Jennifer Wong came to Canberra more than two decades ago to unravel what it meant to be Chinese in Australia, but she will return in 2023 for her new stand-up show as an accomplished comedian.
Long before the writer, comedian and presenter’s face was on the ABC and SBS, including for her award-nominated series Chopsticks or Fork?, she was on a mission of self-discovery at the ANU.
“I was very much about learning Chinese language so I could one day read the history of China in Chinese,” Jennifer remembers.
“I was really trying to figure out what it means to be Chinese in Australia at the time because I just didn’t really know very much about my identity.”
Jennifer says she made a lot of “happy memories” during the three years she spent living and studying in the capital in her 20s during the early 2000s.
“It’s the place where I got to wear my Kathmandu jacket, have my hair in plaits and ride my purple bicycle around during autumn,” she says. But noticeably absent from this period is any inkling she would become a comedian.
Jennifer reveals it was also during this period she unwittingly wrote the material for her very first stand-up show, which she would perform years later in 2005.
“I was living in Fenner Hall [and] I would run up to the top floor of Fenner Hall and use their computer, which had the internet (this was in 2002),” she says.
“And I would write on Blogger, a blog about funny things that I had seen, so they were usually about China, or they were about ice cream.
“I’d written about how in China they had a rodent problem, and so what they did was they bred these giant eagles to solve the rodent problem, which made me think about what would happen once you had a giant eagle problem, and that was the first bit of comedy that I ever did at the Sydney Comedy Store for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival’s RAW Comedy Competition.”
Fast forward to 2023 and Jennifer’s Australia-wide tour of Jennifer Wong Has No Peripheral Vision is about to arrive at two venues close to her heart in the city where her comedy accidentally began, Muse (Saturday, 8 July), which is owned by an old university friend, and the ANU-adjoined Street Theatre (Saturday, 14 October), which Jennifer used to frequent during her uni days.
“If you had tapped me on the shoulder then and said, ‘Did you know that in 20-something years’ time you would be performing in [The Street Theatre]?’ I would’ve been like, ‘Who are you and what are you talking about? That is ridiculous’ … and so the idea of getting to come back and perform in this theatre is just nuts.”
But Jennifer’s self-described “comeback show” is also bigger than any one venue or city, given it’s her first tour in six years after she stopped comedy to focus on her mental health.
“That whole time I’ve been using to get better [and] learn how to look after myself, and I do talk about that in the show [and] about what it’s like to go to hospital for depression,” she says.
During this period, she was also diagnosed with a degenerative genetic eye disease, retinitis pigmentosa.
“My mental health was so bad that I was like, this is just another thing I have to deal with,” she remembers.
Jennifer says during this challenging time, while she struggled to write jokes, comedy gave her a “sense of hope” that there was always more than one way of looking at a situation.
She now feels well and comfortably jokes that retinitis pigmentosa is Latin for ‘please don’t drive’ and how when she saw halos around lights and realised there was something wrong with her sight, she thought, “I’m no expert, but they can’t all be angels”. Her show’s material and title even pay homage to the real and metaphorical effects of not seeing the full picture.
“That’s one of the joys for me, is to look back now and go, ‘Actually, what are the funny parts of this? What are the things that we can laugh at?'” she says.
“So, that is the thing that drives me, to see how we can find the humour in difficult and sometimes quite depressing situations.”
The Saturday, 8 July performance of Jennifer Wong Has No Peripheral Vision has sold out, but tickets are still available for the Saturday, 14 October show.