David Moser, Part I: LRCCS Spotlight, Beijing Edition

David Moser

David Moser

In this edition of the LRCCS Spotlight, I traveled to Beijing to interview David Moser, LRCCS Alum ’90.  In the interview, David discusses his rise to TV stardom, from being a reluctant crosstalk performer to doing a skit in the Chinese New Year’s Gala, as well as his involvement in the Chinese jazz scene, and other fascinating stories.

Interview conducted by LRCCS Social Media Coordinator, Eric Couillard and transcribed by Erzhan Xu.

Couillard: Where do you call home?

Moser: The short answer is, Beijing, because I’ve lived here for more than 25 years, the longest I’ve ever lived anywhere. I was born in Kansas, but by the time I was in high school, we already moved five different places, and then in high school I moved twice. So I don't have a hometown exactly. I graduated high school from Oklahoma and went to Oklahoma City University.

And then, Indiana University for many years where I was doing music, and of course, Ann Arbor, where I began to undertake Chinese studies.  

Couillard: What initially got you interested in China?

Moser: I was playing music in Boston. I was struggling to make a living as all musicians do, doing a little bit of everything. Studio work, stupid wedding gigs, and then everything else. And I got interested in languages, and I taught myself French, went to Paris for a summer. But somebody turned me on to Chinese, my friend Douglas Hofstadter, who was a professor at the U of M for a time. And I just got hooked on the language. 

I thought it was amazing and I started learning it myself. And this is while I was in Indiana in the mid-80s. At that time, my sister had a Taiwanese boyfriend, so she said, if you’re serious about learning Chinese, you should go to a Chinese country. You can live with my boyfriend’s family. So I did that, naively thinking that after six months I’d be speaking really really good Chinese. And after six months, to my shock, I actually still couldn’t say anything. It was really amazing, how horrible I was, how hard it was. But I still kept slogging way at it. 

Couillard: When did you make the transition to Beijing?

Moser: Doug Hofstadter had written a book that won the Pulitzer Prize, called Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid. And he got wind of the fact that this book was being translated into Chinese at Peking University, there was a translation team there.  I knew the book very well. I was a good friend of his. I was passionate about Chinese, though I wasn’t a great speaker yet. But he said, you know, I am really concerned about this translation, because I just know they are missing a lot of things. It is very complex book. And he said, why don’t I send you there, and you take part of the translation team, so you can act as a check, even proofread everything and make sure they’re getting the meanings right. 

So that was an unbelievable opportunity, and the Peking University team was very happy to have me there. So there I was at Peking University in 1987, working on this translation. And China had basically had no computer word-processing back then, so I the translation drafts were all hand written Chinese, which was terribly daunting.   

Later I decided just to let the other shoe drop, and I started a master degree in Chinese Studies at Michigan. Because by that time, Doug had moved to Michigan, and he invited me to be on his research team. .  So for the late 80s, and early 90s, I was going back and forth to Peking University, working on this translation, and working on my Master’s and Ph.D. 

Couillard: What time period was that approximately? What years, I mean

David Moser performing crosstalk

David Moser performing crosstalk

Moser: So I started my master’s degree. I think it was 88 or 87.  I did my master’s paper on the verbal art of 相声[crosstalk] because I had been collecting material on that. And as far I know it was the first paper in English on that topic that covers the general information about that particular verbal art form. So it was fun to do, had a lot of humor, and it was great! Editor's note - click here to read a history of the Chinese verbal art of xiangsheng (crosstalk) and how the humor was stifled by the CCP, written by David Moser)

Couillard: How did you start getting involved in Chinese Television?

Moser: I was studying 相声, and one of the professor at 北大[Peking University] said, why not just do it? You can go on stage and do it. And then I said, are you kidding me?  I can’t go on camera, I don’t look like an actor. He said, No it doesn’t matter, you’re foreigner, and it’s cute, so I said, well, okay.  And then like a day later something, I got this call and I have to do a skit with Hou Yaohua[侯耀华], who’s the son of Hou Baolin [侯宝林], a big crosstalk master. So that was my first appearance on TV, and it was very scary, because the guy who I was doing it with was a total pro. He’d done this a million times. And for him the script meant nothing. The script was just, “Oh, I get the idea. And I’m just going to improvise it.” So during rehearsal he’d start improvising, I’m saying, “When am I supposed to say my line?” And he’s not worried, he says “Oh, just roll with whatever I’m saying.” And I’m thinking, “Are you kidding me?” It worked out in the end, but it was pretty terrifying. At least I didn't forget my lines, which was a good thing since about 300 million people were watching.

So that’s how I started. I did some other skits, and then Beijing TV wanted me to do a series on Beijing. So they made me the host of this series that was about 20 episodes.  And it was called 大伟逛北京, “David Travels Beijing” It was amazing. But back then I was really unsure of my Chinese. I still didn’t feel like my Chinese was good enough to host a show like that. 

The Beijing TV producers would just say, “we’re going to go in this Hutong and see what happens”, it was all just 老北京 [Old Beijing], you know. We would go to a Hutong where somebody is making kites, or somebody is a Peking opera singer, or this or that. And basically I came in, and I riff around and ask some silly questions, I tried the Erhu, a Chinese music instrument, and tried all those kinds of local Beijing things. 

I was going on TV several times a month with my teacher Ding Guangquan [丁广泉] doing crosstalk. Every Chinese province has a TV station, and I must have performed at most of them.  And then, in about 2002, I was teaching in 北外 [Beijing Foreign Studies University] at this time and CCTV 10 approached me, they wanted to do an English teaching show, called Outlook English, and they wanted to have a foreigner to be the host.  

That started out as a lot of fun, but eventually it became less about learning English and more about entertainment.  It was the worst day of my life on that show going to Shanxi, and I had to eat all these different noodles. And after every different bowl of noodles, and they would say, “Alright, describe how these noodles are different from the others”… And I’d say, ”These noodles are… maybe a little chewier? But not… Saltier, or…” And I’m thinking, “They’re just noodles, what do you want me to say!?”

So eventually I got out of there, and started doing some more cultural gigs on CCTV 4, or would work as a guest host here and there.   And I still go on CCTV several times a month, as a commentator or so-called pundit.  You have to walk a fine line politically on these shows, but they're seldom live, so any problematic comment can just be left on the cutting floor.

Stay tuned for Part II of the interview, where David talks about his experience on the CCTV Spring Festival Gala (春节联欢晚会) and his thoughts and involvement in the Chinese music scene!

More by David Moser

David Moser is also a co-host for the Sinica Podcast, a weekly show on current affairs in China:

An account of the "Tank Man" in Beijing after the 1989 Tiananmen uprising: