Mark Rowswell became famous in China at age 23.
Among the country's early expats, he came to China in the late '80s as an exchange student from Canada to learn Chinese at Peking University. He then appeared on Chinese television, playing in a skit the role of a peasant, named Xu Dashan, who returns home late and begs his wife to open the door.
The performance, aired on China Central Television during the Spring Festival holiday in 1988, was viewed by millions. Since then, Rowswell, who was welcomed by Chinese audiences for his fluency in Mandarin and on-screen presence, has become a household name in the country. Chinese TV viewers call him "Dashan".
In the past 20 years, Rowswell has acted in many Chinese television series and appeared as a cultural ambassador at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the 2010 Shanghai Expo, among other major events. Now, he is moving toward a new direction－stand-up comedy.
After nearly three years of preparation, he will present his first such act at Beijing's Tianqiao Performing Arts Center on Sunday. The show is also one of the highlights of the Meet in Beijing Arts Festival, one of China's largest annual cultural events, which begins later this month and runs through May.
Rowswell's move also comes from learning xiangsheng, or crosstalk, a traditional Chinese comic art form. He learned it from established Chinese performer Jiang Kun.
He has also picked up other traditional Chinese folk art forms, such as kuaiban, a form of storytelling accompanied by the performer making sounds with a set of small bamboo clappers.
"One of the fundamental differences between stand-up comedy and xiangsheng is that xiangsheng is a whole package with a beginning, a developing section and the end. Stand-up comedy is unstructured. It's loose and just goes from joke to joke," Rowswell tells China Daily.
"What I do is sort of halfway in between. It's basically a 60-minute autobiographical show and I tell my story of being a foreign student in Beijing, meeting Jiang Kun, starting to learn xiangsheng and becoming a celebrity."
Born and raised in Ottawa, he graduated with a degree in Chinese studies from the University of Toronto. In 1988, he received a full scholarship to learn Chinese in Beijing. At the time, he wanted to do business, educational or cultural programs. Becoming a performer was totally by accident, he says.
Two years ago, he looked back at his life and asked himself: "What's my legacy?"