“My family fought regularly,” writes British-Malaysian stand-up comedian Phil Wang in the opening chapter of his debut book Sidesplitter: How To Be From Two Worlds At Once.
“Fists flew. Bodies were slammed to the ground. Limbs were twisted. But that’s martial arts for you,” he continues.
As a reader, you know immediately this is going to be a funny yet different sort of book that deals with identity and race.
Sidesplitter is a product of the pandemic from Wang, 31, who uses the book to examine his own mixed-race experience. The author also shares his perspectives on cultural and social issues, often going back to his Western and Asian roots.
The London-based comedian describes Sidesplitter as a “collection of humorous essays about the mixed-race experience”.
“The book is a continuation of musings and thoughts that I’ve had for a while about being mixed-race and being Malaysian and British,” says Wang in a recent Zoom interview.
He cleverly divides this book (257 pages) into 10 themed chapters such as home, family, assimilation, comedy and race. Wang's childhood in Malaysia also plays a big part in making "familiar" connections, especially when it comes to talking about food.
“I did a (BBC) Radio 4 show (Wangsplaining) about Malaysia, Britain, the empire and my family. That sparked a lot of thoughts in me that I didn’t really have an outlet for because stand-up as a format is very short term.
“You don’t really get a lot of space and time to explore ideas and be more serious about topics. It has to be punchy whereas in a book you can.
“So I figured a book is the best opportunity to explore these ideas more deeply. And I think readers have more of an attention span than a comedy audience, which is fair,” he adds.
Wang, whose comedy special Phil Wang: Philly Philly Wang Wang is on Netflix, was born in Stoke-on-Trent to an English mother and a Sino-Kadazan father from Sabah. His mother (an archaeologist) met his father (a civil engineer) in Kota Kinabalu, when she volunteered in Malaysia.
Wang and his family moved back to his father’s hometown in Kota Kinabalu just a week after his birth. The comedian also has two sisters. After he turned 16, his family moved back to the Bath in England.
Wang studied engineering at Cambridge’s King’s College and also began dabbling in comedy, where he did leave quite an impression in those early years. In 2010, Wang won the Chortle Student Comedian Of The Year Award and in 2011, Comedy Central’s Funniest Student Award. He was also the president of Footlights (student comedy troupe) at Cambridge University, joining the ranks of Hugh Laurie and Simon Bird, to name a few.
As a stand-up comedian during the pre-pandemic days, Wang used to perform at international comedy festivals around the world. His acclaimed live show Philly Philly Wang Wang at the 2019 Edinburgh Fringe sold out before the festival began.
In late 2019, he hilariously spoofed British actor Tom Hiddleston's Mandarin-speaking advert (for women's supplements) in China. For his effort, Wang's video has now racked up 6.6 million views online.
The comedian has also appeared on a series of British TV shows, including hosting Live At The Apollo, Have I Got News For You, 8 Out Of 10 Cats Does Countdown and The Great British Bake Off: Extra Slice.
“My background has just made me an outsider, whether or not I wanted to be. And comedy is by and large an outsider’s perspective. It’s about looking at something objectively, something that other people have taken for granted and then making fun of it,” he explains.
“In that sense, being from Malaysia in Britain and being white in Malaysia has always given me that outsider’s perspective which is beneficial to a comedian.”
To Wang, comedy offers a diverse platform that cuts through barriers and sparks new conversations. He even names TV shows such as Phua Chu Kang, Kopitiam, Blackadder, French And Saunders and The Simpsons as influences, while Malaysia's Harith Iskander is one of his favourite comedians.
In Sidesplitter, he grapples with bittersweet memories, family dynamics, and personal traumas. In a chapter, he recalls painful memories of being bullied by British teens when he went to the cinemas with his mother.
Wang adds that writing Sidesplitter was a therapeutic process. It allowed him to go back in time and “forgive the child Phil about the mistakes he made, be more sympathetic towards him and appreciate the identity difficulties he went through and the awkwardness of being a child who felt out of place,” he elaborates.
For a slice of humour, he also dissects the classic British comedy series Mind Your Language, which he acknowledges has not aged well.
But writing the final chapter titled Home was the hardest, admits Wang.
He talks about seeing his father for the last time before the pandemic hit last year, and recalls it being a “very painful recent memory”.
“I flew to Malaysia and then flew back to Britain early. It’s something that I still feel a lot of shame about and I forced myself to be explicit about how much shame I felt.
“It’s the only time in the book that I write about a real regret. And it happened so recently. But I think it’s important to the conclusion of the book,” offers Wang.
“I hope Sidesplitter would be a companion for someone who is in a similar position to me, for people who feel like they don’t belong to any one particular place. Someone told me that this book is like a bible for ‘third culture kids’ and that’s what I hope it will be for the readers,” he concludes.