Have a five-minute conversation with American, Richard Robinson,an entrepreneur who has lived in Beijing for nine years, and you won’t be surprised to discover that his labor of love is Chopschticks, a comedy company that hosts stand-up comedians in Beijing. Robinson, who performs stand-up himself, lightens the mood often, whether with self-deprecating comments or traditional “So a guy walks into a bar…” jokes. The father of two, Declan (5) and Aidan (3), sat down with beijingkids (moments before he was due to speak at an entrepreneur conference) to discuss the latest label to add to his profile: children’s book author. Robinson penned Beijing ABC’s, a fun, rhyming book. Money from the book will go to the charity Magic Hospital, a foundation that strives to improve the quality of life for sick, hospitalized, handicapped, orphaned, abused and at-risk children.
Where did you get the idea to write a book?
I’m 42, and I made a list of things I wanted to do in my life. For instance, one of them is run a marathon – and I did that in New York, Sydney, Rome and soon in Beijing. My hairy, audacious goal is to do a marathon on every continent. I’m thinking Antarctica might be easiest – you’ll run for a bit and then slide on your belly, run for a bit, slide on your belly. But back to my list. One of the items was to publish a book. I saw Hong Kong ABC’s, so I thought I would do Beijing ABC’s. I have two kids who are 3 and 5 and hey, we’re always reading stuff. So, why not?
Tell me more about the book.
It’s for kids ages 1-8. You can read to kids at that age, and it’s not just learning ABCs – it’s a fun, rhyming book about Beijing. It incorporates Chinese characters and words. I’ve picked a word for each letter in the alphabet and then written a rhyme using that word. I’ve picked words that are fun for people to learn, like qiezie. Qiezie means “cheese!” (smile for the camera), but it also means eggplant. The book is a fun way to learn Chinese idioms.
How long did that take you?
It’s taken me a few months, but I haven’t had a lot of time to focus. The biggest problem was choosing which words to feature. I’ve used a mix of pinyin and English. For example, for the letter G, I chose Gugong – the Forbidden City. I thought it was iconic and a “g” that’s really Beijing. I wanted to make the book Beijing-specific. I wrote the rhymes using short meter (6/6/8/6) because a lot of hymns are written like that. Once you have that structure in place, it’s easy.
What are your favorite children’s books?
I love to read Where the Wild Things Are to my kids. I’m 42, so Dr. Seuss was popular when I was a kid. I have that Seussian approach to this. I cite the good doctor as one of my influences.
You’re a comedian. Is this book funny?
It’s funny. It’s fun. An example:
“N’s shaped like a noodles / This bowl here has oodles / Don’t eat the kit and kaboodle / Save some to make doodles.” That’s the tone of the book.
What makes kids laugh, in your opinion?
I’m so proud that my kids speak Chinese, and they speak it so well. I hear them speak Chinese and I think, “Wow, I wouldn’t have said it like that, but he’s right, and he’s 5.” But, when I was a child, I learned really, really bad jokes from my dad. That’s my contribution to my kids, besides English – to pass that on. I want them to be bilingual and have a goofy sense of humor. My son did tell his first joke the other day, although he didn’t make it up.
What was the joke?
“Why is six afraid of seven?” “Because seven ate nine.” But I taught him, “Why can’t dinosaurs talk?” “Because they’re all dead.” That’s his favorite joke. He likes that one more. He might not quite get that “seven ate (eight) nine” thing.
What else do you do in Beijing?
I’ve been an entrepreneur in China for 10 years. My company, Kooky Panda, makes casual socially connected games for mobile phones. I’m also actively involved as an investor and advisor in other tech startups. And of course, there’s Chopschticks, which is my labor of love. I use it to exercise and exorcise my creative muse.
What are your plans for the future?
My wife, a Beijinger, and I are lifers. I’m not going anywhere. I fell in love with China when I came here in 1993. I knew I had to come back – the dragon swooped down and dug her talons into me – and then I married her! Badum-ching! But really. I hope people buy the book. It’s for charity, it’s localized and I hope the critics will be kind to me.
Beijing ABC’s. RMB 88. Available at English-language bookstores around town. For more information on donating to Magic Hospital, visit www.magichospital.org/