Monday, 2 May 2016

Chinese ukulele star 1925 ?

Dressed in a "Chinese" costume, strumming a ukulele and singing skat.  Nee Wong was a novelty act in vaudeville, who appeared on Broadway and in London's West End. Billed as "a regular Chinese 'Ukulele Ike'" and "The Gentleman of the Orient" and  "One of vaudeville's most talented entertainers in Nee Wong, a lackadaisical young Chinese (sic). Nee Wong can make a ukulele talk. He sings American songs and translates them into Chinese, giving his audience a little lesson in Chinese pronunciation."
Audiences marvelled, and even today some  are fooled.
But even his identity was an act. Nee Wong's costume isn't Chinese. It's a circus clown version of the kind of tunic Chinese women - not men - wore or rather weren't wearing in the 1920's. The famous movie clip from 1925 shows him singing,  but he's singing gobbledegook, not Chinese.

Nee Wong was no more "Chinese" than white folks in blackface playing banjos and singing "African" were black. In reality, Nee Wong was Filipino, born Alfredo Oppus in Baclayon in 1895.  He worked as a labour organizer  with a Filipino battalion in California just after the First World War.  As "Nee Wong" he made a living impersonating "
the gaits and mien of the Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino as observed by an Occidental at the cross roads of Oriental San Francisco".  Read more HERE on a specialist ukulele blog which is ace on ukulele technique, and also read the comments below about Oppus, the man.
Nee Wong presumably had to make a living and didn't do badly. His act says much more about his era, when non-whites couldn't break into the mainstream unless they pandered to racist stereotypes, pretending to be what they were not, serving an audience that didn't care. White guys donned blackface, strummed banjos and pretended to be "African". Real black guys had to adopt demeaning caricature. Stepin Fetchit's very name implies servility and borderline mental defectiveness.  Even as late as the 1960's Screamin' Jay Hawkins pranced about on prime-time TV, grunting "voodoo", in a get-up that came straight out of 1920s' witch doctor movies. There were lots of acts like these then, many of them white folks pretending to be what they were not. But what was the psychological toll of demeaning oneself and living a lie? These acts weren't harmless fun because they reinforced racist values.  At least, Oppus seems to have broken away. By the 1940's he's seen in photos doing a straight act.  Others didn't, some trapped in tragic fantasy. I don't know what happened to Alfredo Oppus, but I'm glad he saw past illusion.

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