'Bus Uncle' craze in Hong Kong reflects city stress

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

HONG KONG -- While riding public bus 68X on the night of April 29, Elvis Ho tapped the shoulder of a passenger sitting in front of him who was talking on a cellphone. The 23-year-old Mr. Ho asked the man to lower his voice. Mr. Ho called him "uncle," a familiar way of addressing an elder male in Cantonese.

Instead of complying, the man turned around and berated Mr. Ho for nearly six minutes, peppering his outburst with obscenities.

"I've got pressure, you've got pressure!" the older man exploded. "Why did you have to provoke me?" A nearby passenger who found the encounter interesting captured most of it on video with his own cellphone, and the video found its way on to the Web.

"Bus Uncle," as the older man is now known, has since become a Hong Kong sensation. The video (including subtitled versions) has been downloaded more than five million times from YouTube.com, a popular Web site for online video clips.

Teenagers and adults alike sprinkle their conversations with phrases borrowed from Bus Uncle's rant, such as "I've got pressure!" and "It's not over!" (shouted when the young man tried to end the conversation several times by saying, "It's over"). Also, there are several insults involving other people's mothers. Web sites peddle T-shirts with a cartoon of Bus Uncle and the famous phrases. They are also available as mobile-phone ring tones.

Fans have edited the footage into music-video versions of disco, rap and pop songs that have themselves become popular online. One video projects a slowed-down version of Bus Uncle's voice over an image of Darth Vader. Another sets Bus Uncle audio clips atop Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings," beginning with a title that says, "All he wanted to do ... was to talk on his phone and relax from his stress ... but someone HAD to tap him on the back."

Jon Fong, the 21-year-old accountant and night-school psychology student who captured the bus nightmare on his Sony Ericsson cellphone, has become famous, too. Mr. Fong has told reporters that he often takes videos as a hobby, and had just planned on sharing this one with friends. "Next time I'll put myself in the frame," he told Hong Kong's Cable TV news.

The Internet has allowed the Bus Uncle video to join a slew of other instant amateur films in attracting a global audience. But here in Hong Kong, it has a special resonance. For many, Bus Uncle personifies the stresses of life in their city.

At a recent dinner with friends, Hillman Lam asked one to pass a drink. His friend jokingly declined, and Mr. Lam, a 24-year-old ad salesman at a newspaper, said, "Hey, I've got pressure," eliciting laughs from his companions, he recalls.

"When I say it, everybody knows what I am referring to," says Mr. Lam. "The video focused on what Hong Kong people are always thinking: that we have lots of pressure. It's a fast-paced society."

For 42-year-old Sherry Lee, tending a small stationery shop next door to where Mr. Ho has his own real-estate agency, Bus Uncle struck a similar chord. The fast pace of Hong Kong is so ingrained in her that "any time I visit someplace else, like Japan or Korea, I notice people are slow," she says. "I just want to kick them."

The government plans to use Bus Uncle as a "teaching example" for a Web site on moral and civic education where the incident can be discussed "from multiple perspectives," says a spokesman for the city's Education and Manpower Bureau.

While the event was entirely nonviolent, many agree Bus Uncle wasn't exactly a model of public etiquette. Tang Ming-Wah, a security guard who lives alone in a 6.5-square-meter room, says Bus Uncle didn't behave according to the accepted social rules of Hong Kong. "Hong Kong people are usually quite polite and won't shout on the phone," said 48-year-old Mr. Tang, while riding recently on the same 68X bus route used by Bus Uncle. "But unlike the kid, I would have used peer pressure" by asking other passengers to help quiet him down, he says.

In fact, Mr. Ho has drawn no small amount of flak for how he handled himself on that fateful day, particularly for not defending himself -- and his mother -- more aggressively.

"My friends wonder how I could have the patience to take his abuse," Mr. Ho says. "Some of them would have fought back." He says he takes inspiration from tai chi, the Chinese martial art that emphasizes slow motion and meditation.

But his patience is wearing thin.

"I am under pressure now -- from reporters. I have seen over 40 so far," he says.

The city, after all, boasts some of the densest urban residential areas on the planet and an intensity that many people find exhausting. On some of the small buses nicknamed "flying cars of death" that many people use as public transportation, there are giant speedometers that let passengers berate the driver when he goes too fast. In interviews with the Hong Kong press, a psychologist helped popularize the term "intermittent explosive disorder" to describe the kind of road rage felt by people who take public transportation.

Bus Uncle's identity remained a mystery for well over a month, even as the impact of his video spread. Local reporters staked out the neighborhood at the end of the 68X bus line in search of the man. A week and a half ago, reporters from Next magazine found him: Roger Chan, 51, who lives in a 33-square-meter apartment nearby with five cats.

Mr. Chan said Tuesday, "Somebody knocked on my door (and said) 'Hey, are you Mr. Chan? You know that you are very popular right now? We want to have an interview with you!"

Mr. Chan tells some lively stories. He says he once won about $2.5 million in a lottery, and then lost it all to gambling. He says he was imprisoned three times in Europe, and ended up carving fruit for Belgian royalty.

Only one part of his story was immediately verifiable. A government spokesman confirms that Mr. Chan did try unsuccessfully to run for office as Hong Kong's chief executive in 2005.

Of the tales Mr. Chan tells about his life, it is his political aspirations that have most caught people's imaginations. When newspaper columnist Chip Tsao watches the Bus Uncle video, he sees a commentary on Hong Kong's struggle for democracy. "Let's not forget what this uncle said: this crisis is not resolved," Mr. Tsao said on a public radio talk show recently. "This Bus Uncle is a good social spokesman."

Mr. Chan says that all his recent success has made him interested again in being a chief executive of a different sort. "I don't want to be a clown of politics," he says. "Now I want to be the chief executive of Steak Expert," he says, referring to his two-day-old job as a public-relations representative for a chain of about 40 Hong Kong steakhouses.

Tuesday night, Mr. Chan held court at a branch in Hong Kong's Wan Chai neighborhood, sitting before a half dozen flashing cameras for an interview with Miss Hong Kong runner-up-turned-TV-personality Queenie Chu. At the end of the interview, he sang for her in French the song "Ca Va Pas Changer Le Monde" -- "That Will Not Change the World."

Bus Uncle's final wisdom: "I feel that this is a wave I am riding. I caught the chance to ride on it and look forward to my future ... This had a kind of negative beginning. Hopefully it will have a positive ending."


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?