If you’re a Saudi female between the ages of 15 and 24, then you probably already know all about Wonho Chung. The Saudi-born, Jordanian-raised, Arabic-speaking comedian and TV personality of Vietnamese and Korean decent is not only a conundrum of ethnicity, but he also happens to be an extremely talented individual who wears many hats in the arena of entertainment without ever suffering from over exposure or hat-hair.Besides a great pomade, the comedian/singer/TV personality’s secret weapon is his unmatched charisma that keeps viewers immune to the over-saturation that is often seen with many regional stars today. Oh yes, he also happens to be frick’n hilarious!A trained vocalist, Chung was always destined for the spotlight. Ignoring aspirations to sing opera, his fate had other plans for this young star. In a unique detour, Chung found himself on stage, albeit a different kind of venue. Rather than generating tears from his audiences with an emotional rendition of Ave Maria, he was causing tears of laughter with his funny takes on the Filipino accent.
After having toured in five major cities — Amman, Cairo, Dubai, Beirut and Kuwait — in front of a collective crowd of 20,000 people with the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour in 2007, Wonho found himself with a dedicated legion of young Arabs faithfully memorizing his every punch line via the Internet.“My career is definitely due to the power of YouTube,” admits Chung. Collectively, he has between three to five million hits on the video-sharing website. The power of the World Wide Web is of no surprise in an era where stars are born every million or so view. Just think of pop sensation, Justin Bieber and the excruciatingly bad video of Rebecca Black, who actually makes you HATE Fridays. “I have her song in my car, it’s so ridiculously bad that it’s actually good,” adds Chung who says it with such a straight face, you just have to hope he’s joking.“The Axis of Evil tour was a precursor for the whole industry in the Middle East. “Comedy existed, but not in the form of stand-up,” continues Chung. “The show seemed to instigate the whole stand-up movement, and since then, it has really just skyrocketed.”
The thousands of YouTube videos documenting Arab comedians attempting to make people laugh and the millions of hits and comments by viewers attest to popularity of the profession, which was previously seen as taboo in the Middle East.While Persian (like the cat) comedian, Maz Jobrani, Egyptian-American comedian, Ahmed Ahmed, and Palestinian-American comedians, Aron Kader and Dean Obedellah, paved the way for stand-up comedy about Arabs, Chung single handedly paved the way for stand-up comedy in Arabic.One of the first comedians to do stand-up in his mother tongue of Arabic, Chung was able to translate the previously inadaptable Western art form of stand-up into a pastime enjoyed by an Arabic audience. “I think it’s very important to show stand-up in the Arabic language,” states Chung who is credited with headlining the first ever stand-up comedy show in the history of Syria in “Wonho Chung Live in Damascus” in 2010. “The younger generation needs more role models to show them how to use the idiosyncrasies of Arabs and our culture to make people laugh,” he continues. “I hope aspiring Arab comedians see me and think ’Hey, if a Korean can do it in Arabic and be comfortable, why can’t I?’”Ironically, many of he comedic acts touch on the humorous incidents that plague the man, who albeit looking the part of a Korean, is intrinsically Arab down to his colloquial Jordanian accent.
“People always ask me if I see myself more as an Arab or a Korean. It’s hard to place it,” explains Chung. “I feel like I have a foot in each place. Yet, having been raised my whole life in the Middle East and with the culture of the Arab world, I will say this: I have Korean blood, but I am an Arab inside.”Following the success of the Axis of Evil comedy tour, the Showtime Arabia Network produced the award-winning, bilingual comedy series, “The Axis of Evil Comedy Tour: 3 Guys and Wonho.” It appeared that Showtime had found gold. The ability to recognize Wonho’s global appeal was as predictable as a usual jab at his name: What’s the only thing that can get both Arab and Asian men to sit down complacently with their families for over an hour? A show of Wonho!In 2009, Chung hosted “Friday Night Live: Minorities Rule,” which was the biggest stand-up comedy show in the Middle East at the time, with an attendance of 2,500 people. From there, Showtime Arabia recognized his ease in front of the camera and had him front their infotainment show, “Showmemore.” Wonho also had “Won on One,” which allowed him access to some of Hollywood’s biggest stars.
Yet, none of these achievements have seemed to faze the modest celebrit, who believes the concept of celebritism is a relative one. “I’m not going to let it suck me in,” stated Chung. “It can all go away as easily as it came, and I always think of that. I never take it for granted and give it my 100 percent each time I perform.”When Wonho is not performing at charity events, or for royal birthdays, he’s off being a brand ambassador for Samsung Smart TV. And, even that, he does with unabashed vigor and dedication. It is this unwavering approach in any project he undertakes, along with his charismatic repertoire, that has allowed Chung to span his portfolio to include covering the red carpet at film festivals and hosting some of Dubai’s biggest events and award shows.
While the TV personality has a laundry list of accomplishments and accolades, his proudest may be a shock to many. “Being given the title of Honorary Ambassador for Tourism Korea by the Korean National Tourism Organization (KNTO) was extremely emotional for me,” reveals Chung. “It was the first time I had visited my homeland and the reception was just unbelievable!” Government officials, journalists and hundreds of fans gave the celebrity a homecoming he hadn’t expected. “To go back to my country and be greeted like that was just very moving to me,” he said in his usual humble demeanor.In truth, Chung is one of the most sincere personalities you’ll ever meet; so much so that even calling him a “personality” seems almost deceptive. Even while putting on a show, Chung is able to maintain an authenticity that resonates with many viewers and could perhaps explain his ability to transcend nationalities and solidify his mass appeal. Whatever the reason, we just know one thing: we need more Wonho! – Arabnews