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After 3 Years in a Chinese Jail, Cheng Lei’s Comedy Debut: Turning Adversity into Laughter

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Cheng Lei, the Australian journalist who spent three years in a Chinese prison, recently made her comedy debut, transforming her harrowing experience into a source of humor. In a one-off show in Melbourne, she teamed up with Vicky Xu, a well-known Chinese dissident and writer, to deliver a performance filled with jokes about bad food, weight loss, and even the Chinese government.

Cheng’s incarceration was marked by significant hardships. Detained under accusations of espionage, she endured a monotonous diet of cabbage stew and the constant glow of prison lights. “In the darkest hour of your life, the lights are always on. That’s the irony,” she quipped during her performance, highlighting the absurdity of her situation. Since her release in October, Cheng has embraced her newfound freedom, indulging in a variety of foods and humorously noting her delight in gaining weight—a stark contrast to her prison diet.

The comedy show, held at Club Voltaire, also served as a platform for Cheng to reflect on her detention with a light-hearted approach. She jested about the Chinese premier’s upcoming visit to Australia, saying, “Thank you so much for the rent-free accommodation. Can I please reciprocate the hospitality? Don’t you want a bit of a digital detox weight-loss program?” This comment underscores her ability to find humor even in the most challenging circumstances.

During her set, Cheng didn’t hold back on the vivid imagery of her prison experience. She joked about her diet in detention, saying, “For much of my time in detention, I was fed cabbage stew and dreamed of shoplifting a whole tray of meat pies from a bakery.” Upon her release, Cheng relished her newfound dietary freedom. “I’ve put on seven kilos since coming out of detention. It’s the first time in my adult life I’ve been really happy about putting on weight,” she shared, drawing laughter from the audience.

Cheng’s humor also touched on the bizarre realities of her imprisonment. “First of all, I have endorsement from China’s ministry of state security because they think that I’m such a good performer that I’ve been embedded as a spy in China for 20 years,” she joked, poking fun at the espionage charges against her. She further elaborated on the surreal nature of her detention, saying, “I tell my friends I was in a dark place during my time in detention, but the lights were always on in my cell.”

Vicky Xu, Cheng’s comedy partner, shared her own humorous take on dealing with the Chinese government. Xu, who has faced significant backlash for her work on forced labor in Xinjiang, recounted how the Chinese government released a “four-part documentary” on her, filled with false claims about her personal life. “They accused me of doing a lot of drugs and being in these massive orgies with 15 white men, which I’ve never done – like I would forget if I was in that situation,” she said, delivering the punchline with impeccable timing.

The duo’s performance also included Xu’s musings on the psychological profile of Chinese President Xi Jinping. “He’s really traumatized. His family was purged during the Cultural Revolution, his father was sent to jail, his half-sister killed herself. Xi Jinping was bullied by his peers, he was jailed at the party school, and one time he escaped, he went back home to steal food from his kitchen and his own mother reported him,” Xu narrated before concluding, “He’s a psycho for good reason.”

Cheng’s debut marks a significant step towards reclaiming her voice and freedom. As she stated, “If you can’t joke about incarceration, then you have no sense of humor. That’s what I always say. Humor got me through much of it and brightened the cell for me and my cellmates.” Through comedy, Cheng and Xu not only entertain but also shed light on the resilience and strength required to endure and overcome such profound challenges. Their ability to turn their darkest experiences into laughter is a testament to their indomitable spirit and a reminder of the power of humor in the face of adversity.

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/article/2024/jun/13/thanks-for-the-free-rent-cheng-lei-jokes-about-china-detention-in-comedy-debut

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