Kholood Eid for NPR
You can tell by the way Uncle Roger is sitting how badly someone goofed. The popular YouTuber usually sits in his chair with one leg propped up on the seat, elbow resting on his knee. It’s the ideal talking trash position for so many Asian uncles. It’s kind of comfortable, somewhat relaxed, but loaded like a spring. So that when something truly wild happens – like say, Jamie Oliver uses soba noodles to make ramen – Uncle Roger can drop his leg and act like it’s an affront to human decency, and give one of his signature “hiyas” to signal how much it hurts to see someone so famous for cooking mess up ramen so badly.
Throughout the pandemic, Uncle Roger has built an audience in the millions across platforms – 2 million on Facebook, 4 million on TikTok, 5 million on YouTube. They come for his roasting of mostly Western chefs botching Asian cooking, and defending the sanctity of woks and MSG.
The person behind Uncle Roger is London-based Malaysian stand-up Nigel Ng. He’s currently in the middle of a huge world tour (his first headlining tour ever as a comic), driven by the massive popularity of Uncle Roger. Which he’s grateful for. But he wants folks walking away from the shows thinking about Nigel.
Ng’s been grinding it out at open-mics, clubs, backs of bars, wherever, for over a decade. He’s a former data scientist who quit his day job and committed to doing comedy full time in late 2019 – great comic timing. By 2020, the only outlet he had for his comedy was the podcast he co-hosted with his comedian friend Evelyn Mok, Rice to Meet You. One day they’re riffing, and bouncing ideas off of each other, and coming up with characters. A couple were stinkers – the smutty late-night DJ was “too dirty for everyone,” said Ng in an interview. Another miss was the right-wing Asian conspiracy theorist Nunchuck Jones. But the one with the most promise was the one least removed from reality.
“I started doing an Asian accent. And then with that accent I threw in some attitude to kind of mimic my older generation Asian uncles” said Ng. It’s a familiar kind of Asian uncle. He’s kind of a jerk, but a funny one. He talks a big game, but is loveable enough to call everyone niece and nephew. He’s a bit of a cooking know-it-all, even though he’s not out here in a kitchen day in and day out. The rest of the character developed from there. The name Roger is a nod to the type of Anglicized name that’s a by-product of colonization in Malaysia (kind of like Nigel, come to think of it). And the look arose after Ng DM’ed all of his friends to text him pictures of their dads. So now, Uncle Roger always wears his signature orange polo (buttoned up to the top), with a huge phone case attached to his belt. When we met for this interview in the middle of four sold-out shows in New York City, I’d forgotten to ask if he wanted to bring his orange polo for the photo shoot. He brought it with him anyway.
Ng tried doing a few things with the Uncle Roger character, but what really popped off was reacting to a BBC video of presenter Hersha Patel making egg fried rice. A Rice to Meet You fan had sent it over, and Ng was going to do a react video to it anyway, but why not take this new bit on a test run? The BBC way of making egg fried rice, to put it gently, deviated from the norms of how an East Asian person might make egg fried rice. To Ng, it was hilariously bad and primo content for an Uncle Roger takedown. “Why you measure water with cup? Just use finger! Finger! You put rice, put water, until finger – first joint, the finger. That’s how you measure the water. Not with British teacup. Hiyaaaaa.” The clip went viral, and the video currently sits at over 29.5 million views on YouTube.
“Looking back on it, I realize I’ve combined three things that not many people have combined – the YouTube idiom ‘the reaction video,’ the character comedy and something relatable like food.”
Ng took that formula and ran with it, and suddenly no food media personality was safe from Uncle Roger – from established Food Network alumni like Jamie Oliver (a favorite target of his), Rachel Ray, and Nigella Lawson, to newer stars on the scene like Matty Matheson and Joshua Weissman.
“MSG is the king of flavor.”
Past the accent and the easy dirty jokes, there’s almost a public service to these Uncle Roger videos when it comes to correcting the record on things Western chefs constantly get wrong about Asian cooking. Take MSG, for example. Uncle Roger has big love for it (at a recent show, Ng, as Uncle Roger, brought a bag of MSG on stage with him), but it’s absent from a lot of Western cooking. “That’s been one of the big culture war points of contention,” says Jenny Lau, who runs Celestial Peach, a platform dedicated to telling the story of Chinese food. “It feels like there still needs to be a lot of education around the fact that MSG is not bad for you, and that it’s actually in everything, including a lot of Western foods,” she said.
The facts about MSG are that the FDA labels MSG as “generally recognized as safe.” It occurs naturally in foods like tomatoes and cheeses. There are a number of articles about how Western attitudes about MSG is just anti-Asian propaganda. But facts are boring. Lau says Uncle Roger has a way of communicating these things in a funny way, where he doesn’t come off as a pompous “boba liberal,” as Lau puts it.
And then there’s technique. “You watch some of these chefs,” said chef Brian Tsao. “And honestly, they could have done a much better job if they just did a little bit more research.”
Tsao is behind the upcoming Mission Sandwich Social in Brooklyn, NY. He’s also got his own YouTube cooking react channel. And he finds it disrespectful when someone is “bringing to their audience of how many hundreds of thousands or millions of people that – this is egg fried rice. And it’s clearly not well executed. And now a bunch of people are going to go on with their day thinking, ‘oh this is how it’s done,’ and further ruining the cuisine,” he said. He sees Uncle Roger as a way of pushing back against what someone could call “cultural appropriation.” But not Uncle Roger.
“The day Uncle Roger comes out and says the words ‘cultural appropriation,’ just smack me in the face and tell me to stop doing comedy,” says Ng. “That’s how I know I failed.”
So, about that accent.
Celebrated chef, cookbook author, and fellow food YouTuber J. Kenji López-Alt wrote about Uncle Roger in the video description of his own egg fried rice video, “I don’t like that his schtick seems to give a free pass to people to imitate stereotypical Asian speech patterns and pronunciation (especially as it’s almost always non-Asians doing the imitating). It’s ugly, it’s yellowface, it’s not funny, and it promotes anti-Asian racism at a time when Asians are already being heavily discriminated against.”
Lopez-Alt declined to speak with me for this story, but it’s a common critique of Ng. Both Lau and Tsao said they felt similar trepidation when it came to the character, but ultimately came around to it. “I think this is the curse of being asked to be fully representative of an entire community,” said Lau, who is Chinese. “I think people expect him, because he’s so famous, to somehow speak for and represent the entirety of the Asian community. Which is completely unrealistic.”
Kholood Eid for NPR
Tsao, who is Asian, stopped watching Uncle Roger videos for a while. “Because, I was like – should I be supporting this? Is this pushing forward a stereotype that I don’t really want out there for the rest of the world to judge us based on?” But as he looked past the accent, he came to accept the character as an ally in the fight against Western chefs giving Asian cooking a bad reputation. “Uncle Roger calls out the bulls*** in the exact accent that’s meant to demean us,” he said. “So in many ways, I feel like it’s empowering.”
For Ng, the debate crystallized the difference between being Asian-American (or East Asian in the U.K.), and being Asian. The Uncle Roger accent is the only way his parents in Malaysia can understand his jokes. It’s the only thing he’s made that they’ve laughed at.
“The way his English is broken, that’s how I spoke English growing up,” said Ng. “When a friend puts on that accent, it means they are being friendly. They’re trying to be funny.” And he’s had Malaysians come up to him saying the accent reminds them of home. And it reminds him of home, too. “Because that’s how we talk to each other when we let our guards down.”
“The worst thing about getting punched is when the police show up at your house, they don’t take their f***ing shoes off.”
Of course, folks in the Asian diaspora have had their guards up more than usual recently, for good reason.
Ng is aware of this. During his set, as Nigel, he makes a joke about how he was attacked just as Uncle Roger was getting famous. “I got punched, man, in London. This is real,” he starts, a little more down-tempo than the rest of his set. It was on his street, he was almost home. “This guy was on a bicycle. He saw me, he jumped off his bike and just walked towards me really aggressively.” A pause. A deep breath. “And at first I thought…he wanted a photo.”
He came out of it relatively unscathed, following up the joke about the attack with one about dealing with the police right after, because they didn’t take off their shoes in his house. All a setup to the line – “I got punched, but this is a hate crime.”
It’s a welcome deepening from the rest of his material, which touches on his recent divorce, dating and of course, cooking. It’s also different from the small box of material Uncle Roger has to draw from. But Ng still puts on the orange polo to be Uncle Roger to start the show, even before the opening act. Because he knows that’s what people want to see. He’s not a stand-up purist – one of those road dogs dedicated to duking it out with the audience in front of a brick wall for the rest of his career. “I like pleasing the masses, you know. And my fans, I know what they want. I give them what they want,” he said. But he does want to contain Uncle Roger a bit. Make sure the crowd leaves thinking about Nigel. “I want people to leave knowing I’m not just a funny character.”
I asked him if he’s thought about retiring Uncle Roger, at least live. “It would be nice. It means I would work less. I don’t have to carry extra orange polos around. Although I do want to get a T-shirt gun,” to shoot orange polos into the crowd, he said. Because he’s here to sell tickets. And, as he reminded me, Uncle Roger and Nephew Nigel share the same bank account.