‘Funniest’ UK comedian remembers his Kota Kinabalu roots
Published on: Sunday, January 15, 2023
By: Kan Yaw Chong
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Phil Wang jokes: ‘I ironically owe the British Empire for my life’
PHIL Wang was known to be a “joker” in school, ex-classmate Dexter Yeh remembers the hey-days at Maktab Nasional, Kota Kinabalu.

Today, he is a star joker or certainly a rising star stand-up comedian in the UK.

We don’t pretend we know the full depths of his comedic career and achievement.

But google him, this is what it reads: “Phil Wang is one of Britain’s sharpest and most surprising comedian widely known for his conversation on race and legacy of colonialism.”

Phil Wang with ex-classmate, Dexter Yeh at the Daily Express office, Kolombong.

He certainly jokes about being a product of the colonial past, like “I ironically owe the British empire for my life,” no doubt a witty reference to mother being British who met his Malaysia-Chinese father while working as an archaelogist/anthropologist (became a medical doctor - Dr Medeleine piper later) at the Sabah Museum under the Volunteer Service Overseas. 

So this is why Phil is of substantial human interest to Sabah.

On Jan 22, 1990, Phil was born in Stoke-in-Trent, central England. Three weeks later, his parents moved back to Kota Kinabalu where he grew up for 16 long years.

The ‘Wah’ factor of Harith Iskandar

At 10, his mother took him to a medical conference in Sarawak, lo and behold, Harith Iskandar – the godfather of Malaysian comedy, was the entertainment.

Phil remembers his astonishment: “Harith was the first comedian I ever saw, he came up and he started telling jokes, wah, you can just get on stage and tell jokes!” 

“So yeah, it’s kind of my stand-up career maybe started watching Harith Iskandar at the medical conference.”

Moving back to the UK, one night, there was a school comedy show at Kingswood College, he wasn’t meant to perform but he asked to do a 5-minute stand-up, apparently he surprised the organisers!

The Funniest Student award 

But where it catapulted Phil to his destiny in stand-up comedy is no doubt Cambridge University known to be an ‘incubator’ of comedian greats – with a thriving comedy culture, where he was doing an engineering degree. 

To cut the story short, in 2010, he won big time competition – the Chortle Student Comedian of the Year, meaning Phil was rated the best and funniest student in all UK.

On Phil’s quality, Chortle Website editor, Steve Bennet, recalled: “Cool delivery, self-deprecating jokes, intricate, detached word play.”

That accolade helped Wang make comedy a full-time job.

That’s not all, in 2011, Wang went on to win Comedy Central’s “Funniest Student” Award.

There’s a lot more to be said about his rise to stand-up stardom thereafter.

But let Phil say tell his story in the following interview when he was back to KK for the first time after Covid…

DAILY EXPRESS (DE): How did you break into comedy? 

I got really into it in my teens when I started watching stand-up clips on YouTube in boarding school in Brunei and with lots of stand up pieces of clips of Russel Peters being shared around. 

I also watched other stand-ups on YouTube and I thought – oh maybe I could do this at some point and when we moved to the UK at 16, attended Kingswood school and one night, they put on a comedy show and I asked to do five minutes of stand-up. The organiser was surprised because I wasn’t known as a funny person at all. But a lot of it was stolen jokes (from the Canadian born Anglo-Indian comedian) because I didn’t really understand the rules of comedy yet, I just swapped out Indian with Chinese and it went okay and I got myself a gig (single performance) in town. It went OK and then another gig at school. Then I started at Cambridge University, which has a lot of comedy and I did lots of them and it commenced from there, really. But I guess my main break, the first big break, was when I won “The Funniest Student of the UK” award in 2010 and that opened the door and then I built on it.

DE: How was the 2010 competition that won you the “Chortle Student Comedian of the Year” title, did you face a lot of contestants?

Yeah, there were like regional heats because it was an all-university competition throughout the UK with a winner of each heat who would go up against the others in the semi-final and then the finals. 

DE: Tough competition?

I suppose so, only that we were all equally bad because we were all like 18 to 22 years old and I did those that I wouldn’t do now but I guess I did well enough to win. 

DE: Then in 2011, you went on to win Comedy Central’s ‘Funniest Student’ Award. So what makes you the funniest student in the UK? 

Well, the 2010 competition was also based on the Funniest Student and for two years straight I was the Funniest Student in the UK… ha-ha… but I don’t know, I didn’t feel like it!

DE: What was the joke that won you ‘The Funniest Student in UK’ award? 

It’s a joke about being part Chinese and part Asian.

DE: So you specialise in being funny? 

Well, as a comedian, that’s sort of the idea, I guess. But I don’t think I am naturally all that funny. However, I figured out how to be funny or how to make comedy. 

DE: Mega comedian star Leslie Neilsen has said you can’t try to be funny, you need to be really funny. But is it difficult to deliver that?

Sometimes, if the show is not set up right, people are in a bad mood, people don’t actually want to be there like for example you have these corporate events where the audience is not expecting comedians. But if the night is set up and the people are there to see us specifically, the room is dark enough and the sound is good and people aren’t too drunk, then it is not too difficult but some shows are more difficult than others.

DE: It must be difficult to stand up in front of a big crowd and be able make them laugh at regular intervals? 

Yeah, but I am lucky that it is difficult because that means I have a job. If it is easy then I won’t have a job!

DE: Do you think it is a gift or you developed it?

I think it is a very interesting question, I don’t know if there is a clear answer. I don’t think I am meant to be very funny really, I know people who are much, much funnier than me who aren’t comedians but I think I am quite smart and I like comedy and I have applied my intelligence to comedy and that’s fundamentally what I have done. 

DE: Why do you like comedy?

I think it is a very interesting intellectual challenge, I like that you can never completely understand it and you can get better and better but you will never completely understand why some people laugh at something and why some people don’t laugh. So it’s always surprising.

Phil Wang at the Daily Express: ‘Do I look funny?’­

DE: You think jokes and comedy energise people? 

I think it does, I think when you really laugh a lot at something you come out feeling energised and I think you come out feeling better than you went in. It can be very electrifying, very exciting to be in a room because there is a communal element to it as well – something like being in a room with a lot of people and you are all laughing together, it’s more pleasurable than sitting and laughing on your own. Humour and laughter has a very important function.

DE: You get energised too when audience keep laughing at your jokes?

Of course, it is a feedback loop, when the audience is energised, it energises me, the audience get better, the comedian gets better. 

DE: Do you face any prejudice in your work being part Asian?

Um, I think sometimes, not so much in comedy because it is part of the artistic community and the creative community has always been more open minded in accepting other groups and if there ever have any prejudice, it’s pretty mild really, people assume I am not British, a lot of people assume I was American because international school students pick up this American accent but from time to time there is some slightly racist comments from the audience (classmate Dexter Yeh laughed). I remember I got up on stage once, this was on starting out, and the guy saw me and before I said anything he said: Number 69 please (laughter from Dexter) – Chinese Take-aways in UK all have numbers, yeah. But overall I can’t complain too much about it, UK is pretty open-minded and a liberal place. 

DE: Besides comedy, you have written a book entitled ‘Sidesplitter: How to be from two worlds at once’. What prompted you to write that book?

Lockdown. Well, I wanted to write a book for a while but I had been a bit too busy and then Covid happened and suddenly I wasn’t too busy so I had the time to write this book and that was a nice way of maintaining connection with my family in Malaysia while I was locked down. I guess I wanted to put into a more long form piece my observation about being a mixed race and being Malaysian and British in ways that stand-ups don’t really allow you to because in stand-up you have to be funny (enough) in pretty regular intervals. And in a book you don’t have quite the same requirements, you are able to explore a little more deeply, a little more long form and so writing a book was a good opportunity for me to explore ideas I have spoken about in stand-ups, but I do it more deeply. 

DE: Does that mean you have to be a very good journalist?

Well, I try to use it to practice any journalistic skills I had, because I interviewed people for it, spoke to my family and other comedians and it was a real thrill for me to interview the actor Ms Pik-Sen Lim who was in the Mind Your Language show. She played the Chinese girl in Mind Your Language and she is from Penang, she is Malaysian Chinese so I interviewed her for the book. So at one point of writing I felt like a reporter and an author but it was a fun exercise. 

DE: Multi-talented – comedian, journalist, author, actor – all rolled into one? 

Hopefully, that’s what I am trying to do.

DE: Was he like that in school?

Dexter Yeh: He was a joker in school. Yeah, I mean in our little circle.

So it started from there – a gift then?

PW: For sure, yeah, to some extent, joking around with Dexter and the other guys at school here started it. I am sure those guys are funnier than me !! 

DE: Do you have any message for Sabahans who may never have thought it possible but may want to be like you? 

As in wanting to be a comedian? Yeah, Kuala Lumpur has quite a strong scene now, Sabah is coming along slowly but Southeast Asian comedy is starting to emerge and so there is a Southeast Asian circuit already. Singapore and KL and you know people are giving lectures in Thailand and Vietnam as well. And Australia is not too far, that’s Ronny Chieng who studied in Australia and so I guess my message will be - comedy for everyone even if you are from Sabah. 

DE: You were born in the UK but three weeks later your parents moved back to KK where you grew up for 16 years, what are your memories of growing up in KK, a bit like current Foreign Minister of Australia, Penny Wong, who grew up in KK?

Sure, my memories of being very hot but mainly on food – laksa, chou Kueh Teow, watan ho – all my favourite dishes, memories like playing in rivers, going to Tuaran where my father is from, eating Tuaran mee in Tuaran, cleaned grandparents’ graves for Ching Ming, Hari Raya, Depavali and open houses – they are all a pack’s work that get reactivated whenever I come down here, and heavy rains – lovely, I like these rains, quite cooling. 

DE: Your father is from Tuaran? What did he do there?

He’s Benny Wang. 

DE: Oh – former Director of Sabah Railways who fought hard to keep the historic railway in the 1990s because the then government proposed to scrap it, and enlisted the Daily Express to object a proposal (Dexter: Oh really?). (PW: You know him?) 

PW: Ah, yes, my father said he was very grateful to all the stories about the railways.

DE: How do you rate the Malaysian comedy scene? Do they make the grade?

Yes, of course, Jason Leong, I know him well, he is in KL, he used to be a doctor and now he is a stand-up comedian, he has done very well, and I know a guy called Kuah Jen Han who is also KL-based and Douglas Lim, I met him several years ago, and Harith Iskandar. Harith was the first comedian I ever saw when my mother went to a medical conference in Sarawak and he was the entertainment and he came up and he started telling jokes. I was there, I must have been 10 years old and I said, “wah, you can just get on stage and tell jokes,” I actually mentioned this when I did an interview with David Dutchman and Harith messaged me to express his appreciation. So, yeah, it’s kind of my stand-up career maybe started watching Harith Iskandar at the medical conference, ha ha ha. 

DE: So it was inspiration from a Malaysia comedian?

Yeah, of course, he was the first ever.

DE: Really, that’s amazing, you have other idols? 

Yes, I always think of the Simpsons, not strictly a comedian growing up here watching the Simpsons here formed a lot of my sense of humour, I think formed a sense of humour for most of my generation, and I love British comedians shown on TV here, Leslie Nelson when I was growing up here I always love Leslie Neilsen, and Stand-up wise, I don’t know if I have any likes, I kind of know them too well now, to say like they are great. 

DE: Is it possible for anyone to make it? 

No, I think you need to be good at comedy you need to be able to be funny and you have to be able to survive great humiliation because when the show goes badly there is no humiliation like it. And every time you go on stage, you are basically like entering a casino where your dignity is at stake, you do get better playing the game but you are still never guaranteed not to “die” on stage and so I think the moment that is often said makes a comedian is the first time they “die” on stage, if they come back they then they are comedians, if they don’t come back then they were never meant to do it.

DE: Not easy. Why do you think people like stand-up comedy?

I think people like stand-up comedy because it is very simple, just a person on stage with a microphone usually that’s all it is there is something appealing about the directness and how someone can say what they like and to I think people like stand-up comedy because if it’s good, it is very scintillating because there is so much at stake but there is nothing worse than having to watch a really bad Stand-up. So when it is good, there is a sense of relief in the audience, very enjoyable and I think most people live lives where they have to be careful what they say, have to sort of lie and be polite, hide their feelings about things in order to be polite, to be appropriate and stand-up is this context where someone can be very honest in front of a lot of people. So I I think part of the appeal of Stand-ups is just honesty.

Phil Wang performs in front of thousands at the UK flagship stand-up TV show dubbed Live at the Apollo, West End London.

DE: So honesty still pays, not easy?

Oh yes I guess honesty does pay but you are always putting something at risk when you are being honest.

DE: In Kuala Lumpur, a comedy club was closed down by KL City Hall in July 2022 because a performance of religious nature was posted in social media which was deemed offensive. Can you crack jokes about anything or anybody in the UK? 

Yes, you can. What’s good about the UK is there is no action the government will take against you and there is freedom of speech so you can say what you want without fear of official recrimination but there will always be consequences for what you say from the audience themselves especially in the social media, you still have to be thoughtful about what you say just because you won’t be arrested. 

DE: You are reportedly proficient in three languages, Malay, English and Mandarin?

I won’t say I am proficient in three - my English is pretty good, my Malay I would say pretty good but Mandarin I have forgotten most of it.

DE: What schools did you go to?

Primary school is Chung Hwa, secondary school Simon Fung and Maktab Nasional.

DE: How do you prepare for your comedy, you have to do research or is it spontaneous?

It‘s quite spontaneous. If it is about the news, then I will listen to the news for a week and I’ll look up stories that that know I am going to talk about and then I’ll write out the story. So I’ll end up researching but my own stand-up is usually ideas that come to my head and I’ ll make a note on my phone and then I’ll try a rough idea out on stage and then I will build it from that. 

DE: So you do have to prepare?

Oh yes, I have grown better of making it up on stage than I used to be.

DE: You were a member of this sketch comedy group called Daphne, what’s group about?

It’s a sketch (short one scene performance) group just me and two friends from university we all did comedy in university together and when we graduated we decided to do it as a trio sort of funny scenes, like the Malaysian sketch comedy group Instant Café which had a big followers but I don’t think it is still there now. 

DE: You were also on radio as a co-creator of BBC Radio 4 series Daphne Sounds Expensive, what is it all about?

Three of us all go on these mad adventures but it’s a story of coming to Malaysia climbing Mt Kinabalu, one of the episodes is on our way up to Mt Kinabalu, because it’s on radio you just play with the sound effect, so Daphne Sounds Expensive is a joke because we spent a lot of money on the show by hiring elephants and a live band going to Malaysia but of course it’s just sound tracks. 

DE: You are a winner unlike a lot of losers. Any tip on how to avoid being a loser?

Yes, that’s a very frank way of putting it but I am very lucky I had good upbringing, I had very good parents, a very supportive family unit. A lot of people don’t have that kind of luck and I don’t know, you just do the best you can with the hand on your belt - a lot of it is perseverance, a lot of it is talents, and you just hope that mix works in your favour and if I guess if I had my advice on how to win, it is to know how to quit, I have never really persevered on anything I don’t feel very good at, I give up on things if I am not good at them and I would say that’s my advice. 

I have even tried sports or I tried doing journalism at university and I wasn’t particularly good so I just stopped that, knowing to quit, I currently have problem with online chat so I should quit because I am not very good but I persevered so it cost me a lot of time so, I might come across as a winner but in online chat I am a loser and I need to take my own advice and quit.

DE: Like your father Benny, you also did engineering, so what was it?

I went to Cambridge University and for first two years you study everything, mechanical, structural, then ended up with a mechanical degree, aeronautical and some control engineering as well and it was a lot, very hard, very, very difficult.

DE: You are not practising it?

Engineering no, but I think I do a lot of engineering skills to comedy because engineering is about logic and comedy is about logic in a lot of ways. 

Dexter Yeh: Your parents supported you? 

Yeah, my parents were very supportive, my mother kept on suggesting that I do a business degree for years, it’s only when I appeared on TV in UK that my mother finally said , okay . But they are all very supportive, I couldn’t have asked for more.

DE: You have made appearances such as The Rob Brydon Show, what is that?

Oh, Rob Brydon Show, that was my first TV appearance, 2011 and Talk Show in UK Rob Brydon and there would be a Stand-up guest and I went up, did jokes and so that was the first one ever with those people so that was a very cool moment. 

DE: What was this Live at the Apollo?

Live at the Apollo is the UK flagship stand-up TV show and my first appearance was 2015 and then I hosted it again a couple of years later and that is sort of an institution in the UK that’s a very cool to be a part of – Apollo is a huge theatre in West London with a capacity of 2000 to 3000 people in one room, very cool.

DE: You have also appeared in Hypothetical, what is that? 

Hypothetical is a channel on and it is presented by comedians Josh Widdicombe and basically they present you with a hypothetical scenario, like you are stuck in the mountain and you are there with the girls that were out there and how are you going to look after the way down the mountain and come out with a funny story. 

DE: So you like performing?

I like performing, I always like performing. Before I was doing Stand-up, I was doing music, sing a lot and yes, I always enjoy performing. 

DE: But many people find performing in front of people difficult and a nervous experience? 

Yes, yes, yes but it’s a thrill to me, everything we do have risks but we do things with the risks that we are comfortable with.

DE: Moving forward, do you want to continue to do comedy or do something else?

Oh definitely I’ll keep doing comedy forever I think, I’ll never fallout in love with it the things that I do might change a bit but I love comedy, I love Stand-ups. I am going on my next UK Stand-up tour in Spring - UK and Ireland and I am appertaining in a couple of TV shows and I may actually get a small part in a movie coming up next year and I am trying to find my own TV show .

DE: So you came back this time to your roots – important to you?

Of course, I haven’t been back in Kota Kinabalu since the pandemic started so catching up with the family and literally doing all my favourite foods in KK – eaten a lot of wa tan ho, Beaufort mee, curry, wonderful laksa and bah-kut-teh in Gaya Street. 

DE: How do you compare life in UK where you made your cut and Sabah? 

I live in London now which is high paced city, life in Sabah which is a lot slower, and lot more food-centric and the weather is altogether different but comedy and humour are what tie us altogether and I realised recently my Malaysia accent is starting to come back when I do stand-ups in the UK, my Malaysian style humour had started to come back a little bit, so I am interested to see if I can use some Malaysian sensibility in the UK, see if I can combine the two worlds, the two lives. 

DE: How do you feel meeting your ex-classmates such as Dexter Yeh?

Yeah, he is a big boss right now (laughter). 

DE: So it stirs up a lot of good memories?

Yes, of course, memories of childhood, Sabah is quite a magical place to grow up, I think we take it for granted when growing up, only when I started flying back as an adult that I started noticing the Crocker Range and Mt Kinabalu in the distance. As a child I never saw that maybe I was too short, so it’s nice coming back because there is something you only appreciate properly now. 

DE: Sabah is a great place, great mountain, great wildlife, great marine life, agree? 

Great place, as great as it is, it’s got more potential still, you know.

DE: How do you think we should capitalise on our potentials? We used to have a lot of UK tourists who are very important for our ecotourism and UK is one of the key nature adventure markets because they understand nature better?

Yes, absolutely, Sabah needs to move forward into the 21st century and keep up with the modernisation of the rest of the world but also conserve many of its natural treasure and that’s why it’s difficult to do. But I think it’s getting better and better. I went up to Kinabalu Park in this visit, I climbed it is 2017, I went back to visit the Park and it’s beautiful, beautifully-maintained and the beaches are cleaner than before, probably don’t need so many shopping malls as we had, fewer shopping malls and more cultural centres will be good. 


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December 20, 2014