When I think of Shanghai, I imagine a city that defies reality, pushing each conceivable belief to its limits. Oftentimes as I gazed out into the cityscape, it seemed to me that the buildings had been erratically sketched on a piece of paper, then hastily breathed into reality. Its inhabitants were just as magical.
The city is home to foreigners from all over the world. In a single day, it wouldn’t be difficult to interact with an individual from each of the 6 habitable continents, every person with their own unique circumstances which brought them to Shanghai.
How would anyone ever be able to capture the essence of the city in a single idea?
Shanghai has changed quite a bit in the last decade, but if you were a foreigner in the city between 2014 and 2019, you probably heard of Mamahuhu.
Mamahuhu was a group of comedians and actors in the city who came together to create comedic content about their experiences living in Shanghai as foreigners.
The channel was started by filmmaker Alessio Avezzano along with his producer and actor brother Matthew McGill and local writer/performer Johnny Tian. Originally, the series was part of a start-up company called TMD that Alessio and the gang worked for (including Donnie Does who now works for Barstool Sports). Once the start-up went under, Alessio and the team took back the channel and it developed into what it is known for today..
The expats who joined in on the projects came from various walks of life. Some worked as teachers in the city, some worked office jobs. But when they came together, they all shared in their experience as outsiders in a strange land with stories to tell.
Before Mamahuhu, TMD were focused on making pranks and social experiments as a strategy to go viral. That all came to a stop when the police came knocking on more than one occasion; once when a prank lead the team unintentionally into a brothel and another when the CEO of the company wanted to dress as a Zombie (during a SARS scare) and spook people on the subway. It wasn’t long after the CEO’s 5 day stint in prison that they realized they needed to take a new approach to content creating. It is also now (coincidentally) illegal to wear costumes on Chinese public transport. A rule that was introduced shortly after the stunt.
The content being made was now scripted comedy and thus Mamahuhu was born. With little time to plan and even less experience with sketch comedy, the team started to make comparison videos highlighting the differences between western and Chinese people in humorous ways.
One early video highlights things a non- Chinese person might expect to hear from a Chinese person it garnered half a million views on YouTube alone.
Another video which has over three million views pokes fun at the differences between Chinese couples and Western couples.
The team knew they were onto something when content imitating their own videos started to pop up all over the internet from other creators. Sometimes, they would even use the same exact same jokes.
Once they had the channel in their full control, Alessio vowed to never make an easily replicable comparison video again. Opting to instead put more personality into future episodes with regular characters going by their real names.
The genius behind the videos is that rather than relying on half truths and stereotypes in order to earn a laugh, they tell the stories of true interactions that people had in the city, and highlighted the differences between Chinese and other lived experiences.
While it might be normal for a foreigner in Shanghai to have people on public transportation ask them for a photo, this is less expected elsewhere. The videos played on these experiences, making them the focal point of their narrative. And, they were relatable.
In one video called STARE, a Chinese man boards the train and sees a Black foreigner sitting across from him. Stunned by the rarity of seeing a Black man in China, he proceeds to ask himself a series of philosophical questions. “Is this my lucky day?”
The videos walked a fine line. They did not make fun of Chinese culture.
Rather, they sought to highlight the differences between it and other cultures foreigners brought from around the world, while exploring the points of tension that arose in everyday interactions.
Alessio and his team told such realistic stories that embassies and universities began to use their videos in order to show travelers and students what they might expect when they got to Shanghai.
Many of the actors in the videos were actually comedians in the Shanghai comedy scene, and wrote video scripts based on their stand up acts, which were naturally based on real life. During the week, many of them would congregate at a club in Shanghai’s French Concession called Kung Fu Komedy Club.
The club was run by Andy Curtain and Mohammaed Magdi, two comedians who went on to have successful careers in the Asia comedy scene, while also playing important parts in Mamahuhu.
Talented comedians such as Norah Yang, who has become one of China’s premiere female comedians. Adam Hamilton, an actor, comedian and member of the Writers Guild of America.
Jorge Castillano, a comedian and entrepreneur in the city who hails from Texas, or Drew Fralick, who won the 2015 Hong Kong International Comedy Festival would all use Mamahuhu as a way to explore other sides of their comedic and storytelling talents., And then there’s Mamahuhu’s producer Matthew McGill, who was there from the very start and went on to star in many of the show’s most memorable episodes such as Last Man in Shanghai and The Laowai Baoan. The list of contributors goes on.
Soon after the channel became successful, it became clear that the videos served a purpose beyond comedy. According to Alessio, they became extremely popular among the audience of people who had experiences in China, and wanted something to remind them of home.
The videos helped foreigners like myself who had lived in the city overcome a sense of nostalgia for the city. If I couldn’t be in Pudong on the Bund having my own existential crisis, I could watch one of my favorite comedians and friends in the city do it on video.
The videos played into the experiences that only people who lived in the country or spent time as an expat could understand.
However, for those who once lived in the city or still do, the stories are all too relatable.
The Last Man in Shanghai is about a man who wakes up to find himself alone in the city during the New Year celebrations, when most people go back to their villages or elsewhere in Asia to celebrate. He wanders around the city aimlessly, trying to soothe the loneliness he feels as a foreigner with no true roots to the city. His journey that day highlights how isolating being a foreigner in a city like Shanghai can be. Those who have ever stayed behind in Shanghai during the travel-packed holiday season understand the sense of isolation that the video plays on.
Another video called China is developing too fast follows two friends as they try to go to their favorite spots in Shanghai, only to realize that they are no longer there.
This video elicited nostalgia in the watchers who spent time in Shanghai, and realized that their favorite book shop, tea store or restaurant had been swept away by the incessant wave of commercial development which pervades major Chinese cities.
More than anything, the videos capture the range of complex emotions that foreign dwellers would come to experience.
As Shanghai has transformed culturally and politically, it has become an environment that is less habitable for foreigners. Many of the actors who were part of the original gang are simply no longer there. Andy and Mohammaed who owned the comedy club that brought so many of the acts together left for Hong Kong. Alessio and his brother Mathew are back in Scotland for the time being.
Though Mamahuhu did not seek to be a channel that preached political opinions on the situation in China, their real to life storytelling captured the intricate dynamic that pervades the life of foreigners living in Shanghai.
The best example of this is Mamahuhu’s very last production, Scarlett, Shanghai and Me.
Presented as a homage to Spike Jonze’s Her and Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation, the film tells the story of an expat struggling to adjust to the rapidly changing environment in China, where state surveillance seeps into each citizen’s personal life, and it is normal to feel isolated in a city of nearly 25 million people.
Seeking an escape from reality, the main character (played by Adam Hamilton) falls in love with his personal technological device voiced by Scarlett Johansson, just as Theodore did in the movie Her.
The comment section of the video is shockingly emotional.
Viewers recount their own stories about their time in China. “ Was 7 years in China and I left, and the ending really got me, ‘ I’m too foreign to fit in here, and I’ve been away so long I’m too foreign to fit in at home”, said one user.
Another user said “I have been in and out of China since 2004. I moved to China as a long term resident in 2013. I have watched China grow and change. I have changed with it. I have seen so much, and I know my time is nearing its end. I have so many stories and experiences. This country is not recognizable, and now I am so different. I am sad to let go, but I got to move on. This video hit so hard.”
One user simply said “Gentlemen, thank you, for everything.”
What began as a comedy channel to pass the time and make people laugh transformed into a deeply personal experience for all involved, and a totem for the experience of foreigners in the country.
China will continue to change — it always has. 2020 has brought new circumstances which have accelerated a trend that the Mamahuhu gang knew very well: even the most adventure seeking foreigners are having a hard time keeping up with China.
However, if you ever want to experience what it was, you can always hit rewind on a Mamahuhu video.