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Dashan off to see the polar bears

Celebrity in China promotes province

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Here you wouldn't know him from the next guy on the street.

In China, Mark Rowswell is Dashan, a TV and media superstar.

And it's his fame the province is banking on to spread the word about Manitoba -- and its polar bears -- in the people's republic.

The Selinger government hosted Rowswell and his 14-year-old daughter, Marylin, this weekend, a trip that included a whirlwind visit to Churchill to see polar bears up close.

"Polar bears are almost like panda bears," Rowswell said Sunday after his return to the city. "They're not as cuddly, but everyone loves polar bears."

In China, besides his TV appearances, Rowswell runs his own website -- dashan.com -- that branches off to China's microblog versions of Twitter and Facebook, Sina Weibo and Tencent Weibo. Together, he has about four million followers.

The province hopes Dashan's reach inspires more Chinese tourism to the province. The invite was formalized when Premier Greg Selinger toured China on a recent trade mission.

"The appeal is relatively broad," Rowswell said of his work. "A lot of people follow me because they want language tips. Specifically, can you help us learn English? I think a lot of people's interest is just in the character as someone who can bridge the two cultures.

"People are also just interested in a view of the world through somebody who understands China, but is not Chinese."

Rowswell plans to write about how polar bears fit into environmental protection, conservation and global warming.

Much has already been documented about the shorter ice season on Hudson Bay, leaving the bears less time to hunt seals to survive.

"I'm not necessarily writing for decision-makers or top-level officials. My forte is really engaging in dialogue with the ordinary people of China."

He will also link what he writes to explore.org, which features a live webcam of the bears.

"That's something that people can participate in. I'm pretty sure that webcam is not blocked in China because there is nothing politically sensitive about it," he said.

He also toured the new polar bear centre at Assiniboine Park Zoo and the Journey to Churchill exhibit to open in 2014.

Rowswell said the main thing is just exposing Churchill and Manitoba to his audience.

"What I find interesting is just challenging assumptions with the way things work. People do things differently, live differently, eat differently, all over the world. It's often interesting to see something we take for granted and seeing it in a different situation that sort of throws your assumptions out the window."

 

bruce.owen@freepress.mb.ca

 

Who is Mark Rowswell?

 

THE man known as Dashan has been tagged the most famous foreigner in China.

He was born and raised in Canada and lives about half the year outside Toronto. The rest of the time he's in China and travels the globe as Dashan.

Rowswell, 47, began studying Chinese in the mid-1980s, first at the University of Toronto and later at Beijing University. While in China, Rowswell became interested in Chinese performing arts, particularly xiangsheng, a form of comic dialogue.

An opportunity to perform on TV followed. Within hours, about 800 million viewers knew his name.

More than 20 years later, he remains a popular icon in China and a symbol of east meeting west without the political overtones.

In December 2006, he became a member of the Order of Canada.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition November 19, 2012 A4

History

Updated on Monday, November 19, 2012 at 11:21 AM CST: Corrects typo.

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