Nigel Ng is a man going places. He is mid-way through his Haiyaa world comedy tour having just wowed audiences throughout Asia. Next stop Australia and New Zealand!
The Malaysian-born, British-based performer has impressively built a rapid following with his comedic shtick, but it’s also the meteoric rise of his alter ego, Uncle Roger, that has been garnering a lot of attention. The wise-cracking, know-it-all character now has in excess of six million followers on YouTube in just a few short years – built on the absurd manner in which the opinionated uncle mercilessly grills Western chefs and television shows for the way they blithely and ineptly mangle their attempts at Asian cooking.
Ng was born in the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur on 15 March 1991, to Chinese parents of Hokkien ancestry. His father is a car salesman, while his mother stayed home to raise young Nigel and his two siblings, Garry and Yoki, the latter of which is a professional harmonica player. After completing high school in Malaysia, he studied in the US where he achieved a joint engineering / philosophy degree at Northwestern University in 2014.
Ng observes of his high school experience, “I wasn’t raised in a very Western environment. I went to a Chinese-speaking school and in my group of friends the goal was to be a white-collar worker – an engineer, lawyer or accountant.”
Rice to Meet You
For a while, things went to script. He worked for several years as a data scientist, but it wasn’t long before his true calling of comedy came knocking. Seeking opportunities, Ng moved to Britain and began to get noticed as he earned his comedic chops. His first televised appearance was on Comedy Central’s Stand up Central in 2018. More success soon followed when he was given the ‘Best Newcomer Award’ for his stand-up comedy at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2019. Ng also hosts a comedy podcast, Rice to Meet You, with fellow UK-based comedienne, Evelyn Mok, and cites the films of Hong Kong comedic actor, Stephen Chow, as his inspiration to get into comedy.
It’s hardly surprising Ng’s Haiyaa tour is proving to be such a success – he thrives on the whole stand-up experience. “Comedy clubs sharpen a comedian. They’re like the gym for us, making us stronger, faster, funnier. Without them, every comedy show would feel like a monologue,” says Ng.
Uncle Roger Unleashed
But it would be fair to say that the catalyst, the magic ingredient, the MSG, that has catapulted Ng to fame was the creation of his character, Uncle Roger. The initial idea to play a middle-aged Malaysian uncle actually came from Ng’s comedy buddy, Evelyn Mok, but it wasn’t long before he began to develop the character. Ng put a call out on social media asking people to send photos of their Malaysian uncles. Gaudily coloured shirts appeared to be the order of the day and it wasn’t long before the Uncle Roger persona came with a bright orange polo shirt and an oversized mobile phone perennially strapped to his side. With an accent and mannerisms a composite of Ng’s observations of his own uncles growing up, the character was complete.
In July 2020, Uncle Roger became an internet sensation when he reviewed BBC Food’s Hersha Patel video on cooking egg-fried rice. Tongue firmly planted in his cheek, Uncle Roger watched in horror as Patel proceeded to boil the rice in a pot – sans rice cooker – and then strained the rice in a colander. After the video went viral, the pair appeared on the BBC together in a collaborative cooking effort. Uncle Roger continued to review BBC Foods’ coverage of Asian cooking. The high (low?) point came when there was a show about ‘Japanese Food Week’ in which most of the ingredients used by the chefs were Indonesian, Thai, Indian, but hardly any of them appeared to be Japanese.
Add (olive) oil
But the funniest moments in Uncle Roger’s oeuvre comes with his interaction with his arch nemesis, Jamie Oliver – also referred to as ‘Jamie Olive Oil’ in the YouTube clips for his liberal use of the aforementioned ingredient in his cooking. Oliver is regular fodder for many of the videos and was lambasted for his apparently inauthentic attempts at red Thai curry, butter chicken and egg-fried rice, among others. Clips would often end with Uncle Roger sadly shaking his head, saying “Our ancestors crying now”. Gordon Ramsay’s cooking videos were also critiqued by Uncle Roger, but the celebrity chef sportingly appeared in a subsequent video with his tormentor, and perhaps even boosted his own YouTube views along the way.
In truth, many of Uncle Roger’s barbs are aimed at himself, as he laments the loss of the love of his life, Aunty Helen, because of what he did (or failed to do) in the marital bed and how he one day yearns for a reunion. And there is no malice intended in his cooking take-on videos as he urges his YouTube followers not to provoke those critiqued but to “just laugh.”
White Rice Matters
But there is a deeper implication behind Uncle Roger’s seemingly over-the-top slapstick. His humorous put-downs of Western chefs’ versions of Asian cooking and the way ingredients and techniques are so drawn from another country, or just plain wrong, calls out an inherent casual disregard of Asian culture. Would an Asian chef mess up Western cooking with such impunity? It seems unlikely.
Commenting on one of Oliver’s most egregious Asian cooking faux pas – using chilli jam in egg-fried rice – Ng says, “It’s a pet peeve of mine that he would never do that with French cooking. He would have more respect. But Asian cooking? Anything goes, just whack it in there.”
Ng himself has at times copped criticism for perpetuating Asian stereotypes through the Uncle Roger persona and Cantonese-accented English. But as Ng told The Telegraph, “If a white guy puts on yellowface and does an accent, sure, that’s pretty bad. But I sounded more like Uncle Roger growing up than how I sound now. What’s he supposed to sound like? He’s not American, you know. Everything I say is lifting Asian people up. I’m talking about our food with pride.”
In the meantime, Ng and his fictional uncle continue on a stellar trajectory. It appears the sky’s limit for the irrepressible Uncle Roger. At six million followers online, he’s already gone past Jamie Oliver. What happens if he reaches 10 million? At this rate of success, an amorous reconciliation with Aunty Helen could even be on the cards and then who knows what might happen. Sorry children.