Uncle Ng Comes to America 伍伯來金山

The Asian American Arts Centre is proud to announce that the completed book "Uncle Ng Comes to America", co-edited by Bell Yung and Eleanor Yung, is now available on Amazon.com.

This multimedia publication on the narrative songs from southern China brings together audio recordings, documentary video, song texts and their English translation, and introductory essays. The songs, recorded in the early 1990s in New York City by the Asian American Arts Centre, were sung by Ng Sheung Chi, or Uncle Ng, of Toisan County (Taishan in Mandarin) in the Pearl River Delta. A farmer all his life but also a superb singer of a type of narrative folksong called muk’yu (“wooden fish”), Ng immigrated to New York in 1979 at the age of 69, and continued to sing his beloved muk'yu songs, on Chinatown street corners, in neighborhood parks, and in community centers.

The original recordings and the video documentary, part of the Asian American Arts Centre's work to collect, document, and exhibit community arts, were meant to preserve Uncle Ng's artistry and captures precious moments of his singing and ruminations about life and music. As a result of the AAAC's video documentary featuring Uncle Ng in 1992, Uncle Ng became the first Chinese American to receive a National Heritage Fellowship. Today this current publication is a testimony to Uncle Ng not only as a singer of unheralded folk music in its pristine form, but also of the Asian American Arts Centre’s tenacity to its local cultural goals.

伍伯(伍尚熾)原籍廣東省台山縣錦被村,務農出 生,幼年即善唱木魚,在家鄉人人樂聽,個個愛 戴。他 69 歲時(1979年)移民紐約,閒居無事, 經常在唐人街的公園、街頭、老人院等處唱木魚娛 己娛人,為僑居紐約的眾多台山人帶來鄉音。紐約 市的亞美藝術中心熱衷於搜集、保存、推廣、和研 究美國亞裔居民的藝術,深感伍伯的木魚歌內容豐 富,音樂性強,除了有其獨特的民間文學和音樂價 值外,更見證了南中國珠江三角州的歷史、文化、 和社會。且伍伯演唱造詣精深,是中國民間藝術家 的佼佼者;但後繼無人,木魚歌因社會變遷而即將 成絕響。藝術中心遂於1989年開始把伍伯的木魚歌 全部錄音,更以他為主題拍攝電影記錄片一套,使 伍伯的音、容得以流傳於世。本書收集伍伯木魚歌 八首,包括早年華人在美國掘金的血淚故事“金山 論”,伍伯自作木魚歌“伍伯來金山”,和著名口傳 方言文學“第八才子書花箋記”中三章。書中附 有八首木魚歌的原錄音光碟和電影記錄片光碟,全 部漢語歌詞和英語翻譯,及三篇介紹木魚和伍伯的 英語文章。

The book is accompanied by a 1 hour CD of Chinese folk music sung by Uncle Ng. The CD includes the following songs & the complete accurate text of the lyrics in Chinese and English:

  • "Uncle Ng Comes to Gold Mountain"
  • "Toisan Embroidery Song"
  • "Nephew's Letter from the Gold Mountain"
  • "The Story of Gold Mountain"
  • "Eighth Scholar"
  • "Liang's Yearning"
  • "Swearing Their True Love"
  • "Testifying the Past"
  • "Award Acceptance Song, Washington D.C."

Three informative articles complete this CD package. Excerpt passages can be seen below.

"Introduction: Singing to Remember" by Robert Lee

When I first met Mr. Ng Sheung Chi, he was singing in the community park for his own enjoyment as much as for anyone who was listening. He sang a form of folk song that I had never heard before. Some songs were zesty; others were gentle, even tender. Clearly he loved to sing, and he certainly wasn't bashful. He walked back and forth as he gestured, emphasizing his lines with his hands. A thin man with a ready smile, he dressed in many layers, as common seniors do. As I got to know him and the world he opened for me, I learned that his kind, humorous and heartwarming manner, and the joy he took in life were prized facets of rural village culture.

Uncle Ng was born in 1910 in Gum Foon, a small village in Tai San County, which was one of the major emigration areas to the United States for more than 150 years. Before Uncle Ng immigrated to the U.S. in 1979, he spent most of his years working in the fields as a farmer. He learned to sing what is called Muk-yu songs when he was only seven or eight years old by listening and imitating other villagers. "I sang whatever came to my mind at the moment." Tai San Muk-yu (wooden fish) is one genre of narrative songs popular among rural folks for more than three hundred years. Later he copied by hand, texts of Muk-yu to enlarge his repertory. At the age of eighteen, Uncle Ng was a well-known Muk-yu singer among his fellow villagers. "When I sang, even the birds would fly down to listen to my singing."

The rhythms and texts of Muk-yu songs are intimately descriptive of Tai San people's experiences and sensibility. Chinese Americans from this area can recall as they listen to songs both delicate and strong, an era of calm enjoyments and pleasing pastimes. The sorrows they experienced also find expression, as in "Embroidery Song" for an example. Uncle Ng's Muk-yu singing reflects a part of the American historical experience and the meaning of being Chinese in America.

The Arts Centre produced a video documentary on Uncle Ng in 1990 entitled, "Singing to Remember" which traveled to many video festivals. In 1992 he was named a recipient of the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship, and became the first Chinese American to receive such an award. Uncle Ng, along with twelve other master practitioners of a traditional art or craft, was recognized for making "valuable artistic contributions both to their local communities and the country as a whole. They give vivid testimony to the creative genius of the many peoples who compose our nation." During a US Congressional reception, he met then President Bush and later at a gala public performance of about 700 Washington bureaucrats, in response to a love song and his "Award Acceptance Song," he received remarkable enthusiasm and what can only be considered a standing ovation. At 82 years of age he was still a performer who could capture his audience with his simplicity, directness and charm.

"Muk'yu: Voice of the People" by Bell Yung

A large and important catagory of (Chinese) music is called quyi, literally "song-art," which is also referred to as shuochang, literally "speaking-singing." Often translated in English as Narrative Songs, the quyi consists of songs which tell stories in poetic verse, often half-sung and half-spoken in performance, and for centuries served two major social functions: as popular entertainment in the pre-technological age and as a form of mass education. Until this century, the vast majority of the Chinese people were illiterate or semi-literate; quyi offers them a view of the wider world, and plays a major role in giving the Chinese people a shared sense of history, myths, and mores to forge a cultural identity.

One distinctive feature -- muk'yu songs are generally sung by ordinary people for their self-enjoyment: men and women, at work or at leisure, singing mainly to and for himself or herself. These songs are enjoyed for their own sake, and may be truly called grassroot voices of the people...

Uncle Ng comes from the county of Toisan, which has a long history of sending young men to work in North America--the Gold Mountain. Naturally there developed a repertory of muk'yu songs with that subject matter. In poetic text and simple tunes, they express the anxiety, longing, and hardship of both the sojourners and their family back in China. In particular, "Story of Gold Mountain" ... In vivid details, ... is a valuable record of the trials and tribulations of several generations of overseas Chinese laborers in the United States...

"History as Reflected in Song" by Betty Lee Sung

For the early Chinese immigrants who came to America to open up and develop a new nation, life was more than rough. It was downright brutal. Many of them emigrated out of poverty. They had been farmers, but the land could no longer feed them or their families. Some bound themselves into eight years of indentured servitude simply to gain passage to America.

The trip from southern China to California by boat was no bargain either. They were herded into the ship's hold like cattle with little air or light, and then thrown and tossed about when waves rocked the vessels. Finally reaching land, they would come ashore, only to be locked up in prison-like detention centers, such as Angel Island, where they were interrogated until immigration inspectors determined whether they would be admitted.

At that time, the Chinese population was almost all male, a so-called bachelor's society. This meant no feminine companionship, no warmth of family, no children to ease the burden of a day's hard work... The Page Act of 1875, decreed that any woman with American citizenship would lose that citizenship if she married an alien. This deterred American women from marrying anyone Chinese,... Is it any wonder that those men who were literate composed verses that mirrored their experiences, pouring out their souls?! Some of the lines were carved on the walls of Angel Island, and others were set to song following the muk'yu pattern of syllables and rhyme.

Additional information about Uncle Ng is presented below. These are not found in the CD package, but were presented to an audience during the launch of the multimedia publication.

Who was UNCLE NG

Uncle Ng was Ng Sheung Chi. He was born in 1910 into a peasant family, in a small village in Toisan county in Kwangtung Province of South China. He was the second of 4 children. Like most boys at that time, he had 4 years of education and like most boys growing up, he worked in the fields since childhood.

However, what set Uncle Ng apart from most people, was that he loved to sing. And since a child, he sang muk-yu songs, constantly. In the beginning, he sang any song he could find. Then when he was a little older, he started writing his own songs. He wrote of his experiences and his hopes and longings. Although he only had limited education, that did not deter him. Instead, he developed great story telling skills in his songs. He would copy his songs many times and bind them in traditional style into many books, which he would carry a copy with him everywhere he went. He developed excellent calligraphic style.

He married Yuen-yee Wong in 1936 and over the years, had 8 children. In 1979 when he was 69 years old, he left China for Hong Kong, and in 1981 immigrated to Maryland in the United States. Two years later in 1983, he settled in New York City and lived in New York Chinatown in the Senior citizen housing complex. Because of his age, he was unable to find work, even though he thought he would and could. Instead, with ample time on his hands, he continued to sing and to write songs. He would sing in the park, where sometimes he found companion singers and they would sing duets, and laugh together. He would sing in the Senior centers, where he would perform and received huge applauses. He would sing while walking on the street, and sometimes selling his homemade sound tapes on the corner for whoever interested to buy. He was a regular in many senior hangout spots in Chinatown, and shopkeepers would recognize him as the muk’yu singer.

He was the focus of the documentary “Singing to Remember” produced in 1991 by the Asian American Arts Centre, which we saw a clip earlier. The Arts Centre had a Folk Arts Program that preserve, document, and promote Chinese folk arts and folk artists, of which Professor Yung was the Advisor. The film directed by Tony Heriza, captured Uncle Ng’s charm, and won quite many screenings including the Margaret Mead Festival. The Arts Centre submitted the film to the National Endowment for the Arts, and in 1992, Uncle Ng was among the winners of the prestigious National Heritage Award. He was the first Chinese American to receive this honor. For this occasion, he performed in Washington DC in front of a Washingtonian audience who gave him a standing ovation, and met the then senior President George Bush. It was an exciting occasion for him. His recognition was reported in all the Chinese media in New York City. With the grant award, he had wanted to return to China for a visit, but because of his age, decided not to do that. Instead he continued to walk around in Chinatown and sang to his heart content.

In 1996, San Francisco Chinese Cultural Foundation invited him to perform. He was the guest of honor and received another standing ovation.

Six years later, in 2002, Uncle Ng passed away at the age of 93 in New York City. He was survived by his wife, 8 children, and 19 grandchildren.


Uncle Ng was an immigrant. His songs represent voices of millions of immigrants through the ages, from China and elsewhere, who had journeyed to the new world. These songs told the stories that were not always recorded or noted in the people’s collective consciousness. Many of these stories reflect sojourners' hardship, longing, and loneliness that cannot be found in history books. They were the untold history of the early Chinese Americans. Because Uncle Ng sang with such keen observation, great sensitivity, and heartfelt emotion, they resonate with many people who had a similar experience and instill interest in many others. Uncle Ng has a great voice and innate superb musicianship even though he had no formal training. He was one of the last great folksingers.

Uncle Ng not only sang ancient and traditional songs, but he was also a songwriter creating new songs based on personal experience. While coming to America, he wrote the song "Uncle Ng Comes to the Gold Mountain," and when receiving an award for his artistry, he wrote the song "Fellowship Acceptance Song, Washington D.C." These songs reflect contemporary experiences of Chinese Americans in the muk’yu genre, which is rare to say the least. In these songs, we have concrete examples of oral composition by folk musicians in action.

Yet his favorite was the classic "The Floral Writing Paper," which had no recording prior to Uncle Ng. And here we have it. His artistry, both as a singer and a songwriter, brings this genre to the forefront and lends it significance in both musicality and content.

Since the time of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-60s, and with recent technological advancements and shifting tastes in popular culture, the muk’yu form is in danger of becoming extinct. Preservation of Uncle Ng’s songs is both a necessity and an opportunity. The original material collected in this publication will be of great significance to studies of folklore, oral literature, music, and, in particular, to histories of early Chinese immigrants to America. Through the audio recording, we have a voice to the texts. And through the documentary film, we have a face and personality to the singer.

China has been rapidly changing, especially in recent decades. With urbanization, new forms of entertainment and mass media, Muk’yu could hardly be expected to be sung anymore in the way it was sung by Uncle Ng a century ago. In Uncle Ng’s day when it was still being sung, it was sung only by ordinary folks for their own enjoyment or to entertain friends and each other. Because there was no commercial value, muk’yu songs were never recorded, let alone published. The songs selected for this volume, and the others sung by Uncle Ng in the archive of the Asian American Arts Centre, are very likely unique. In preserving, documenting, and promoting Uncle Ng’s singing, the Asian American Arts Centre fulfills its mission as a community arts organization in bringing awareness and recognition of community art and life. In completing this project, the Arts Centre has provided a window for American-born Chinese to access a sensibility that was once theirs.