincibility sucked me in.

Chang Fei is the Taiwanese equivalent of America’s Johnny Carson, England’s Michael Parkinson or Australia’s Dame Edna. Canadians don’t have an equivalent unless you count Canada’s Country Gentleman Tommy Hunter or Sammy Maudlin. The difference being that he is the consummate entertainer. Not only does he control his audience and guests like a puppet master but he also flat out entertains. He sings, dances and then (if that wasn't enough) cracks jokes along side his brother and the hot chick of the week. He also pumps iron and is allegedly getting down with his newest babe, a Macedonian model. He is the man. Could Letterman interview Tom Cruise and Halle Berry then sing a medley with Cruise while making moves on Halle? I think not. In addition to all of this, Chang Fei put out an album of covers. This album is incomparable. I will review it sooner rather than later. Just imagine Charlie Chan singing Sinatra covers. Trust me IT IS UN-FUCKING-BELIEVABLE. I am not sure what first turned me onto his greatness but I think it was his perm and beard which are eerily reminiscent of 1980s era Jim Ulrich, my dad.

Well anyway, the point of this meandering ramble comes from a comment made by Sunny, one of my second grade students. I hadn’t shaved for a few days and was looking as swarthy as a Canadian with Northern Europeans roots can. I was about to enlighten my students about the wonderful world of prepositions when she told me "Teacher Elliott you look a little like Chang Fei." I was floored. Since I have been in Taiwan I have been told I looked like lots of folks (us crackers all look a like). The funniest doppelganger episode was when I was erroneously told I looked like my former African American boss/friend who has dreadlocks. Anyway, I quickly started laughing and had difficulty stopping. She thought she was in big trouble and began to cower from the expected Big Ell disciplinary onslaught. The homeroom teacher Vivianne started to scold her for ‘insulting,’ me. After I stopped laughing I told Vivianne that there wasn’t any problem. I thought it was hilarious and that I was in fact honored that Sunny thought I looked like Chang Fei, my Taiwanese pop culture hero. Vivianne and Sunny were both confused (like most of my students), I was elated. Another day in the life and times of Big Ell.

Big Ell


Newmania said...

You are a hero! I've often wondered about that Chang Fei guy. He is strangely powerful.

Keep up the good work and thanks for the long post.

see ya,
Newman in Long Tan, Taoyuan

Anonymous said...

In the right light and with a bit of a beard, I have seen you pull off the Chang Fei look a number of times. Both of you have a very commanding presence and exude a kind of natural Taiwanese R' Nau and it's my considered opinion that the two of you should be given a three hour Saturday late night slot with access to all the liquor, chemicals, shot guns, and half naked co-hosts that ya' all can handle. No commercials, fully sponsored by all the various Taiwan Pi Jou and Gau Liang Distilleries on the islands.

Long Life,
A concerned viewer.

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