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.