Sunday, December 14, 2014

Rediscovering Nee Wong


Finally, the kind of story we like to sink our teeth into around here at Ukulelia.

We recently ran across this video of an unidentified ukulele player, which is remarkable for several reasons. Here's what seems to be known about the film.

This early talkie was produced by Theodore Case, inventor of the sound-on-film system later marketed as the Movietone sound system. Movietone's big competitor was Vitaphone, which relied on sound recorded on phonograph-style disks, and which required a certain amount of skill on the part of the projectionist to ensure that the sound was synched up with the film. Because Movietone recorded audio to the film stock directly via an optical process, the result was superior synchronization.

This film archive indicates that the film was probably shot after 1925, and lists the subject as:
"A variety performer dressed in traditional Chinese garb sings “Yes Sir, That’s My Baby” while accompanying himself on ukulele."
A little sleuthing on our part leads us to identify the performer as vaudeville performer Nee Wong. Wong is described in contemporary billing as "a regular Chinese 'Ukulele Ike'" and "The Gentleman of the Orient":
"One of vaudeville's most talented entertainers in Nee Wong, a lackadaisical young Chinese (sic). Nee Wong can make a ukelele (sic) talk. He sings American songs and translates them into Chinese, giving his audience a little lesson in Chinese pronunciation." Link
And:
"Nee Wong, the Chinese entertainer, evidently has captured England.This fact is attested by the glowing reviews in the English dailies and the trade papers. Nee is modest about his success. In a letter he writes simply and directly: 'The audiences where I have played seem to like my style of working immensely and I will continue to try and entertain them in other places where I am booked.' The London Stage thought him better than ordinary and had this to say relative to his debut: 'Nee Wong, described as Gentleman of the Orient, has an important place in the programme. He has unusual gifts as a player of the ukulele and a confidential style in conversation that is not without its appeal.' The Encore was equally enthusiastic. Anyway, Wong's services are much in demand, as he is also headed for Paris for an indefinite stay." Link
Here's the only photo we've been been able to find of Nee Wong, from the sheet music cover of There's a Little White House on a Little Green Hill. This is the best resolution we could achieve, but we're pretty sure that based on date of the sheet music (1926) and the descriptions of Wong's act that we're looking at the same performer here as in the video.


Back to the video. What we love about this short is its high resolution and excellent audio synch. (Compare it to the early Vitaphone short we unearthed seven years ago here.) Wong plays with a finger-thumb double strum technique that we often hear on recordings of Wong's contemporaries like Frank Crumit. Take advantage of YouTube's playback speed options to watch Wong at half-speed (click on the little gear icon). The audio remains synched at normal pitch and you can see exactly how he's executing his strums.

If anyone has any further information about Nee Wong, please leave a comment or drop us an email.

23 comments:

Ron Hale said...

When I saw this a while back, Gary,
I thought it wasn't only an historical gem, but, also,
a good music video which easily
competes with today's product.

Deserving of being featured here.

Anonymous said...

See this thread on UU for info on his uke
http://forum.ukuleleunderground.com/showthread.php?59303-Martin-Style-2-quot-Prince-Wong-quot&highlight=Wong
H

Tom Walsh said...

Gary -

Thanks for the very interesting and informative post. I had seen the Nee Wong video, but didn't know who the performer was.

After some more searching here is what I found:
His real name is Alfredo Oppus, and he was born on December 25th, 1895 in Baclayon, a province of Bohol in the Philippines.

Searching under his real name leads to articles about him working on the campaign of a Filipino labor organizer in 1938 and organizing a show to raise funds to provide recreational facilities for a Filipino battalion that was being trained In California for war service during World War II.
The article about the show states that he will perform: "As Nee Wong, the gentleman from the Orient, Oppus will impersonate the gaits and mien of he Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino as observed by an Occidental at the cross roads of Oriental San Francisco."

Thanks again for the great read.


Gary said...

Anonymous: Pretty sure Prince Wong was a different person.

Tom: Where'd you run across that find?! Amazing.

Gary said...

Also, here's a photo of Nee Wong from a burlesque sideshow date in Florida. http://digital.lib.usf.edu/SFS0006779/00001

Tom Walsh said...

One of your links is from the Fultonhistory.com website. Searching on "Nee Wong" on that same site led to a link to this article:

http://tinyurl.com/m7vhcnm

which mentions his real name. From there it was ancestry.com which had passenger lists (he traveled through Hawaii a number of times). Also, newspapers.com seemed to have some other articles, but I do not have a subscription there. Still, you can read much of the text of the article through their site.

By the way, great find on the photos - I had never seen either of them.

Anonymous said...

Niagara Falls ad featuring Nee Wong. Upper left corner

http://fultonhistory.com/newspaper%208/Niagara%20Falls%20NY%20Gazette/Niagara%20Falls%20NY%20Gazette%201926%20Oct-Dec%20Grayscale/Niagara%20Falls%20NY%20Gazette%201926%20Oct-Dec%20Grayscale%20-%200254.pdf

Anonymous said...

Found here some more about Nee Wong

http://grammophon-platten.de/e107_plugins/jokes_menu/index.php?0.view.25.0

Also with a better picture of him. Born 1892, not 1895.

dong dong said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
easyukulelesongs.com said...

Great classic uke song. Shows that the uke has been around for some time...

John said...
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Hua Cai said...
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DannyFlix said...

Thank you for this info. And thank you for linking my video. I've made an update to the info on youtube and provided a link to this blog. Great work.

John said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Gary said...

You're welcome, DannyFlix.

Sorry to have missed yoru comment. It got lost in a bunch of spam.

Gp

Kevin Fox said...

It has to be after 1927 being that's when film and audio came together.

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