With news that Nigel Ng was back in Malaysia, we took the opportunity to catch up with him and speak about his most renowned creation yet, Uncle Roger.
As far as most Asians are concerned, rice is an age-old staple food not to be messed with. In the Chinese culture, rice is symbolic of livelihood, as the famous saying goes, “Never crack another man’s rice bowl.” The term “iron rice bowl” is even used to refer to job security and stable income.
It’s no wonder when the video of the now-famous Uncle Roger roasting BBC Food’s egg fried rice recipe, presented by Hersha Patel, first surfaced in 2020, Asians and rice lovers across the world immediately resonated with his outrage and rhapsodised about his critique and caricature. The sentiment has been particularly strong among Malaysians in view of 2018 MasterChef UK’s controversial critique of Malaysian contestant Zaleha Opin’s chicken rendang dish not being “crispy.”
The egg friend rice video has since garnered over three million views and also introduced the world to the talented comedian behind the Uncle Roger persona, Nigel Ng. Born in Kuala Lumpur, Nigel majored in Engineering at Northwestern University, Illinois, US, and for a period of time, worked as a data scientist upon graduation. It was during this time that he began his foray into comedy. What started out as a part-time job, soon became a successful career that has taken him from the US to the UK.
There’s much more to Nigel Ng than his portrayal of Uncle Roger. As it turned out, prior to going viral, the stand-up comedian was nominated for the prestigious Best Newcomer Award for his sold-out show at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2019, and then followed that up with another sold-out, week-long run at London’s Soho Theatre in 2020. As reported on his website, the rising star made his TV debut in 2018 on Comedy Central’s Stand Up Central, shortly followed by Comedy Central’s Roast Battle, BBC Two’s Mock The Week, just to name a few. Today, he hosts the comedy podcast Rice to Meet You with fellow comedian Evelyn Mok, talking about the Asian experience and culture.
Since the debut of Uncle Roger, Nigel has gone on to produce several more fried-rice reviews of high-profile chefs, including Gordon Ramsay, even triggering a positive response from the British restaurateur in the comment section of his YouTube video, “Happy you approve, Roger!” As for Hersha, the presenter/filmmaker reached out to Nigel to explain her side of the story, and the two have since collaborated on two videos. It’s pleasing to see that both Nigel and Hersha have handled the situation like real class acts, with grace and good humour.
As soon as news of Nigel’s return to Malaysia for a visit broke, we took the opportunity to reach out to the fried rice- savant and decided to celebrate his success (and birthday in March) on the cover of August Man Malaysia. It’s worth noting that Nigel Ng is a lot different than Uncle Roger – the middle-aged, orange polo-clad YouTube character; the real person is in very fit form, well spoken, easy-going and photographs effortlessly.
In this exclusive interview, Nigel Ng speaks about the story behind Uncle Roger, his background, adapting to change and more.
How does it feel to be back in Malaysia this time around?
It feels nice to be back, to see my family and enjoy the warm weather because right now it’s winter in the UK. For the first week, I was quarantined in the hotel, but since then, everywhere I go, people have been asking me to take photos with them, so that’s nice.
How did you go from engineering and computer science to comedy?
I started doing comedy in the university and I really liked it, but comedy, like any sort of entertainment or art form, is hard to make money at first, so you always need to have a day job. I was studying engineering and was decent at computer science, so I took up a job in that field. At night, I would do my standup at open-mics, and as I gradually got better at it, I realised that I could scale back my day job bit by bit until I could go full time into comedy. I started comedy in the US, and then there was an opportunity for me to move to the UK. I was with a European woman for a while so living in the UK was a lot easier for us.
Tell us about your first performance on stage.
First show was at a coffee shop near my university in Evanston, Illinois. I went to Northwestern. I don’t remember much other than being very nervous. I think I did OK, got a couple of laughs here and there, not great. There were about 12 to 15 people. Nobody was really listening; they were just busy on their laptops and doing their work, but I remember getting a few chuckles and thinking to myself, oh, that was cool and fun, going to do it again.
Is it difficult for an Asian to break into the comedy scene in the US/UK?
Nobody is stopping you from doing it; nobody is saying, “Oh, you’re Asian, you can’t do standup.” I think the difficulty lies in the uncertainty that one might experience coming from a different perspective, with a slightly different sense of humour, but all those things can be overcome. You just have to adapt, watch how others do their standup gigs and learn from them. It’s a trial and error process. You go on stage and tell your jokes, if it bombs, you dump the joke, and if it works, you keep the joke and expand on it.
What’s the story behind Uncle Roger?
My podcast show host was writing a script for a sitcom and she came up with a character called Roger, based on this outgoing Asian guy. I took the name Roger and made it completely different. The character I came up with is this frumpy, middle-aged “uncle” in polo shirt, inspired by the middle-aged “uncles” and Asian dads I grew up with in Malaysia, the kind you see in kopitiam, sitting with one leg up.
What about the Hong Kong accent?
Yes, there’s that accent because it’s a little bit tough to do the Malaysian accent without the slangs – the “lahs” and “lors.” It’s linguistically challenging to make it internationally accessible, so I had to tweak it to a more widely known Asian accent to make sure more people get it. That being said, I’ve infused it with several Malaysian slangs like “haiyaaa” and “fuyoooh.” The broken English is made to sound like how some of my relatives speak, so it’s broken in a very Malaysian way. You have to adapt, right? Uncle Roger having a Hong Kong accent is my way of trying to adapt my comedy for a wider audience.
And the orange polo?
I asked a few of my friends to send me pictures of their dads, did a bit of my own research, and then decided to go with the orange polo shirt. I know that in Malaysia, they like to wear that white singlet to the kopitiam, but I don’t think that’s a good look for me on YouTube. Orange polos and bright-coloured polos seem to be a very common choice among Asian dads.
What is the creative process behind each of your videos?
For every video, I actually come up with the jokes together with my writer, and if it’s a dish we’re not familiar with, we would consult someone, jump on a Zoom call and ask what exactly is wrong here. So if you like food, you will enjoy the critique and if you don’t know anything about food, you will still find the videos funny.
Your BBC Food Egg Fried Rice video seems to have sparked a friendship, and a few collaborations, between you and Hersha. Please elaborate on this development.
When the video started going viral, I was a bit nervous at first, hoping that she doesn’t get attacked and has a good sense of humour about it because I made this video as a comedy. It’s supposed to be a joke, right? So she reached out and, fortunately, she’s all of those things; she has a good sense of humour, she’s strong and all she wanted was to meet up and ask if I could film an Instagram Story for her, asking people not to attack her. She doesn’t deserve it, you know. She was just presenting a BBC recipe. We met over dinner in London and decided to use this opportunity to turn the situation around. So for the first video, I went to her place and she made egg fried rice her way, and it was great. We collaborated again after that and went to Chinatown together.
What is your take on westerners reviewing Asian food?
I’ve seen Anthony Bourdain’s work and I really liked it. He treated Asian food with a lot of respect. Often western food bloggers and show hosts would come to Asia and go, “Oh this is so weird, eating scorpions.” But Bourdain came with an open mind, and so does Gordon Ramsay. Ramsay does it really well. He learns from the locals how to make local dishes. I have reviewed his egg fried rice video and found that he does it really well. So I think those two are good examples.
Do you cook on a regular basis?
On the contrary, I don’t really cook much, especially now because I’m too busy to go grocery shopping, plus I live alone. It’s hard to cook for one. I did cook a lot when the lockdown started last year. At that time, I didn’t have Uncle Roger yet, so I had a lot of free time and cooked every meal. I’m a decent home cook and used to make meals together with my housemates back in university.
In your Corona Time video with Evelyn, you mentioned about cancelling shows and having to learn how to use Adobe Audition. Please share more with us about how challenging the pandemic has been for you and your work, and how you are coping?
I was a standup and in the wake of the pandemic and lockdown, there were no shows at all. That’s the first challenge we all had to overcome as standup comedians, as 90% of my income disappeared over night. It made me realise that you have to adapt. It’s been over a year now; I’ve adapted to it and feel very lucky to have achieved this success. I think now digital content is the way to go. Since we can’t perform live, so why not make some stuff for online and continue to build your fan base there? I know not everyone is interested in learning how to make videos, but I think if you want to adapt to the times, you need to at least learn a little bit of how to use Adobe Premier Pro and Photoshop to make some contents.
What have you planned for your visit in Malaysia?
I’ve just filmed Uncle Roger working at a coffee shop, and I will be filming with Chef Wan as well. I don’t usually get the chance to collaborate with people, but since I’m back now and people want to collaborate with me, I’m up for it.
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Styling by Grace Naramol; Make-up by Wanning; Hair by VV Chan