originally published May 17, 2014
Before plopping my be-Speedo’ed word-butts onto the winding waterslide of today’s twisted topic, I’d like to point out that I never intended to pen a disquisition on any Youtube celebrity or trendy viral video. That was before I encountered The Bus Uncle.
The Bus Uncle is no Numa Numa, and he’s no Leeroy Jenkins. In fact I’d wager that none but a few folks in this hemisphere have ever heard of him. But in Hong Kong, the participants in this video each had a lively and strange fifteen minutes of fame. The spotlight upon their encounter prompted an entire society to examine itself, to question its mores and the tensile mesh of public etiquette. In fact, the story after the video is far more engrossing than the video itself.
Youtube has expanded to the point where one can lose an entire afternoon watching nothing but trampoline accidents; a public transit shouting match is not likely to rocket up the hits parade in 2014 unless it involves violence, a celebrity, or possible demonic possession.
51-year-old unemployed restaurant worker Roger Chan was having a lousy day. He’d had an argument with his girlfriend, and his stress level was set to boil over like an unchecked pot of angst-ridden soup. He was on his cellphone – allegedly talking to the Samaritans, a hotline specifically for people with emotional distress. Then a young uppity kid named Elvis Ho tapped him on the shoulder, asking for him to be a little quieter. That was when shit got real.
Roger turned around and began bellowing at Elvis for having disturbed his phone call. What began as a spittle of inconvenience became a deluge of misplaced rage and machine-gun profanity. Elvis conceded to a modest apology, but when he chastised Roger for having brought Elvis’s mother into the scream-fest, Roger ramped up again and kept going. Most of the exchange was captured by 21-year-old accountant Jon Fong Wing Hang on his cellphone camera and later embellished with Cantonese and English subtitles.
The translation is apparently accurate, though slightly off, grammar-wise:
Here’s a link to the video if you’d like to see it for yourself. Somehow this exchange became the Rebecca Black of the moment in Hong Kong culture, launching public discussions on etiquette and manners while making minor celebrities of its stars. The video was known as ‘Bus Uncle’ because of the fictive kinship tradition in Hong Kong, where it’s common to refer to an older man as ‘uncle’. Roger and Elvis weren’t actually related, though now they were connected forever through the bond of public spectacle.
Roger, the titular ‘uncle’, was not thrilled about having his ugliest side broadcast onto every PC monitor and laptop screen in the country. That said, he tried to make the best of the opportunity, asking for payment for interviews and looking for some way to cash in on this phenomenon. You see, Roger had been unemployed for about a decade at this point, living off welfare and struggling to get by. So in the immediate afterglow of the video breaking, he approached Elvis Ho with an apology for his behavior and an offer to make some cash off the whole thing.
That’s Elvis Ho, screaming at Roger to get the hell out of his office and demanding that the flock of reporters with him hand over their business cards in case Elvis decides he wants to sue. Roger had proposed a ‘Bus Uncle Rave Party’ – a public appearance in front of Hong Kong’s hip youth and pretty ecstasy pills. To put it bluntly, Elvis was not on board.
Next Magazine, the number-one news magazine in the country, interviewed Roger and even slapped his mug on the front cover in early June. Things were looking up for the guy; not only was he famous but he’d picked up a job as a public relations officer for the Steak Expert restaurant chain. Then, a week after the magazine cover story, his life took yet another turn when a trio of masked men stormed into the restaurant where Roger was working, beat him savagely in front of witnesses, then took off. No idea why.
If that wasn’t bad enough (and it should be), the wife of the restaurant chain’s owner was very displeased over her husband’s hiring of the Bus Uncle. She didn’t mind at first, but there was some sort of ‘incident’ at a karaoke bar (prostitutes may have been involved – I’m reading about it through a palpably murky translation) and I’m sure the public assault didn’t help his case. She took an overdose of pills to voice her discontent through suicide – no, seriously – and as a result, Roger felt pressured to resign.
As Roger’s fame-clock ticked over to the sixteenth minute, all that remained was a succession of media responses and parodies of the tirade that had launched him to stardom. There were references in video games, a number of danceable remixes, t-shirts, ringtones, movie posters and a re-enactment someone shot featuring Darth Vader. TVB television put together a Bus Uncle parody commercial, advertising their coverage of the World Cup that summer. Chinese sitcoms and sketch comedies poked fun at it. But for Roger and Elvis, the ride was over.
The sociological impact of the viral video is actually part of the phenomenon. When Rebecca Black spewed “Friday” into our culture, all we talked about was how grotesquely misshapen the music industry had become, or how she sings with all the aplomb of a special-needs McDonalds worker. But with the Bus Uncle, Hong Kong collectively turned the spotlight on the nature of civic awareness and public etiquette in their society. Surveys were taken, revealing that most adults felt that Roger’s audible cellphone conversation should not have been seen as an impolite act – many people simply speak loudly in public. Journalist Chip Tsao disagreed; he actually referred to phone-talkers like Roger as committing “ear-rape.”
There were also talks about the lack of involvement in the situation by any other passengers, with as many as 47% of respondents in one survey claiming they would not have intervened in the shouting match. And what about the high level of stress and anxiety that was rippling through the Hong Kong populace? Was Roger’s outburst merely indicative of the greater threat – a widespread plague of intermittent explosive disorder? Or was he just being an asshole?
Ultimately, Elvis Ho wanted nothing to do with his new-found fame, while Roger was undoubtedly tickled at having been runner-up “Person of the Year” according to Radio Television Hong Kong. But as he has since drifted back into obscurity, we’ll never know if this weird turn of events was actually a good thing for his life.
At least it gave the rest of us something to chuckle at.