“Because no matter what script I came up with, the audience would cast an eye over my right hand.” So Lu changed her strategy: “Instead of having them wonder about my hand, it would be better just to ‘wave it off’ with a few explanations. Only then could I get their attention back to what I had to say next.”
Wang Lu, a Chinese citizen born with right hand deformities in Baoding City, Hebei Province in 1997 and a performer on Rock & Roast Season 2, one of the most popular internet talk shows in China.
On August 13 Wang Lu tweeted “Happy Left Handers Day,” to which her fans replied: Haha, an “unnatural” left hander!
Lu was born with a right hand that has no digits. Where it’s perfect to “give me five,” “all I can say is ‘give me zero.’” Her right hand, which resembles a common Chinese baby toy called “rattle-drum,” has won her a nickname: Palm Girl.
Lu is a plumpish young lady with wavy hair and a pair of round spectacles, quite well-known after her appearance on Rock & Roast. It is also this online show that has opened up the world for the life of “Palm Girl.”
“I’ve finished my fingers off”
A few years back a time came when Lu, at her uncle’s home, watched the 80’s Talk Show, which was claimed to be China’s first TV program of its kind representing the lives of the younger generation by way of Western-style humor, with Wang Zijian as the anchorman. Only a few minutes into the show, Lu began to rock back and forth with laughter. Seeing this, her uncle chipped in, “You might as well do that, too.” Surprised, Lu rejected, “I can’t. No way for me to do that,” though she somehow did wish to try it.
Since then Lu had become a fan of this program. Watching it wasn’t merely enough for her; she also made herself a “follower.” She was getting to know Wang Zijian as well as the increasingly popular figures in the talk show business, such as Li Dan and Wang Jianguo. Later she learned that Wang’s style is strictly not that of talk shows, but rather of stand-up comedy. It was only for the sake of promotion that they called it “talk show,” a more popular name among the audience.
When she was in college in 2017 Lu saw from the 80’s Talk Show crew an ad about a talk show training class. Signups required videos of the candidates performing. Lu felt excited about this. At first she worried that her disability might discredit her, but then on a second thought she braced herself and filmed a piece about the hand.
No phone call followed from the admission staff, but Lu saw a message in the online fans’ group. “Perhaps Li Dan saw my video and directly asked in the group: Who’s this girl without a hand? Did she sign up?” The entire group mentioned her name. This came as a big surprise for her as she had not expected to get Li Dan’s attention. Or to put it another way: she could be easily remembered just because her hand looks different.
To attend the training, Lu traveled to Shanghai for the first time. With other trainees, she studied theoretical approaches during the day and practiced stage performance in turns at night. “Now it is still quite awkward to watch those videos.” Disability became the first label by which she was recognized, but she didn’t feel uncomfortable at the time. “On the contrary I found this hand quite helpful.” She crafted her first comic piece about the hand. “I have a little brother who is a kindergartener. He loves to suck his fingers. To correct him, I say, look, I used to do that a lot, too, and now I’ve finished my fingers off!”
Out of her training class Lu plunged right into talk show theaters in the real world. shuttling between Shanghai and Beijing for small performing opportunities. Acting simply as a hostess also delighted her. The audience, mostly young people, would pay two or so dollars (10 to 20 yuan) for a bit of novelty and leisure a talk show promised. They would not expect much or mind bungles. For Lu, this relaxing atmosphere was an ideal proving ground. “The audience got all the ‘ha ha points.’ They only had a minimal idea of what a talk show is, so no one intentionally threw eggs at you.“ Not only was there a cheerful audience; the performers also lauded one another. “Not bad today!” “Punchlines were quite intense.” “Nice audience connection.” To these rosy-sounding comments, she referred deprecatingly as the “false prosperity” of interpersonal relationships.
When the lights went up, Lu walked onto the stage, mic in her left hand. “Hello, my name is Wang Lu.” With this she raised her right hand and waved it before the audience. “And I need to tell you that I was born with a hand like this.” This was her opening cliché because “no matter what script I came up with, the audience would cast an eye over my right hand.” So Lu changed her strategy: “Instead of having them wonder about my hand, it would be better just to ‘wave it off’ with a few explanations. Only then could I get their attention back to what I had to say next.”
The first season of Rock & Roast was a huge success. Season 2 expanded candidacy creating an opportunity for land-based performers like Lu. Out of seven contestants, one who overcame the Cruel Open Mic challenge with top votes would be entitled to a TV production along with the title of “Hot Comedian.”
Still with a mic in the left hand and the right hand held high in the air, Lu zoomed through and won the opportunity to face the national audience on TV.
“I only had one week of fame”
“She sprinted over full of vigor and verve.” To panelist Wu Xin’s comment, another popular comedian named Yu Qian nodded, “She came out with an aura of theatrics.” Lu beamed under the spotlight, feeling both excited and nervous, trying to hold her tongue, somewhat over herself inwardly. “Actually this is how I walk, sashaying along.”
“Sashaying along” was her way as a first-timer to repel fear and keep cool-headed on a stage too brightly lit for the performers to remain focused. She opted to do as many stage rehearsals as possible. When the other performers left, she could only practice with a white spotlight and a water bottle, which she fetched from her room as a substitute for the official mic. She would keep drilling until the security guards came to clear the site.
She valued this hard-earned opportunity. According to her instructor, she remembered, the creative fountain for talk show performers is a relentless dig at the difficult, the horrendous, the stupid, and the bizarre, four underlying aspects of life that provoke negative emotions, before packing it all up with humor. Going too deep is unbearable on the performer’s side, but too shallow a dig can hardly move the audience. An outstanding performance is somewhere in between. This is what talk show performers need to do – digging long into their souls and taking out to the audience all that sounds freshly alive.
“Hand” was where Lu constantly dug into. According to her, what should you do when a child asks his mother about your hand? “Wave it so he can see more clearly.” Could a disabled guy take five able-bodied friends to Disneyland without having to wait in line? “Obviously, those five people want to go there no less than that disabled guy!” What would you say if your team lost a video game? “Blame my hand if you ask me!” When you were lauded for your comic work, “that’s because they don’t have an “upper hand” as I do.”
This script Lu had repeated countless times, knowing without thinking which line could make the audience laugh and at which she should pause to wait for laughs.
“The key is to be error-free”
When her show was over, Lu seemed more willing to let go. Unlike other performers, who would judge the shows as good or bad, Lu minded more the fact that “it’s finally over,” having blurted out all that she had learned. She said that stage performance is like sitting for an important exam when you have certain disabilities. It is very rare that disabled people tease their own bodily defects in public. As compared with the mere use of common laughingstock, Lu’s appearance takes on new meaning.
When her show was broadcast, she felt that she had shot to fame. “When I went to the bathroom during a job interview, someone waited holding the door frame curtains for me. “Like this thing could ever have happened to me earlier!” A leisure walk on the street sometimes also involved a photo-op with fans. “The first thing people wanted to do after they had recognized me was take a look at my hand.” So she had to “show proof of her identity” over and over with passersby. Later when Lu found that she was not included in the list of performers who had performed in that talk show program and who had built their own fan clubs, she felt a little disappointed. “A week later it looked like I was already a ‘has-been.’”
Many of the private messages Lu has received on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, are from people with disabilities asking her how to be as resilient and strong as she is. To this, she cannot offer much advice, for she doesn’t see herself as disabled at all. “I got my disability card upon my mother’s request. Not much to feel about.” As she said in the show, “Many people say I’m strong, but I don’t want to be strong.”
“No one looks at my hand anymore”
Though a one-timer in the show, Lu made a good social circle. Once in the performers’ WeChat group she replied with a Chinese emoticon of one hand folded in the other, implying a masculine appreciation of what had been discussed. Following were many responses that conveyed a similar “wish to see Lu physically make that gesture herself.” As it turned out, the wish was granted when Lu actually did that in the last episode of Rock & Roast.
What Lu had not expected, however, was controversy against her performance. Some netizens thought that joking about disability was “cruel.” Some even went so far as to accuse her of exploiting loopholes and sponging off Disneyland. “If I don’t talk about my hand, there must be doubts if you have an issue about your disability. If not, why do you keep silent about it? If I talk about my hand, there must be some thinking that I’m here to win cheap sympathy. No way out of this as if you were on a boat.”
What others say about you is as good as a passing cloud. The truest is how you feel at your worst. Lu had enjoyed herself ever since she stepped into the talk show community. Earlier, Fridays always involved commutes to Beijing and Sundays back to Tangshan. The alternative would be a full stretch of school vacation working as an intern in Beijing. All was for more opportunities to perform in big cities. “I was quite broke at that time and could barely afford the travels. So I also was a part-time volunteer plus worked as a hostess at other venues to cover at least part of my travel expenses.” After the show, Lu worried about where she could spend the night. “I have slept at the homes of many fellow performers.”
Lu has a relative who owns a small company in Beijing. “I slept on the couch there at night and before the staff arrived the next morning, I had to make it look like no one had been there. Now looking back, the situation really seems dismal, but I felt so happy back then.” Lu particularly dislikes it when her story is seen as a prototype of success. “A lot of people love to send me success stories about some people with disability because they think that my hand is abnormal. Whenever they do that, I would like to send them the ‘girl-with-small-boobs-can-also-be-a-model’ sort of thing.”
As Rock & Roast Season 2 drew to an end, so did the limelight on Lu. But she still envisions her future career in comedy. Even writing comedies would not be so bad as long as it could make ends meet. Now Lu still manages to get a number of performances a month at small theaters. “But so far this industry doesn’t look like a place to make big money. The first thing is to scratch out a living.” Despite that, she’s found herself so well-known among the audiences at those theaters that no one stares at her hand anymore. This may be a great opportunity to make a change for herself. “I can create better comedies for them.”
by Bai Fan
This story is part of a series of articles published as an exclusive editorial exchange between China Press for People with Disabilities & Spring Breeze and ABILITY Magazine