“I only want to be your supporting actor” – the story of Zhang Yunlei and Yang Jiulang

“When I was in the Intensive Care Unit, he promised me … ‘ In the future, whatever makes you happy, whatever you want to do, go do it and  I’ll follow you.’ ” – Zhang Yunlei

Yang Jiulang kept his word.  According to a director of a variety show,  in the two years since Zhang Yunlei came out of the ICU, Yang Jiulang completely molded himself to fit Zhang Yunlei.

He would wheel him around in a wheelchair off stage and be his crutch on stage.  He would stay up until 3am waiting for word that Zhang Yunlei got home safely from filming.   He doesn’t even hand Zhang Yunlei water without first unscrewing the cap. He almost never sings but knows the lyrics to every song Zhang Yunlei sings on stage.  If Zhang Yunlei wants him to sing, all Zhang Yunlei has to do was to stop mid-sentence and look to the left, and Yang Jiulang will finish his sentence without missing a beat.

From love at first meal, two miraculous comebacks, learning to walk three times,  to plenty of foreshadowing and climaxes, the story of singer-comedian Zhang Yunlei and his partner Yang Jiulang unfolds as if it were a carefully constructed drama. Zhang Yunlei’s life story is a miracle in itself, but the story of their journey together is a fitting parallel plot.

*warning* Because they’re comedians, everything they say is a lie or a hyperbole.   I will try to stick to off-stage interviews here, but I hold no responsibility for recounting lies they fed me.

“If fate be willing, we will be together “

Yang Jiulang signaling fans to stop photographing Zhang Yunlei while he’s asleep.

In 2011, after a few months of sleeping between McDonald’s and the subway station, Zhang Yunlei returned to Deyun Club, the troupe he left at the age of thirteen when his voice cracked due to puberty.  One day, he and Yang Jiulang were the only two left after a performance. Zhang Yunlei broke the awkward silence by asking Yang Jiulang if he wanted to grab something to eat.  Over beef noodles, they immediately clicked.   Zhang Yunlei recounted that  The first time Jiulang talked to me, it was like a tiny bug crawled into my heart. The tiny bug was tickling my heart.

During their first real conversation, they “both admitted to having the impulse of switching partners to be with each other.” 

“Let’s pretend nothing was said today. Tomorrow we still have to continue to perform with our separate partners. Let’s see what happens. If fate be willing, we’ll be together,” Zhang Yunlei told Yang Jiulang during their first meal.

Zhang Yunlei did not leave it to fate. For some reason, starting then, they would often be the last two left backstage and eat together.  He gifted Yang Jiulang an expensive watch at a time he was too cheap to buy instant noodles on the train. He later went and asked their teacher Guo Degang if he could be paired with Yang Jiulang. In August 2013, they finally debuted as a pair. (贵圈,2018/1/24, link)

But fate had tied them together way before that.

Yang Jiulang was a fan of Zhang Yunlei before he was Yang Jiulang.

“He’s called Zhang Yunlei”

In 2005, the youth who would later become Yang Jiulang heard a recording of Funeral Home by Guo Degang and was immediately enthralled.  Yang Haoxiang listened to so many recordings of Guo Degang and his disciples that one teacher took away his mp3 player in class and told him, “It’s not like Guo Degang is ever going to sign your paychecks.”

One of the people he listened to was a young boy called Zhang Yunlei who had also fallen in love with a performance of Funeral Home by Guo Degang.   Yet in the same year Yang Haoxiang perhaps first heard of Zhang Yunlei, Zhang Yunlei lost his boy soprano voice and left the stage.

By 2008, Zhang Yunlei had lost hope he would return to the stage.  Yang Haoxiang never lost hope. On January 23rd, Yang Haoxiang replied to a renren (Facebook equivalent) post asking about a kid who used to be great at singing, telling the poster that “He’s called Zhang Yunlei.”   The same year he also posted a comment agreeing it be a shame if  Zhang Yunlei never returned to the stage.   Yang Jiulang was a fan of Zhang Yunlei before he was Yang Jiulang.

In 2009,  Yang Haoxiang auditioned to be a disciple of Guo Degang by studying this recording of Zhang Yunlei for his audition.  He messed up the song two lines in but passed the three rounds of auditions.  He would be given the zi Jiulang the next year, a name inspired by the loyal generals of the Yang family. Yang Jiulang would live up to his name.

By the time Zhang Yunlei returned in 2011, Yang Haoxiang had already become Yang Jiulang, and Guo Degang would sign his paychecks. When their teacher Guo Degang announced Zhang Yunlei’s first performance upon returning on Weibo , Yang Jiulang reposted it. “Really can’t miss this!” he said.  Except for his biggest regret in life, he would never miss out on Zhang Yunlei’s life again.

“Partners for life, forever.”

2-51dc7fd088b3While many xiangsheng pairs don’t make it past the first year, four months after they debuted,  Zhang Yunlei had already replied to a Weibo saying “partners for life, forever.”  By their first year anniversary, Yang Jiulang wrote “Heavens Eternal, Earth Everlasting” to describe their partnership.

While other partners often don’t get matching outfits even a year in, soon after they partnered, Zhang Yunlei brought Yang Jiulang four performance outfits so they would match (德云社八队封箱,2019/1/22, video).  Zhang Yunlei is notorious for being super stingy in their troupe, but Zhang Yunlei pays for Yang Jiulang’s shopping trips frequently. Yang Jiulang uses his makeup, his toiletries, and even gets his shoes cleaned by Zhang Yunlei.     (超级星饭团,2018/9,cut.).

“Sometimes I would be unhappy and before I show it, he would come over to tell me to to calm down. But before he says anything,I would know what he’s planning say to me.” –   Zhang Yunlei.

Their dedication paid off.  Within a year and a half of them partnering, they had gone from having canceled shows due to not selling enough tickets to being the eighth top pair of their troupe, walking eighth to last at their annual end-of-the-year ceremony. Their success was not unnoticed and they finally got a chance to enter the spotlight as contestants on a popular TV show in August 2016.

On August 22nd, they had just finished filming their first episode of the show.   Yang Jiulang had left Nanjing earlier, leaving Zhang Yunlei and a coworker to take the train at dawn.  It would be the biggest regret of his life.

“May we never again face separation in neither life nor death.”

Yang Jiulang was asleep in Beijing when he learned that Zhang Yunlei had drunk walked off the equivalent of a four-story building at the train terminal in Nanjing.  Zhang Yunlei’s father helped him facetime Yang Jiulang as they waited for the ambulance.  All Yang Jiulang told him was to stay alive.   Terminally ill notices were sent out as Zhang Yunlei battled with death.   The next day in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU), Yang Jiulang again told him to “stay alive.”  Zhang Yunlei told Yang Jiulang he was leaning on his tubes (surgical drain).

Q: What’s the most unforgettable event in your growth as a person?

Yang Jiulang: When he fell and was bed-ridden for five months. There’s nothing more unforgettable for me. When he fell, it was like I also fell. My whole heart broke down during that time. He was physically broken and I was emotionally broken.

Zhang Yunlei: He has emotional trauma.  ( So Cool 2017.8 issue, link)

Most people thought Zhang Yunlei would never return to the stage. After all, he had a piece of his lung removed and most of his body was fractured.  Yang Jiulang told their company that he was willing to wait for Zhang Yunlei and would do behind-the-scenes work with Zhang Yunlei if he can’t stand again. They are the only pair in their troupe to not switch partners after one person got seriously injured (turns out telling jokes is a dangerous profession).

On their first return to the stage five months later, Yang Jiulang cried while Zhang Yunlei smiled. From then on, never again would they turn their back towards each other. Instead, they would always walk backward facing each other at their annual end-of-the-year performance. Video compilation of their end-of-the-year entrances here.

” May we never again face separation in neither life nor death. Thank you to all the powers that allowed me to still be by your side 🙏 May my diva be happy, and not just on your birthday🎂  ”
– Yang Jiulang’s 2017 birthday wish to Zhang Yunlei, while Zhang was still in the hospital

According to a director for the variety show Joyful Comedians, in the two years since the accident, Yang Jiulang completely molded himself to fit Zhang Yunlei.  Zhang Yunlei refused to sit during the performances, believing that it would be disrespecting the profession. There has been at least one time where the nails poked out of Zhang Yunlei’s ankles, yet he continued to perform until the end.  Yang Jiulang would be Zhang Yunlei’s crutch on stage, helping him to move from a wheelchair to the stage and back.

Yang Jiulang would also be Zhang Yunlei’s hands. Just look at this compilation of Yang Jiulang smoothing Zhang Yunlei’s robe during Joyful Comedians or this one of Yang Jiulang opening water bottles for him or this (5:33) time he helped Zhang Yunlei wipe his nose on stage.  Yang Jiulang, who is not at all confident about his singing, began to sing so Zhang Yunlei would have more resting time.

Q: State a complaint about Yang Jiulang
Zhang Yunlei: He’s so clingy. Everytime I feel down, he just clings to me and tries to get me to laugh.

“from a shy shy guy guy to my super star”

IMG_2387In the first minute of 2018, Zhang Yunlei refused to wish happy new year to the audience so that his first words would be to Yang Jiulang:  “May we be better and better in the new year.”

2018 treated them well. On January 23, ten years after Yang Haoxiang praised Zhang Yunlei on social media,  Yang Jiulang celebrated Zhang Yunlei’s birthday with him. A week earlier, they headlined their first of many shows.   They were contestants on two seasons of Joyful Comedians. Zhang Yunlei branched out by going on variety shows like Happy Camp and  Chinese Youth.   Years after Zhang Yunlei slept at McDonald’s while homeless, he filmed an ad campaign for McDonald’s.

When Zhang Yunlei got healthier, more popular, and started doing his own stints with his assistants, Yang Jiulang would wait for a call that Zhang Yunlei got home safely before going to bed, even if it’s 3am. During the filming of Chinese Youth, Zhang Yunlei felt tired and wouldn’t eat, so Yang Jiulang drove across Beijing to bring him a meat pie he liked. There’s also an interview last year where Zhang Yunlei had to prank call Yang Jiulang, and Yang Jiulang agreed to gift Zhang Yunlei his new house within a few seconds. He then showed up after the interview to pick Zhang Yunlei up. 

By 2019, Zhang Yunlei would become so popular that his single can sell 1.6 million copies, his magazines can sell hundreds of thousands of copies, and their rather frequent shows sell out thousands of seats within seconds, with the best seats going for thousands each.

In six years you’ve turned from a shy shy guy to my super star … It makes me excited every time I think about it.  … The coolest thing I can do is for you to always see  me standing behind the table whenever you turn to your left. Happy birthday, my superstar.  I want me to always be one of many things that brings you joy,  for that’s the coolest skill I have.  – Yang Jiulang’s 2019 birthday weibo to Zhang Yunlei

IMG_2395

“People say Zhang Yunlei now has magazines, singles, and TV shows … but the thing that makes me the happiest is performing xiangsheng on the stage with Yang Jiulang.” – Zhang Yunlei

Wherever he wants to go, I’ll follow him.

In the first month of this lunar new year, Zhang Yunlei learned to walk for the third time in his life after the metal support in his left leg was removed.  Yang Jiulang was in the hospital with him for most of the recovery process, leaving only after he was well enough to leave the hospital.

May 11th was their first performance after Zhang Yunlei’s latest surgery. Zhang Yunlei managed to jump on stage for the first time since his fall.  The next day, a video of them using the Wenchuan and Tangshan earthquakes as a part of a joke on stage back in 2018 went viral. They were widely panned online. Zhang Yunlei apologized on Weibo, but their latest show still isn’t up on Youku,  he still haven’t been on TV, and his new magazine photoshoot still hasn’t been released a month later. But surely whatever mistakes they’ve made and will make, they’ll handle it together.

“People say Zhang Yunlei now does variety shows, magazines, and singles … but the thing that makes me the happiest is performing xiangsheng on the stage with Yang Jiulang.” – Zhang Yunlei

Just last week, they became the third pair in their troupe to headline their first cruise ship, where they confessed to each other in a new program (don’t watch the rest since the jokes are all rather specific to the actors).  In September, they’re scheduled to headline their first shows abroad in New Zealand and Australia.     Most of their recent performances are only available on Youku VIP, but you can watch some of their stuff subtitled on Youtube here

On a side note, can more performers do this cruise ship thing? It must pay well enough since their teacher Guo Degang, who easily fill stadiums of 10,000 people,  does it.   I would love to be on a ship with 4000+ other people fangirling my favorite artists all day and then attending shows by them.  

Interviewer: What’s your plan this year(2019)?
Yang Jiulang: Wherever he wants to go, I’ll follow him.

Here’s a cute video of Zhang Yunlei prank calling Yang Jiulang, and Yang Jiulang agreeing to give him his house (listen to Yang Jiulang saying “okay” at 0:48 under Zhang Yunlei’s words):

3 thoughts on ““I only want to be your supporting actor” – the story of Zhang Yunlei and Yang Jiulang

  1. Here’s a story from yesterday from a fan who got to go backstage to take a photo with them.

    “I was so nervous that when the person taking the photo told me to move to the left, I moved to the right and accidentally bumped into Zhang Yunlei. Yang Jiulang was watching and immediately stood between us and said, “I want a picture with Zhang Yunlei, too” ”

    He protects him so well <3

    • While not everyone has as dramatic a story as the two of them, strong camaraderie is actually not uncommon in xiangsheng. Their teacher Guo Degang has been with his partner for twenty years. Their three sons are all disciples of each other. Guo Degang’s teacher was with his partner for forty years before one of them passed away. They took each other’s disciples as god sons.

      Within their company, I believe no pair that has lasted for over five years has yet broken up. Even when they quit they leave together. It’s why xiangsheng has a lot of shippers nowadays. If you pick an old enough pair, the chances of your ship lasting is way higher than a boyband or tv actor pair.

      Of course, only about a dozen pairs out of the 400+ actors in their company have managed to have a partnership last five years.

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