Wonho Chung is shopping at the Mall of the Emirates in Dubai. And he has a trick up his sleeve.
It goes something like this: he heads to a store and jokes around with the salesmen who, stunned by his mastery of the Arabic language, laugh at and hang on to his every word or joke. Discounts usually follow.
Nearby, a television executive spots the whole play. Chung was not to know it then, but life was about to change.
The year is 2007, and the television executive is the Head of Production at Showtime (now OSN). The network had introduced the region to a group of Middle Eastern stand-up comics that were selling out tours all across the US in the early noughties. This group would joke about the realities of their life in America. One of the jokes they had was, “We are an Egyptian, a Palestinian and an Iranian and we’re looking for a North Korean to complete our group,” says Chung.
“That joke was ongoing for years,” continues Chung. “And when he saw this Asian-looking dude speaking fluent Arabic making people laugh, [and when] he found out that I was Korean, the whole thing sparked a lightbulb moment and I was introduced to the group and joined them on tour.”
That Chung is a nationalised Jordanian of Korean origin hints at a complex, non-linear back story.
Born in Saudi in 1980, Chung was only three months old when the family moved to Jordan, it was intended to be a short stop on the way back to Korea.
“The economy was so bad in Korea in the early ’80s and my dad ended up being introduced to King Hussein of Jordan. He became his doctor, so we stayed,” says Chung. “They really took care of us in there and then after I graduated from university I went looking for work opportunities which led me to Dubai [15 years ago].”
Though Chung is a household name in the world of comedy today, the novelty of hearing him speak Arabic, perfect Arabic, never wears off.
“When we were living in Jordan there were only three other Korean families there so naturally we hung out with our Arab neighbours. That’s how we picked up the language, and at school as well.”
Love of entertainment came early, thanks to the Hollywood movies and Japanese game shows his father would record.
“I remember being fascinated by these people inside the box, and I wanted to be one of them.”
He took piano, singing and theatre classes. At 10, he represented Jordan internationally at table tennis. Chung was a natural showman.
Today, he remains the only non-Arab on Arabic language TV and the first non-Egyptian lead actor in an Egyptian film. In 2016 he was cast as a lead in a Ramadan series, again, the first non-Arab to do so.
Chung is, for all intents and purposes, an Arab. His parents, too, reacted like typical Middle Eastern parents on hearing his chosen career path.
“It’s funny, my father was South Korean, my mother Vietnamese, you’d think they’d be so accepting,” he says. “But having lived in the Middle East they were like ‘What? You want to do comedy? Be a clown, what is this? You have degree in marketing, why do you want to be a clown?’”
Later, after TV appearances and articles in the newspapers and magazines piled up, they “jumped on the bandwagon,” he says.
His breakthrough appearance back in November 2007 was as close to an overnight success as the fickle world of show business could allow.
“The experience was elevated because it was in my country, I knew half the people in the audience,” Chung says. “They told me to do one joke that was two minutes long and to sing a song. And I went up on stage and I did my thing.”
The impact was instant, “like day and night”. Backstage, he thought he’d imagined shouts of “Wonho, Wonho”. He hadn’t. “The event manager comes running in and said, ‘Are you deaf? Can’t you hear them calling your name?’”
That night Chung was mobbed by autograph hunters. New fans wanted to take pictures with him. By the following morning he was appearing on MBC 1’s primetime news, and his second night on stage brought a royal seal of approval.
“Queen Rania and King Abdullah were sitting right in front of me,” he says. “The third day, the two front rows were all royal family. I remember Prince Ali meeting me backstage and giving me his email and number. He said, ‘What you’re doing is great, putting Jordan on the map.’ This was all in three days.”
Having made such an impact in a short period of time, Chung would have to refine his trade as he went along. The world of Arab comedy is fraught with obstacles, taboo subjects and cultural and religious sensitivities.
“I believe it’s more difficult [than English language stand-up],” says Chung, who performs in both languages. “If I was performing in Caroline’s New York, you can talk about anything. Here it’s a little different, as a region we tend to be a little bit more conservative. As my business manager says, we have a halal version and an extra halal version.”
Chung insists that while crossing the line – and, of course, getting online shares – is seen as the best way to get attention, great comedy can still be done in a more wholesome manner. He cites Jerry Seinfeld as an example of the art.
“I’ve been doing this for 11 years so I know what makes people laugh in Morocco, in Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon,” he says. What makes for a funny Arabic joke is complex, but Chung believes that in a place like Dubai, localising content is vital. One ingredient has proved successful.
“Accents,” he says. “If I make a joke about ordering food and the delivery is wrong, people relate because it’s part of our life here. If I go, say, to Egypt, speak in their accent and do some joke that includes Abdel Halim Hafez or Umm Kulthum, it’s relevant to them.”
While Chung see himself as an old school performer, he does acknowledge the role of social media influencers, and the impact that short form content has had on comedy.
“How I feel about content creators on social media is the same as reading content on your phone and reading a book, you should do both,” he says. “I’ve done shows with social media influencers who do comedy purely on the phone, and once they’re on stage they’re unable to perform because they’re not in their bedroom anymore.”
Chung is planning to roll-out more social media content, mixing the old world with new. “I’ve worked in TV for such a long time and I want to bring that experience to online,” he says.
Commercials and stand-up performances for public and private functions remain on the agenda for Chung, as does going to London in March to host the BBC Arabic Festival.
“I want to get into acting, but it’s difficult. It’s been on my mind for a while and now especially with the rise of Crazy Rich Asians, which has been a game-changer for Asian talent around the world.”
Chung has already delivered something special in the Middle East by appearing in the adaptation of 2013 Booker Prize winner The Bamboo Stalk by the Kuwaiti writer Saud Alsanousi.
“My character is the product of a very wealthy, influential Kuwaiti father who marries a domestic helper from the Philippines. The story is the struggle of this person, not knowing is he Filipino, is he Kuwaiti, is he rich, is he poor, is he Christian, is he Muslim? It’s a very prevalent storyline here, but it’s not discussed often.”
Fitting in, it seems, is a running theme throughout Chung’s life. As a teenager he was inspired by Russell Peters, a Canadian comic whose background he could relate to. But having caught the stand-up bug, Chung avoided watching other comedians for five years.
“If you kept watching Eddie Murphy’s Delirious or Raw, you will develop those mannerisms and, really, I just wanted to have my own voice.”