China and the World

A source of goodwill

Goodwill ambassador Mark Rowswell talks about Stephen Harper’s recent visit

Mark Rowswell, aka ‘Dashan’, was recently named Canada’s Goodwill ambassador to China. The fluent Mandarin-speaker is a household name for 1.3 billion Chinese, having gained fame first as a comedian and later through televised education programmes and acting. Last week Rowswell accompanied Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper on his trip around China. Afterwards he spoke to WiC.

Was there a more positive tone on this trip?

Yes, I think so. But what I would say is that the relationship between the two countries is big and complex and is much more than the relationship between two governments. There’s a narrative to these things. When the Conservatives came to power in 2006 the general narrative with China was negative – at least for the first three years. The turnaround was Prime Minister Harper’s first visit in December 2009, which broke the ice. That was a meeting where everyone said let bygones be bygones.

This visit was held in a much more positive light, i.e. sending the message that things were moving in the right direction. The big achievement of this trip is we’ve set a positive narrative for Canada-China relations.

What were the highlights of the trip?

I guess everyone will remember the pandas. Canadian prime ministers have been trying since the early seventies to get pandas! There’s a story that Pierre Trudeau donated four beavers on one of his trips to China, with the hope of getting pandas in return. But it never came off. So getting these pandas has been an aspiration for Canada-China relations for 40 years! [Two pandas will be lent to zoos in Toronto and Calgary for five years, arriving next year.]

For me personally, the highlight was lunch at the noodle restaurant. That was the event I was most heavily involved in organising. I’d been told by the PM’s planning team that they had a lunch slot and would like to eat somewhere local. I originally suggested some bigger, more tourist-friendly restaurants but the advance team vetoed them, and asked where I would personally eat. So I half-jokingly said I’d go for noodles at the Home of the One Bowl restaurant near my home. I told the advance team it was under a post office and was very ordinary and typical. They thought it fitted the bill: it’s decorated in Beijing-style and has been there 16 years.

I have to say it was all pretty down to earth. Ordinary Beijingers were dining in the restaurant while we ate there.

How much did it cost?

It was Rmb274 for three people. I covered it because there is a custom in China that if you take someone for lunch in your neighbourhood, you pay for it. The PM said he’d get his staff to pay but I insisted. It was relatively costly because we had quite an expensive tea and some desserts. Without those it would have been about Rmb50 per head ($7.93).

Harper tried all the food. And I was told yesterday the restaurant will bring out a new dish called Harper’s Sliced Pork, based on the fact he liked dipping the meat in the mustard of the jiemo dun [see main story]. So a new dish was created!

What does the role of goodwill ambassador involve?

When the press release was being put together it made it sound like I’d been hired for the position. In fact, I’ve just been named. It is an honour, and a recognition of what I’ve tried to do for the twenty-something years I’ve been working here. During the four days of the visit I was cultural adviser and guide to the prime minister. Now he and his entourage are gone I am back to doing what I’ve always done – trying to serve as a bridge between east and west, whether as a TV host, an educator or a comedian. It’s a title that never expires. So it’s a really nice recognition.

For previous articles WiC has written about Mark ‘Dashan’ Rowswell’s experiences in China see issues 6 and 83.


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