China's biggest Canadian star gets honorary degree from U of A

Mark Rowswell, dubbed China’s most famous Canadian, is in Edmonton Wednesday to accept an honorary degree from the University of Alberta.

His stage name, Dashan, is kind of a joke. His success is anything but.

Mark Rowswell, known as Dashan, will accept an honorary degree from the University of Alberta Wednesday. (Dashan.com)

He is practically unknown in his own country but his fame an entertainer in China brought him to the University of Alberta on Wednesday to receive an honorary degree.

Mark Rowswell, dubbed the most famous Canadian in China, in an unlikely celebrity who goes by the name Dashan, which means "Big Mountain" in the Mandarin language.

Early critics described his career as an accident but more than 30 years later, Dashan is still cracking up Chinese audiences as a television host, actor and comic.

"The name itself is kind of a joke," Rowswell said in an interview with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM. "The men I performed with were pretty short so I looked pretty tall on television.

"It's a play on words that doesn't really work in English. But it was just a great hook and it worked as a stage name."

As students prepare to rally Thursday against the U of A's decision to award environmentalist David Suzuki an honorary degree, Rowswell doesn't his suspect his portfolio will attract the same fanfare. 

"One of the less controversial decisions they've made I think," he said with a laugh.

The Ottawa-born performer rose to fame overseas through a series of cameos on popular television comedy skits in the late 1980s, and the continued success of his English language instructional shows on the state television broadcaster.  

With no formal training, Rowswell launched his entertainment career after earning a bachelor of arts in Chinese studies at the University of Toronto in 1988.

"I thought it be would be kind of cool to learn Chinese," he says about his educational specialization. "This was the early 1980s so China was just starting to open up.
During his 30-year career, Mark Rowswell has appeared on countless television shows and comedy stages. (Dashan/Facebook)

"And then I ended up at the University of Toronto just wanting to study whatever. I didn't think a BA was going to get me job anyway so I might as well have some fun with it."

'Literally overnight'

Rowswell moved to China following graduation and his big break came when he was invited to perform on national television during the state broadcaster's annual new year's gala special, a program broadcast to an estimated 550 million people.

The name "Dashan" comes from the character of a "taxi driver slang"-talking Chinese peasant Rowswell played in a skit that night.

"They were still in the sort of Ed Sullivan days of television so everybody's watching the same show," he said. "That's the kind of audience they had then.

"Nobody told me that the one show that I did, just as a lark, that 550 million people were watching."

'It snowballs from there'

His aptitude with the Mandarin language earned him his first television jobs, but his acting, hosting and stand-up comedy gigs over the years landed him a niche place in China's entertainment industry.

While he's an unknown in his home country, Rowswell remains the most famous westerner in China.

"Literally overnight, I was known as Dashan, and when you have that recognition, other opportunities come, and it snowballs from there."

Throughout his remarkably long career, he's appeared on countless television shows, graced billboards and even landed big product endorsements.

While in Edmonton, Rowswell hosted a special Mandarin-language comedy performance for students Tuesday night.

The U of A will also host a free English-language Q&A with Rowswell Thursday afternoon inside the Telus Centre.

"I'm taking the show on the road," he said.