Geek chic, Jane Bowron

An Asian at my Table
Raybon Kan
Penguin, $29.95,
ISBN  0143019104

I first encountered Raybon Kan across a crowded news room at The Dominion when I was just starting out as tv critic back in the early 1990s. Raybon had more than made his splash and was getting way too busy touring his new stand-up comedy show round the country to do the amount of tv reviewing he had originally taken on, so I was brought in to fill a gap.

One day he sauntered over to my desk and started hassling me to swap my reviewing day with his, a favour I wasn’t prepared to grant. Sure I was the rookie with the better reviewing day but no way was the new kid on the block going to swap her slot, and I stood my ground even though he made it clear that really I ought to give way to da man. But that was years ago now when it would have been impossible to have laid eyes on Raybon’s latest collection of columns and longer feature articles, An Asian at my Table.

If I had read the book back then, I would have immediately given way to his request to swap because this collection clearly demonstrates that the master gives good, no superb, pen. Unfortunately the title of the collection has been lurking round in the public consciousness for some time now. I think it was the name of one of his comedy shows, and had I not got a free review copy I would never have contemplated parting with the money to buy a book with a title that now sounds, as Steve Martin once said at the Oscars, “so last season” – no matter how witty and urbane.

Included in the collection is a column titled “Asians Are From Earth, Starfleet Prefers Klingons” in which Raybon talks to Garrett Wang, the Asian guy who played Ensign Harry Kim on Star Trek Voyager. In this section Raybon wonders: why there is only ever one Asian per Star Trek starship; why ER has never had any Asian doctors even though they rule in American hospitals; why Asian men are always portrayed in film and television as the enemy (a hangover from the Vietnam and Korean wars, and WWII); why Asian women are portrayed as prostitutes (exception Lucy Liu and broadcaster Connie Chung); why Asian guys in films hardly ever get to suck face with Caucasian chicks.

Raybon and the actor lament that being an Asian bloke in the West is an emasculating business. But it’s worked terrifically for Raybon who, even though he lives in New Zealand, has built a brilliant career out of being Asian at a pretty much American table. His writing style is very American and his reports of outings into strange and rarefied habitats hark back to that early postmodern adventurer George Plimpton, a man famous for total immersion into all that was weird and wonderful while posting a bemused blow-by-blow report back to the very-ready-to-be-amused.

In “The Science of the Labs” Raybon manages to don the mask and stand elbow to elbow with surgeons conducting heavy-duty heart surgery. It’s a gory and tricky business, and Raybon performs a deft and incisive knife job of recounting the operatic three-and-a-half hour operation without fainting and with a full bladder. In another heart-stopping adventure he slaps on a beard and saveloy-red suit to become an Asian Father Christmas, committing Santacide by revealing to the reader the secrets of the Santa rule book.

His jaunts to Las Vegas in “Five Days in Las Vegas” (to gamble and watch entertainer Wayne Newton) and in “US Wheel of Fortune: an Epic Life Experience” (where he was a game show competitor) are the best pieces in the book. (The fictional piece “Private Prisons” is the weakest.) The best celebrity story is about Elle Macpherson whom Raybon finds thin and baggy-eyed in the flesh and a terrible control freak to interview. He demonstrates he can write seriously in the sustained and quietly angry piece “Can Immigrants Please Be Less Foreign”.

There are a couple of pieces on GE. In one of these Raybon delivers the best line in the collection, a line that is both beautiful to the ear and also rather naughty. We have, he says, expressing (mock-)horror that our clean green New Zealand image is a crock, we have been “shaking it with every seed that sailed in on a ship”.

Like many unattached urban males, Raybon enjoys advertising how he likes to hunt. He never passes up an opportunity to babe-speak it up big time; sometimes you wonder though if his heart’s really in it. The women appearing in the collection are for the main part gorgeous and vacuous but you get the feeling that while he mocks the image- conscious and the shallow clothes-horse, anything more than a servile nubile would terrify the pants off him.

He is terribly funny and you know there will be at least five quiet laughs per page and one belly laugh per column. His paragraphs are so beautifully constructed that he makes the teeth-extractingly awful business of writing one word after another seem effortless. Each new section has a black and white picture of Raybon a-raving into a microphone and looking, every elfin inch of him, the naughty ink-monkey.

The hard years of “stand up journalism” and “investigative comedy” are all cleverly on show here with the geek chic stylist laying some of his best cards on the table. Fans will devour and look forward to the next course.


Jane Bowron is a television critic for The Dominion Post.


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Posted in Essays, Media, Non-fiction, Review
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