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THE WORLD | COLUMN ONE

To China, a Canadian Is the West

Mark Rowswell, who speaks Mandarin like a native, has become an advertising icon and a TV personality known to a billion viewers.

June 21, 2004|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — The big, blue-eyed Canadian strides confidently into a concrete-floored classroom filled with disadvantaged students on the outskirts of this capital.

"Dashan! Dashan!" the second-graders shout in unison. Beaming, Mark Rowswell greets the children in a fast-clipped, colloquial Mandarin that even their teacher might have a hard time matching.

The students sit spellbound, listening to the near-flawless command of Chinese demonstrated by this 6-foot-tall cultural oddity, this outsider.

That's all it takes. Within moments, the unlikely homegrown celebrity known as Dashan, or Big Mountain, has won over yet another mainland audience.

Part curiosity, part domestic media star, Rowswell is China's most famous foreigner, enjoying a near-constant presence on Chinese television.

He appears regularly on nationally broadcast variety shows and is the host of his own programs. Officials of state-run TV and others estimate that Dashan is known to 80% of the population -- more than 1 billion people -- ranking him as one of the most recognized personalities on the planet.

Across this vast country, images of Dashan are everywhere. His smiling face flashes from billboards and buses from Tibet to Tiananmen Square, advertising alcohol and air conditioners, fertilizer and Western suits.

In the years since China fell for Rowswell in 1988, he has evolved from a mere lao wai, or foreign visitor, to a beloved public figure and cross-cultural ambassador, a celebrity with near-cult status.

The lanky Ottawa native, a virtual unknown in Canada, is most renowned for his Chinese TV appearances as the quick-witted foreigner who does amusing skits and the first Westerner to perform the ancient Chinese art of xiangsheng, or comedic dialogue.

The grandson of a former Anglican missionary in China, Rowswell, 39, is prospering in a society where TV performers work for minimal pay, earning his keep through lucrative advertising endorsements.

The Dashan character provides Rowswell with more than just a $500,000 annual income. Commuting several times each year between China and his home in Canada, he carries the personal satisfaction that his efforts may chip away at the Great Wall of cultural misunderstanding between China and the West.

"I try to bring to the Chinese a new image of foreigners that flies in the face of the stereotypes most have grown up with," he said.

Part of that public relations effort is to direct his star status toward social activism. Big Mountain appears in campaigns against smoking and suicide, and he has urged Chinese citizens to reduce global warming through energy conservation. The campaign included his recent visit to the elementary school on Beijing's outskirts to promote a government pilot program to bring regular education to the children of itinerant laborers.

Dashan's West-meets-East pitch is a natural sell all over China. In a place far from Hollywood, Rowswell is treated with a reverence reserved for the motion picture elite. Almost everywhere he goes, he is recognized by passersby -- from cabbies and street vendors to government cadres who slow their limousines for a peek at Big Mountain.

He is mobbed in Beijing department stores. Passing bicyclists wave shyly. Some muster the courage to ask for an autograph or snap a picture.

Dashan is flooded with e-mail from admirers who want to become pen pals or insist that they know someone who resembles him. Mothers come bearing pictures of their daughters. Government officials call him on his cellphone to request guest appearances, and former President Jiang Zemin once commented on Rowswell's performances.

A former Canadian ambassador to China once was approached in Tibet by a waitress who gushed, "Canada, that's where Dashan lives!"

"Mark has done what few Westerners can: make the Chinese people laugh at themselves using their own language," said Ian Burchett, a spokesman for the Canadian Embassy in Beijing. "His appeal is phenomenal. It doesn't matter what their station in life, from peasant to city-dweller, everybody wants a piece of Dashan."

Big Mountain scaled the heights of Chinese celebrity almost by accident.

After numerous Chinese courses in Canada, Rowswell moved to China to pursue his language studies. Rowswell's teachers at Peking University volunteered the gifted foreign student to audition for a 1988 TV variety show. During the second performance of a skit before a university audience, he played a country bumpkin named Dashan.

The next day, a student greeted him by the stage name. Rowswell assumed the man had attended the performance. Then an elderly lady did the same thing. That's when Rowswell learned that the skit had been broadcast on government TV to 550 million viewers -- an audience 15 times the population of his native Canada.

The opportunities multiplied. Rowswell winces now at some of those early gigs, such as the commercial pitching a tofu-based drink called dou zhir, known for its peculiar odor.

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