Interviewed & written by Isao Tokuhashi
Mail to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Chi-Fen Wu (Taiwan)
We’ve covered some people who are engaged in a Japanese traditional verbal entertainment called “Rakugo“, which is performed by a lone storyteller. Even though you have to know about Japanese culture, language and customs deeper in order to enjoy rakugo, it’s getting popular among foreigners. There are some non-Japanese rakugo performers who we’ve interviewed from the US, Turkey, UK and Sweden.
Now let us introduce you to another performer from Taiwan named Chi-Fen Wu, a.k.a. “Giran-tei Shoronpo (宜蘭亭小籠包)”.
We met her for the first time at the international rakugo competition held in Chiba last November. Non-professional Japanese and foreigners competed with one another in their techniques and Johan Nilsson Björk, a Swedish rakugo performer, participate it. Wu was the only female performer among them and was drawing belly laughs.
Her SNS pages are overflowing with love for rakugo and rakugo performers. We know many foreign rakugo performers, but we thought that she was the one who loved it the most. So we got interested in her.
Our question was: “Why do you love rakugo that much?”. But it was nonsense because her life story was just like rakugo.
Going to Japan for comedy
I’m working for theaters and halls as a consultant. I’ve been involved in planning for theater/hall operation and drawing road maps to open facilities. Our sphere of business is not only Japan but also China and Taiwan. We’ve been internationally diversified.
I love this job because I like entertainment. I’ve learned classical music since I was a child and I majored in Art Management at a Taiwanese university. Then, I came to Japan to develop knowledge on it.
Sorry, that’s an excuse to come to Japan. My real reason for coming to Japan was to enjoy various kinds of real Japanese comedies that I’ve been familiar with since I was a kid.
Nobody understands about what I love
I was 5 when I came across Japanese comedy. I enjoyed watching “Daijobu Da“, hosted by Ken Shimura, a Japanese comedian who’s been active in the front lines for about 40 years. It was cablecast in Taiwan. Then, I got into a Japanese comic duo called “Ucchan Nanchan“. They were co-hosting a Japanese TV program with Vivian Hsu, a Taiwanese idol, so I felt something familiar to them more.
Moreover, a program hosted by a Japanese comedy troupe called “Yoshimoto Shin Kigeki” (Lit. “Yoshimoto New-style Comedy”) was broadcast in Taiwan. A 14 year-old girl enjoyed it even though they were in their 30s, 40s and 50s. I learned Japanese naturally through those shows.
My classmates also loved Japanese entertainment, but they were big fans of dramas and boy bands. No one was interested in comedy shows so they couldn’t understand what I loved. That’s one of the reasons why I decided to come to Japan. I thought that there should be many people who would be interested in my interests there.
Entering Japanese grad school
After graduating Taiwanese university, I worked for a juvenile theater company in Taiwan for a year. Then, I came to Hamamatsu, Shizuoka Prefecture, to learn about the art management deeper at the grad school of Shizuoka University of Art and Culture. Before coming to Japan, I studied Japanese grammar because I didn’t have knowledge of it at all. As I said before, I learned Japanese naturally, but I didn’t use any textbook so I didn’t know the grammatical Japanese at all.
I decided NOT to come to Japan if I failed an entrance exam of the grad school. What gave me a charge was the things that I wanted to do in Japan, like watching the REAL Japanese comedy shows.
I looked for Japanese grad schools that had art management courses. Also I had no choice but going to a school with a low tuition because I couldn’t get financial support from my parents. So I’m still paying back loans.
Tokyo people may wonder why I went to a school in Hamamatsu, a city whose foreign population was tiny. But it’s located about midway between Tokyo and Osaka, and Nagoya is close. There were a lot of comedy theaters/halls in those cities so Hamamatsu was the right place for me. Of course, I didn’t have any intention or plan to come to the city. So I felt really lucky.
I worked at a local drug store as a part-timer while I was studying at a school. Then I went to Tokyo to enjoy live comedy shows during school breaks. When I went to Osaka for academic meetings, I enjoyed the live shows. Those are held at theaters/halls owned by Yoshimoto Kogyo, a major Japanese entertainment conglomerate. I lived only for it.
“I’ll join Yoshomoto!”
While I was enjoying the direct-from-the-farm comedy shows, the time was coming for job hunting. I’m a foreigner so I needed to look for a company who would issue a working visa for me. I had a higher hurdle to overcome than the one Japanese students had.
I took an employment exam of Yoshimoto Kogyo. I’d longed for being a Yoshimoto staff. It’s a really popular company among students, and just a few out of tens of thousands of people who apply to it can become staff members.
I passed 3 interviews and a paper test. Then I joined a camp. It was organized by Yoshimoto and was also an “exam”. At that point, there were about 40 applicants left. Actually an interviewer told me, “I would be turned off if you were not a foreigner.” I’m a foreigner, so they were happy that I loved Yoshimoto that much, but if I was a Japanese, they would be amazed.
However, I couldn’t pass the “camp exam”. I guess I loved Yoshimoto too much. But, I was really shocked. Moreover, I received a failure notice on March 10, 2011 – the day before the huge earthquake disaster.
Going back home with disappointment
I failed a Yoshimoto employment exam right before the final interview. I cried a lot and went back home to turn a new leaf. So I was not in Japan on March 11, 2011.
I stayed in Taiwan for a week. My family asked me NOT to go back to Japan because they were afraid of the effects of the earthquake. But, to me, Japan was my home, like Taiwan, because I had many friends here. So whether I was in Taiwan or in Japan, I would feel sad.
Also I would say that Taiwan and Japan had connected with each other for the first time in ages since the “921 Earthquake” occurred in Taiwan on September 21, 1999. Japan sent a disaster relief team to Taiwan, and then Taiwan sent donations to Japan after the 3/11 Earthquake. I think we could repay their kindness.
I got myself calmed down while I was in home. After coming back to Japan, my former professor wrote a recommendation for me. I was close to graduating from a grad school, but fortunately foreign students were granted an additional stay permit within a year so I went to theaters/halls throughout Japan in order to get a job. I wanted to stay in Japan because it’s a country filled with comedy and entertainment that I have loved for a long time.
Finally, I got a job at a company in Tokyo in December 2012. My visa was supposed to expire in March 2013, which meant I had to make eleventh-hour efforts.
I got to know rakugo before I entered a company. A young Japanese comedian performed it at a Yoshimoto rakugo event in August 2011. I was a big fan of him so I went there. I didn’t know about rakugo at all. I could catch only about 30% of all words he mentioned. It was my first meeting with rakugo.
In July 2012, Katsura Bunji, a professional rakugo performer, came to my school in Shizuoka and performed. My friend told me about that and I went there because I already knew what rakugo was. I thought that a doddering old guy would sit on the stage because professional performers were old in my impression. But, actually, the performer was relatively young so I was surprised. I totally cracked up at his first act.
But, I got to know that there were a wide variety of rakugo stories after that. He started performing a ghost story. Rakugo has both downright funny stories and some kinds of complicated stories in which you feel horror and funniness at the same time. I was almost bombarded with the wide variation of rakugo.
It was before entering a company, so it was difficult to enjoy rakugo for financial reasons so I covered up my attachment to rakugo.
Some years had past after I entered a company. In April 2015, I started to go to the entertainment halls called “Yose” (寄席) to see rakugo every weekend. I could afford to do that at that time so I watched yose to my heart’s content. Then I gradually wanted to perform it by myself.
And I found that there was a rakugo class. The class, which would start in April 2015, had already closed and its new recruitment session would start around October. I decided to apply for the class if I still loved rakugo 6 months after.
On the other hand, I couldn’t forget Katsura Bunji, a professional rakugo performer who taught me the attractiveness of rakugo. So I Googled him and found that he held a rakugo class near his house once a month. Moreover his class was supposed to be held the next day. “Only a month has passed since I started to go to yose halls, not 6 months. But I want to see him!” – So I decided to join his class.
Becoming a performer
On the next day, I saw Katsura Bunji for the first time in 3 years. I told him when I introduced myself, “You performed rakugo at my school and I fell in love with it.” He said, “I perform rakugo at schools to promote it to young people. If somebody comes and sees my show, I’m happy. It’s like a cultivation of sea turtles, just a few of them survive even though thousands of turtles are cultivated.” I told him, “A turtle (=Me) came back to see you again. It is non-native though.”
I was asked to show my rakugo skills to my classmate at the next class. I learned how to perform a story called “Jugemu” (寿限無) by listening to the performance by Hayshiya Taihei, another professional storyteller. I was not comfortable with my performance, but my classmates loved it.
After that, I had a rare opportunity to meet Hayashiya Taihei. He gave me my stage name, “Giran-tei Shoronpo” (宜蘭亭小籠包). Giran means “Yilan“, my hometown in Taiwan, and Shoronpo is “Xiaolongbao“, a type of steamed bun from China. I loved it.
In September 2015, I debuted as an amateur rakugo performer. I performed “Jugemu” again. Then I joined the international rakugo competition last November. A story that I performed is called “Hirabayashi”, which I learned from Katsura Bunji. I performed it in gratitude for him.
Performing “makura”, preliminary comments, before telling the story “Hirabayashi”. *Japanese
At Chiba Prefectural Culture Hall (Nov 22, 2015)
What you like, you will do well.
My performance was not awarded to my regret, but I enjoyed performing Hirabayashi from the bottom of my heart. The audience felt that I was enjoying it much better than others. He is also an amateur performer and he thought he should enjoy while performing.
I want to continue to perform rakugo. Of course I want to perform in Chinese in front of folks in Taiwan, but I won’t do that now. I’ll do that after my skills improve much more.
Before the performance in Taiwan, I want to hold a rakugo show with foreign performers who I was with at the international rakugo competition. If possible, I’d like to invite professional performers and hear their opinions and perspectives on rakugo performances done by foreigners. That’s my dream.
What is rakugo to you?
It’s the “Dreamland in my life”.
There are not only good people but also bad people in rakugo stories. But I can accept what they do. They are totally lovable. They are cute. Also, rakugo performers are cute so watching their performance is a kind of a “detachment from reality” for me.
So many things have happened to me up to now. My father and mother divorced and my father died of a disease. Of course, those things were really painful for me at that time. But now those are great stories. I’ve had a few bumps along the way so far, but my life will be like a sentimental discourse. I hope it’ll be really pleasant and rich.
Twitter：宜蘭亭小籠包 (Giran-tei Shoronpo)
*Mainly tweeted in Japanese.