Four of the Asian region’s brightest queer comedy stars are heading to Riverside Theatres for Spice Night, a stand-up showcase that shines a humorous light on life for LGBTIQ people in Singapore, India, Malaysia and The Philippines.
Living and working in countries where homosexuality is illegal or has only been recently decriminalised, each brings a unique perspectives on what it means to be “out”.
We talk to Malaysia’s queen of comedy, Joanne Kam and Mumbai’s Navin Noronha, reputedly India’s only out gay stand-up about love, life and laughter in their respective cities.
In a Western comedy club, free speech rules. Once you’re on the mike, you can say anything, more or less.
You might get a laugh. You might be howled down for it. At worst, you might cop a blast via social media. But chances are you won’t end up in custody.
In the Asian region, where stand-up comedy is a burgeoning but evolving phenomenon, things are a little more … complicated.
In Malaysia, for example, there are limits to what you can say and permissions to be sought, says Joanne Kam. And when you identify as LGBTIQ, everything becomes exponentially more difficult.
“We wanted a queer comedian to come to our club in Kuala Lumpur and we had to apply for a permit three times because the authorities found out that this comedian was very active in the LGBTIQ community and they were concerned he might promote the LGBTIQ lifestyle, which, in KL these days, is a sensitive subject.
In Malaysia right now, there is one side of the population that wants to push the envelope and another side that is … more traditional.”
Kam, who identifies as bisexual, often works in cabaret and drag club settings in KL and for the most part, it’s a free and open environment for performers. But then there are times when someone in authority decides to make a stand on a morality issue.
“There are raids, sometimes, but they are only to make a point,” Kam says. “They will come into the clubs and say the performers are working girls when really they are just doing a cabaret. They take them into custody for a night, the press get their photos and then everyone is let go the next day. It’s just so that someone can say, we’re stopping transsexuals doing illegal activities. But what doesn’t get reported is that these girls aren’t doing anything illegal. They’re just doing a show. That’s how it is at the moment.”
Kam got her start in comedy in Singapore in the 1990s, in the city’s now defunct Boom Boom Room. After a year or so, Kam moved back to Kuala Lumpur to start a club of the same name.
“That was 27 years ago now and it was only then that people in Kuala Lumpur got their first look at stand-up. But the scene really exploded maybe 10 years ago. All of a sudden there were new comedians popping up everywhere.”
YouTube has been instrumental in the development of comedy careers and profile, Kam says. “But I am old school. I say you are only a comic if you can stand up in front of a crowd of 200 people in a room and make them laugh!”
Kam describes her style as “very risqué”.
“I started doing pure stand-up, but in the last couple of years, I’ve been doing more long-form comedy and comedy stories, as well as song parodies and skits. My act now is a combination of all these things. I have a bag of tricks and it really depends on what the producer of the night will allow me to do. But you will definitely get the risqué version of me in Australia.
Kam is also known for her costumes as loud as her onstage personality. “Right now, we’re trying to figure out what I can bring to Australia because some of the costumes are quite delicate. And there are baggage limits. I need 60kgs!”
If Kam is the elder stateswoman of Spice Night, then Navin Noronha is its rising star.
The show marks his Australian debut.
“I have a very normal suburban background in Mumbai and I’ve never had the opportunity like my peers to go to Melbourne Comedy Festival or Montreal or Edinburgh,” Noronha says. “But now, finally, after five years of doing comedy, I finally get to go outside of my country and show what I can do. It’s a good feeling.”
Comedy, he says, was his way of coming out as gay in a country where homosexuality was only decriminalised in 2018, when a law – the infamous Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code put into place in 1861 – was finally overturned.
“In a moment of sheer adrenaline rush, I came out in public at my first open mike,” Noronha says. “I said, hello, if you are wondering about me, I am gay! I was really scared because I was expecting bottles and shoes to be thrown at me. But people were so glad that I had something new to say. They were like, great, at last we have some variety. That’s how I came out.”
There are few role models for young gay people in India, Noronha adds. “There are no gay icons and there is no one you can follow in their footsteps. I wanted to start that conversation. If I had someone like me telling me how it was for them, it would have helped me so much. I want to help others out. That’s how my journey of talking about my gay life began.
“My comedy is storytelling,” Noronha says. “It is life-driven and spiced with my humour. And because it’s about my life, it’s very real for me. A lot of my audiences are not queer but they get where I am coming from because in India, if you are born to a conservative family, you’re almost coming out to your family on every level.
“If you want a tattoo, you have to come out to your family with a tattoo. If you have a new boyfriend or girlfriend, you have to tell your family … that constant coming out is what my comedy is about.”
Living in suburban Mumbai, it doesn’t hurt to pass as straight, Noronha says. “I have had an advantage in that I am not visibly queer. I am a blending-in queer boy. People accept me. But if you are effeminate, for example, people can pull back, I’ve seen that happen. We are still opening those boundaries in this country.”
Noronha’s first trip to Sydney will also be his first experience of the Sydney Mardi Gras.
“I hear it’s a blast,” he says. “I have some queer friends from India who are studying or working in Sydney and they’re all going to Mardi Gras.
“Can you believe, I’ve never been to a gay bar in my life? I’ve been to queer parties in India but they’re fairly tame. Going to a bar where someone checks you out? I’ve never had that experience. So I want to try that.”