An orange polo shirt, tucked in, wouldn’t typically be a go-to Halloween costume. That was until October 2020, when hundreds of people wore exactly that, usually paired with a friend dressed as fried rice. They were channelling Uncle Roger, “a middle-aged Malaysian uncle you see everywhere in Malaysia, including coffee shops and your family events.” If that sounds relatable, hilarious, and vaguely parodied, that's because it was meant to be. After all, the description came from Uncle Roger himself, Malaysian comedian Nigel Ng.
“He is a sassy loudmouth, but ultimately [a] kind individual,” Ng said of his popular alter-ego in an interview with VICE.
Ng, 29, grew up in Malaysia but is now based in London. He’s been active on YouTube since 2019, but went viral in July after Uncle Roger reacted to BBC Food host Hersha Patel’s questionable fried rice recipe. Peppered with classic ‘Manglish’ (Malaysian English) reactions like “haiya” (frustration and disappointment) and “fuiyoh” (shock and wonder), typical of his other videos, he roasted the host’s decision to wash the rice on a colander after it was cooked. The video now has over 18 million views on his YouTube channel, 1.1 million views on his Facebook page, and countless more in re-uploads. It was an instant meme, especially popular with Asian communities around the world.
“I think it was a combination of it being a relatable topic — rice and cooking rice — and it is such a simple thing for most Asians. So, to see someone mess it up so bad in such a bizarre way is very entertaining. And the character himself is entertaining too,” Ng said.
He has since met Patel for a collab video filled with fried rice and more Asian uncle antics. They’ve also explored London’s Chinatown together. He said these videos were all in good fun. All in the name of comedy.
Ng first started getting into stand-up in 2011, while studying engineering at Northwestern University. He found comedy as a way to express himself.
“My parents didn’t know much about stand-up, as it’s still a pretty Western art form. When I decided to go full-time comedy, initially they were worried about me making ends meet, and kept encouraging me to take on a part-time job.”
He moved to the United Kingdom in 2015 after finishing his degree. He would do stand-up four to five times a week, while working a day job as a data scientist. Only in 2019 did he decide to pursue comedy full time, starting with his YouTube channel. At first, his videos were a mix of live stand-up shows and reaction videos. Then he had an idea.
“It was a goal of mine to create character-based comedy for 2020 … Uncle Roger started out with a few small TikTok and Instagram clips, and then I realized, ‘people seem to like this character, let’s try something bigger.’”
His goal was to hit 10,000 YouTube subscribers in 2020. He now has over 2.5 million.
“At the start of this year I had 6,000 [subscribers] so now it is crazy. And people seem to like the character,” Ng said.
It’s a tale common among the biggest online influencers. One day you’re dancing in your room like no one’s watching, the next millions of people are.
But Ng’s quick rise to popularity does not come without criticism. While many Asians find Uncle Roger hilariously on-point with their own uncles, some feel that his heightened blend of a thick staccato Cantonese accent interlaced with Manglish grammar is problematic. They say Ng is only furthering existing negative Asian stereotypes.
“Their fears are not unfounded, and also I try to see from their perspective too,” Ng said. “A lot of them grew up being the only Asian person in a white neighborhood where nobody understood their culture. They got made fun of, ostracized, and bullied based on how they behave and speak.”
But he said that rather than it being a caricature, Uncle Roger is an homage to his childhood in Malaysia.
“This character is rooted in my life experience. It is moulded after the people I knew growing up — the uncle sitting at the kopitiams (coffee shops), the sassy know-it-all uncles,” Ng said.
“I know that my dad wears a belt phone case, and I see a lot of other Asian uncles wearing it too. So, Uncle Roger is a combination of research and my own life experiences. A lot of words Uncle Roger uses are words I used growing up, talking to friends in a very casual setting. So I just had to make these the centerpieces of his dialect.”
“There are definitely people who were bullied because they had an accent and grew up Asian in a Western world, and that is a valid life experience. But so is mine. And I think both our life experiences can exist together.”
“When I do stereotypes, I think people just mean the accent,” he said. “Uncle Roger is a character. He’s never mentioned that Asians eat dogs, or are good at math.”
“White people have been using an Asian accent to make fun of Asian people for a long time.”
“The difference between them doing it and me doing is that my version is rooted in my experience growing up in Asia, which is celebratory. And the fact that it’s the Asian community who enjoys [my comedy] the most.”
Uncle Roger revels in being Asian. He calls his viewers “niece and nephew” and is armed with life hacks an Asian parent would have under their sleeve — like having sachets of MSG on hand and skipping the rice at a buffet.
More than his virality, Ng said that Uncle Roger’s popularity is a step towards better Asian representation in comedy.
“People haven’t seen their parents becoming YouTubers, you know. And in my comedy, I do a lot of Asian culture stuff as well, like cultural differences and little injustices we face … and when people come see Uncle Roger and my stand-up, and learn even more about Asian culture, I think that’s a plus for everybody,” he said.
Ng is looking forward to going on his first world tour when the pandemic’s over. Of course, with Uncle Roger as a special guest. How long will he don the orange shirt? “Until I’m sick of it,” he said.