Exclusive: Nigel Ng On Taking Life In Stride And With A Barrel Of Laughs
‘Right place, right time’ just about sums up the springboard off which Malaysian stand-up comedian and content creator Nigel Ng’s international fame trajectory was set. In 2020, just as pockets of the world slid into the thick of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ng doubled down and found his niche for his YouTube content. His portrayal of Uncle Roger, an orange polo tee-donning, middle-aged Asian man roasting BBC Food host Hersha Patel’s questionable egg fried rice video instantly went viral.
In it, Uncle Roger pointed out everything Patel was doing wrong by way of Chinese cooking, from not washing the rice before cooking it, to draining and rinsing the rice in a colander after it was cooked, to scraping the metal non-stick pan with a metal spoon, and right down to the greatest cardinal sin of all: not using MSG.
Maybe it was his over-exaggerated portrayal of the typical Chinese uncle or maybe it was his usage of familiar Manglish (Malaysian English) expressions such as Haiyaa or Fuiyoh, either way, it clicked, and Uncle Roger became larger than life.
“I came up with Uncle Roger by improvising on my Rice To Meet You podcast (co-hosted with Swedish-Chinese comedian Evelyn Mok). I was like, ‘What if there’s an old Asian uncle who’s a real estate agent?’. I started doing Uncle Roger showing houses and saying things like, ‘Haiyaa this house, too small, too small’ (laughs) dumb things like that. I thought it was funny and people liked it," Ng told Tatler.
"Then I started doing some stuff on TikTok with it, about how to cook rice, and that took off first. I realised, ‘People like this character, let’s see if I can do something longer with it’ and that’s when the first YouTube video happened,” he added.
“The greatest misconception is that sometimes people think I actually talk like that (laughs) or that I only wear the orange polo tee,” the 30-year-old jested. Whether you love it or hate it, it was this (obviously intentional) parody that earned him his overnight popularity.
For context, Ng started out 2020 with only 6,000 YouTube subscribers. His channel has now amassed an audience of 4.09 million subscribers–and counting. Before long, hundreds of fans were dressing like Uncle Roger for Halloween, Uncle Roger memes were being widely used on social media, Haiyaa became the MSG of words, and his content, sliced and diced for maximum shareability, were being distributed on all platforms imaginable. It was the perfect pivot for a world that was going into lockdown.
But funny’s not all that he’s got. The all-star student spent most of his life in Malaysia before moving to the US to study engineering at Northwestern University in Illinois. After graduating, he relocated to London to work as a data scientist. In 2011, he picked up stand-up comedy for fun, striking a balance between the serious and creative sides of him.
“It started out as a hobby, I did it about three to four nights a week. Slowly, I got better at it, and I started getting paid. Eventually, I realised, ‘Oh, I really love doing this’ and I was starting to get paid enough to survive so I made the switch,” Ng said. It was not all for naught.
In 2019, he was nominated for the Best Newcomer Award at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, the world’s largest arts festival. Soon after, he was opening for American comic Ken Jeong’s (of Crazy Rich Asians) first European stand-up show and selling out multiple runs across the UK and Europe. Ng then brought his special brand of humour to the web as Uncle Roger and in just 10 months, he raked an astounding 170 million views on YouTube and a collective following of over five million across his social media platforms.
Calling his whirlwind comedic journey so far, an adventure, would be a sore understatement.
That said, would life have panned out differently if he had gone down the exact same path, but in Malaysia? “I think the content would’ve been different. I don’t know what I would’ve done if I were in Malaysia. I’d probably still be working a proper day job and maybe pursuing something creative in the evenings on the side. Honestly, I don’t know if I’d even pursue YouTube in Malaysia,” Ng revealed.
Of course, with fame came its own perks and quirks. While he has had some memorable, sometimes enthusiastic fan moments, very quickly, Ng discovered that this extended beyond just his virtual ‘nieces’ and ‘nephews’ (as his fans are lovingly called).
“The last time I went back to Malaysia, a lot of relatives wanted photos with me, and I was like, ‘Okay, fine, I’ll do a few’ but after a while, I got exhausted by it, so I told them, ‘Alright, enough with the photo ops. I’m trying to spend time with you!’ and not take photos with my seventh uncle’s cousin, you know?” he quipped, adding that he appreciates the support.
Photo ops aside, there have also been adverse reactions to Uncle Roger, strongly opinioned by a select few as negative stereotyping or representation that’ll cause more harm to the Asian culture i.e., taking the mickey out of the Asian accent. To this, Ng replied: “It doesn’t really bother me because I know I’m not. Sometimes, people just need to laugh. If it’s funny, you laugh.”
When you get to a certain point of size of your fanbase, you’ll get naysayers. I just view them as occupational hazards.— Nigel Ng
“As a creator, you have your intentions, you do the work you personally enjoy. For me, it’s the work that’s funny, entertaining to watch, and somewhat a little educational in terms of cooking (laughs). Uncle Roger as a project has morphed into this thing of showing Western chefs that sometimes they don’t know what they’re talking about. I think it’s championing Asian food, championing Asian culture, and I don’t really care what other people say,” he added.
Ng is also gunning to champion correcting the misconception around Asian hate crimes despite being a victim of a racial attack himself.
In October 2020, he took to Instagram to share that a random stranger had assaulted him while he was walking home from lunch, leaving him with a bleeding lip and a bruised chin. When Ng asked the man why he was attacked, the perpetrator simply said: “You know what you did!"
“All of last year, violence was up across the board globally because of people’s frustrations with the pandemic and losing their jobs so I get that. Sometimes, the rhetoric around Covid-19, calling it a Chinese virus, leads to misinterpretation and people taking their anger out on Asians because they think that we caused it. That’s why he punched me; I think,” he revealed.
However, Ng is of the opinion that there needs to be more clarity about Asian hate crimes, which have been heavily reported by global news and media outlets in the past year. “People have to realise that even though these cases are increasing, just because the media portrays it as such, it doesn’t mean that everybody on the street is racist. We need to have a little perspective,” Ng said.
The perks of having earned such a huge following is that he can use it as a platform to champion exactly that. “I’ve talked about it on Rice To Meet You and it’s going to be material for my stand-up as well. I think I’ve found a way to make it funny. With everything that I do, funny is the most important thing,” he added.
Finally, bowing out and in offering a sneak peek at what’s to come for his character roleplays, Ng said: “I’ve been briefly flirting with the idea of an Italian version of Uncle Roger. I’m still working on it, but I don’t know. I’m having a lot of fun with Uncle Roger so I’ll keep doing that for now, pursue stand-up as myself, and we’ll see what happens in the future.”
Watch Nigel Ng play a fun game of word association with Tatler below: