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Aug. 16, 2022

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Jiaoying Summers’ joke about China’s one-child policy made everyone laugh — except TikTok censors

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LOS ANGELES — Comedian Jiaoying Summers remembers her first time being kicked off a platform. It was on an open-mic stage at a bar in Koreatown where she bombed. Under the spotlight, nervousness gripped her vocal cords and feeble one-liners fell flat in front of a snickering crowd. Two minutes felt like two hours until she got “the light” — a polite comedy club version of the stage hook.

“It was really bad,” she says, her bubbly voice suddenly weighed down by embarrassment. “I could barely talk — all my trauma, the lack of confidence of growing up a little girl in China, being unwanted and nearly thrown in a dumpster … I was horrified.”

That last part of her statement is no joke — though it rolls off her tongue between nibbles of bread from a charcuterie board at a sunny beachside restaurant in Santa Monica. Today she’s far from the brutal reality of being born a girl in China during the country’s one-child mandate allowing only one child per household — preferably male. For years she didn’t talk about memories of nearly being killed as a baby that stained her subconscious.

Summers eventually turned her survival into jokes that got laughs in comedy clubs across the country. Two years after starting her stand-up career, she’s not only headlined the Laugh Factory and the Improv, she’s also opened her own local comedy clubs — the Hollywood Comedy and the Pasadena Comedy. But posting jokes about China’s one-child policy recently got her booted from a much bigger platform: TikTok.

Summers started her TikTok account, @jiaoyingsummers, in 2020 to boost her confidence on stage and share innocuous mom jokes. She quickly turned up the heat (and her viewer count) by roasting American names in Chinese.

“Hi guys, it’s me your funny mom, I’m roasting your name in Chinese,” she says, greeting her followers with ruby red lips starched in a grin. “Jennifer in Chinese means ‘jian ni fou.’ ‘Jian’ means ‘slutty’; ‘fou’ means ‘are you?’ So Jennifer means ‘Are you slutty?’… If your Jennifer goes by Jen, she’s already decided, because Jen means ‘slutty.’”

Her character Uber Karen, a racist, air-headed gig driver who insults everyone who gets in her car, was also a hit, helping her reach more than one million followers in less than a year.

Then last fall, she posted a joke about China’s one-child policy that wasn’t only funny, it was personal.

“When I was born my father found out my penis was missing and he took me to the dumpster, but he was drunk and dropped me on the ground,” Summers says in the video. “My mother heard me screaming and she said, ‘She’s ugly but she’s a fighter, let’s keep her.’ Meanwhile all the other baby girls ended up in the dumpster — they were taken by hyenas, coyotes and Jeffrey Epstein.”

Within days, the video went viral with more than 1.2 million likes. It also got tens of thousands of angry followers flooding the comments.

“Most people commenting said things like, ‘You cannot say that, because you did not die.’ Some people said I’m insulting the little girls who died,” Summers says. She responded by making a video defending herself and the decision to talk about the one-child policy as a survivor. Within days, TikTok, owned by Chinese company ByteDance, banned her account, citing a violation of community guidelines. Attempts to make new accounts using her name were blocked.

Summers’ lawyer, Richard Walden, sent TikTok a letter asking to restore her account. “The problem with all this is that the tech people are still trying to get their footing,” Walden says. “They don’t want to look like they’re curbing your creative freedom, but the political side of it [in China] got so out of hand and so nasty that they felt they had to start decertifying people.”

Legal representatives for TikTok did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In November, three months after being blocked, Summers’ TikTok account was turned back on.

“The TikTok lawyers reinstated Jiaoying without telling [us] anything,” Walden says. “She didn’t do anything so egregious that warranted cutting her out in the first place.”

Still, Summers was unable to go live or access thousands of dollars in creator funds from her product sponsorships after the reinstatement. She also saw her viewership drastically deflated for a time, with her videos reaching only a fraction of her following, leading her to suspect that her account had been shadow banned. Even so, Summers continues making TikTok videos.

Summers’ ban comes amid the latest wave of censorship from the Chinese government banning celebrities and unconventional influencers. Chinese actresses Zhao Wei, Zheng Shuang and Chinese-Canadian pop star Kris Wu are among the celebrities blocked for flaunting pleasure and showing extravagant wealth, according to the Chinese government. Unconventional creators who run afoul of shifting Chinese cultural taboos, including flamboyant homosexuality, have also been banned by TikTok.

Amir Yass, a queer, Muslim creator based in Orange County, started on TikTok in February 2020 under @amiyassofficial. Yass says he encountered similar blocking from TikTok starting last summer. As an influencer getting millions of views without any overtly sexual content, his account was suddenly banned after doing videos where he talked about being a gay Muslim and talking about the trans community.

“I did a video where literally it was so tame, about stuff I’d stolen from my exes,” he says, “and they banned it for being ‘sexual conduct.’”

Yass’ account was eventually restored, but he was told by a legal representative from the app that his content was blocked in order to protect trans people from bullying because his posts were getting a rash of negative comments.

“I was like, no, I’m not buying that bull—,” he says. “Because people are out there [making videos] threatening to slit my throat. And then if I would talk about that in a video, it would get taken down for bullying but their video where they were threatening to kill me was still up. It just started to feel unsafe for me to be on the app.”

Like Summers, Yass says that by banning him, TikTok took away his ability to go live, greatly decreasing a major revenue stream through the app.

“It’s a fine line that creators have to walk. You can be a creator and true to yourself and true to your opinions, but that may come at the risk of your creator business,” says Eugene Lee, founder of influencer management firm CreatorPay. “[Creators] have to think: ‘Do I conform to the platform and the inherent ideologies they may have?’ Let’s not forget where TikTok is from and who their overlords are.”

For Summers, surviving the one-child policy and immigrating to America only to be censored by a Chinese app is heartbreaking.

“Artists have the freedom to create art, comedy,” Summers says. “We should be able to make a joke that inspires, and people will know the truth behind it.”

Born in 1990 in a small village in Henan province, Summers’ parents birthed her at home instead of the hospital to avoid the shame of having a girl.

“If you have a son you are respected,” Summers says. “If you have a girl, your whole life you are considered shameful because you never brought a son into the world.”

Between 1980 and 2015, the one-child policy’s initiative to reduce birth rates resulted in social, cultural and economic effects, including the skewing of China’s gender ratio and a labor shortage due to more seniors who rely on their children to care for them.

At the height of the policy, girl babies were often aborted or savagely discarded. Shortly after she was born, Summers’ father cradled her in the doorway of their home, considering whether he should take his newborn child to the grassy, rock-strewn mountains known as “death valley” where parents would go to leave their girls to die or be picked up by strangers. But her mother screamed and pleaded with her father to keep the baby.

“Are you sure?” her father said.

“I’m sure,” her mother responded, remembering the abuse she’d suffered as a young girl being starved and punished by her parents while her brothers were spoiled.

“The most important thing in my heart was that this is my baby,” her mother told Summers she said to her father. “ I won’t let anybody hurt this baby,”

It’s a story Summers still tells — in joke form — any time she takes the stage. Usually she gets a mix of belly laughs and gasps.

When she’s not on tour, Summers is telling jokes at one of her two small comedy clubs, opened months before the pandemic. Her flagship, the Hollywood Comedy (THC), sits on Melrose Avenue, a coal-black theater wedged in a crevice of a bustling business district. Its glowing red sign evokes the edge of a punk club — in a way it is.

Comedians and crowds come in from 2 p.m. to midnight to book stage time and share laughs, dirty jokes and Doritos from the mini concessions bar. When Summers discovered the place, it was a prim, all-white dress shop that she transformed into a club for L.A.’s comedy misfits.

“It’s a family-oriented little hot spot,” says comedian Lizzie Rose, who’s booked shows for both THC and the Pasadena location. “We’re cultivating lots of stars on the rise.” Before “Saturday Night Live,” Punkie Johnson performed there.

Summers struggled to pay rent for both clubs when the pandemic hit, scraping by with ticketed shows hosted via Zoom and some money from Employment Development Department government loans. Eventually she shut them down from March 2020 through April 2021. The financial stress added even more tension to her domestic life as a wife and mother of two. She and her husband had nightly arguments over her late-night comedian lifestyle.

“I was the crazy lady in the open-mic scene,” Summers says. “I went to 20 mics in two or three days waiting in line and holding my high heels. I’d come home, breastfeed the baby or pump the milk while waiting in my car between sets.”

Her “Funny Mom” TikTok videos helped Summers launch a new audience from home. “I remember thinking I’m on TikTok telling jokes, I just found my job,” she says.

Within months, Summers’ followers hit 300,000. By 2021 she’d racked up over a million followers and sponsorship deals garnering between $10,000 to $20,000 a month, dwarfing her earnings from stand-up. “I used it as a way to stand up financially in my marriage,” she says. The only time she paused was to take time away to have her second child, a baby girl.

Summers says TikTok blacklisting her also took away her ability to inspire girls around the world who, like she did, struggle with body acceptance.

Growing up in China, Summers says beauty standards set by tall, light-skinned and pointy-chinned “premiere Asian girls” never matched up to her features — being short and darker skinned, with a rounded face and big lips, which she often pokes fun at in her act.

It wasn’t until she left China at 18 to attend the University of Kentucky that she was told by her American coeds that she was attractive.

Regardless of looks, her mere presence as a comic showcases a different style than more popular Asian American comedians like Ali Wong and Margaret Cho, who she idolizes but could never compare herself to because of her immigrant background.

“I can’t just copy [Ali Wong], I will never become her — I’d just be the cheap knockoff version,” Summers says. “So I talk about being a girl in China, and the one-child policy and coming to America.”

For all the initial trouble caused by her TikTok ban, Summers has found some good luck since the dust settled. Her followers remain at just over 1 million, though the number is slowly declining, she says. The battle has given her a story to tell, making her stronger and funnier on stage. Her clubs, which have been reopened since last spring, continue to host popular weekly shows and help new comics get their footing.

“Both clubs survived the pandemic, we had a really hard time but I think now we are thriving,” Summers says.

Last month, she signed a deal with OnlyFans — which is on a mission to sign more non-porn creators — for a weekly comedy show with the Laugh Factory. Despite TikTok’s cache as a path to social media stardom, CreatorPay’s Lee says Summers’ story should caution creators against trusting success to a single platform.

“Their policies today may completely change tomorrow,” Lee says. “This is the risk creators have when they see one platform as the only place to reach their audience — they’re putting all their eggs in that basket.”

For her part, Summers has regularly been posting all of her TikTok content to her Instagram account, which has more than 50,000 followers — nowhere near the size of her TikTok audience, but it’s a start.

As a mother, Summers says her TikTok dreams pale in comparison to the dream her own mother granted her by keeping her alive.

On a recent afternoon on a sunlit patio at an Italian restaurant on Melrose, Summers sits by a trickling fountain with her mother, who is preoccupied cradling her granddaughter and cooing to her in Mandarin. Since making a name for herself in Los Angeles, Summers’ mother has emigrated from China to live with her and help raise her two children.

With Summers translating, her mother reveals the definition of her name in Chinese — not to roast her but to remind her who she is. Jiao means “beautiful,” Ying means “sharp.”

“She gave me a very arrogant name,” Summers says laughing.

Her name and survival story have one thing in common — a refusal to fade into the background.

“What I have to say is very unique as an immigrant Asian woman … someone with a voice,” Summers says. “I have that voice and I lost it and I just feel like I want to fight to get it back.”

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