Meet the Clowns Bringing Laughter to China's Migrant Children

By Aron Solomons, December 6, 2019

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Bjorn Dahlman has been clowning in China since 2014. Together with Bian Xiao, they have been performing as the Toad King and Frog Emperor since 2017. Aron Solomons met up with them to discuss the conflict between using performance to educate, versus a clown’s focus on making kids laugh, and how clowning has the power to benefit some of China’s most marginalized children.

China has a long history of comedic performance and clowning. Clowns were present at Imperial Courts as far back as the Zhou Dynasty (founded 1046BC). The story goes that a clown named Yu Sze, who served Great Wall building Emperor Ch'in Shih Huang-ti, managed to convince the Emperor not to paint the massive structure. By doing so he saved thousands of lives, and became a national hero in the process.

The Frog King and The Toad Emperor are not national heroes. They are two friends, who along with the rest of their clown posse (yes, the collective noun for clowns is 'posse') bring clowning to children all over China.

Bian Xiao has been working in Children’s Theater in China since 2008. He came across Bjorn Dahlman’s videos on WeChat and was immediately attracted to creating a different type of children’s theater. One that was aimed at the kids themselves rather than the parents.

"Often in children’s theater, the parents expect the theater production to teach their kids something. We have both experienced wanting to do something because the kids will like it, only to be told by production companies that the parents won’t. Our challenge is always, ‘Who are we performing for? The kids or the parents?’ And they say the parents, because they pay for the ticket!"

For both Bian and Dahlman, clowning can be an empowering experience for children.

“We want to empower kids," says Dahlman. "Make them feel like the best in the world for half an hour. We want them to feel this is your show. Every single scene is designed so that kids feel 'I can do this.' We get into problems and the children run on stage to help us. This little five-year-old boy watching knows he is great because he is helping an adult, and that is the core of it."

That can be seen in the very physicality of a clowning performance. Bian Xiao describes how, "A clown places themselves on either an equal or lower level to children. In theater, actors are normally above the audience. This only enforces a message of 'I am an adult and you are a child. You must listen to me.' In a clown performance the kids are shouting 'You screwed up!' 'You are wrong!' 'You dropped your hat!' It’s a very different experience."

Bjorn Dahlman as the Frog King and Bian Xiao as the Toad Emperor

Bjorn Dahlman performing level with a child, which to clowns promotes a sense of equality

A little boy reacts to a clown show by the posse

More satisfied customers

This empowerment is very important in the social outreach of the project, working with the Clowns Without Borders, an international organization that seeks to spread joy, laughter and hope to children in crisis. When Dahlman came to China in 2014, he did some work for a Swedish theater company which wanted to arrange some test performances. 

"At that time, I had just come from India doing a Clowns Without Borders tour,"  Dahlman says. "I thought, if we are doing a rehearsal performance for free, why don’t we find kids who are struggling and do it for them? So we performed at a center for the children of sex workers, and then did a joint workshop with the parents and kids."

In China, Bian and Dahlman often perform for the children of migrant and sex workers – those unable to get a hukou, and thus access to state services, and always work with local NGOs. As a Swede, Dahlman in particular is very conscious to avoid a politicized narrative.

"We don't want to step in and say this is a message we want to spread in your country, we are coming from Sweden to save you."

He also notes the suspicion that exists towards NGOs in China, especially ones with foreign connections. In China they work with Stepping Stones, a not-for-profit charitable organization with a mission to improve the education and general welfare of disadvantaged children in China, and YouDao, which runs kindergartens.

Their next big goal is to reach out to left-behind children in the countryside – those kids who remain in rural regions of China while their parents leave to work in urban areas. They are also always looking for collaborators, and have recently performed with local jugglers and magicians.

"Since 2017 the door is open," says Dahlman. "Anyone that is willing to get up at 5am and get on a metro can join the show. It is designed in such a way you can just add a person."

They have also recently started a channel on short video platform on Douyin. Fittingly for two clowns, Bian started the Douyin page as a joke, not expecting many people to watch, but one of their first videos racked up an incrediable 7.5 million views. 

"In China, you have loads of people in offices and their pressure is massive. When you have that much pressure you need a release," says Bian, who has done many corporate performances. "When your boss isn't looking, you go on Douyin and have a quickly watch and you feel fulfilled."

"The core is the same," Dahlman summarizes. "You’re a kid, we make you laugh. You’re an adult that wants to feel like a kid, we make you laugh too!"

Additional reporting and translation from Alex Gomar.

Click here for more stories my Aron Solomons

[All photos supplied by Bjorn Dahlman]

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