At First They Laugh . . . : An Unlikely Elvis Banks on Voice

Times Staff Writer

By day, Gary Jung is a mild-mannered, pinstripe-suited banker in Monterey Park. By night, he transforms himself into "L.A.'s first Chinese Elvis impersonator."

Decked out in white satin garb, a rhinestone-studded belt, white bucks and a red scarf, Jung has played to incredulous--if not amazed--audiences from the conservative corners of Pasadena to the trendy reaches of the Westside.

"No one looks more unlike Elvis than me," conceded Jung, a short, pudgy man with thinning hair. "I go up there and people think I'm joking."

Last weekend Jung was belting out "Blue Suede Shoes," "Don't Be Cruel" and other Elvis standards to the mostly college-age patrons in the Be-Bop Cafe at Popcorn's, a Marina del Rey night spot that features 1950s-style decor complete with posters of Elvis, Marilyn Monroe and James Dean.

No one laughed for long.

What he lacks in stature and physical resemblance to Presley, Jung makes up for in his deep baritone incantations, which are eerily similar to those of the man whose fans called him the king of rock 'n' roll.

"When I start to sing," Jung said, "they're just amazed. Even my friends and family are astounded. Sometimes even I'm amazed how much we sound alike."

One Elvis fan in her 40s, after listening to Jung's rendition of "It's Now or Never," thought Jung sounded too good to be true.

"I can't believe he's not lip-syncing (silently mouthing words to a recording)," she said.

Not that Jung's Presley shtick was an instant hit with everyone.

A stewardess from New York called it the "second most ridiculous act" she'd seen in Los Angeles. (The first, she said, was a band at a Mexican restaurant in Redondo Beach that played real instruments but lip-synced the words to all their songs.)

To Jung, a 26-year-old operations officer at Cathay Bank, the fact that audiences don't believe he's really doing the singing is the sincerest form of flattery. He spends countless hours listening to Presley's records and observing his movies and other video performances to copy the voice, speech patterns and body language--down to the hip gyrations that earned Presley the nickname Elvis the Pelvis.

Jung says he has the skills and the confidence to make it to the big time; all he needs is to refine the marketing of his talent.

And "The Break."

Meantime, his weekend jobs don't pay a lot of money, but he expects that they will open doors. Jung, who was born the same date as Elvis--Jan. 8--but 24 years later, believes that the recent publicity about Presley's 50th birthday is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to boost his career.

"My long-term (ambition) is to headline or do an opening act for someone in Vegas," he said. "I'd quit banking and never look back. I don't think his music will ever die. It's (already) 25 years old. I help keep the memory alive."

Jung says his novelty act is a release from the daily office grind. "I get a little nervous backstage," he said, "but I'm in total control on stage."

Although he never saw Elvis perform live, the Hong Kong-born resident of Boyle Heights spent a good part of his childhood mimicking him in front of a mirror. Jung refined his act after joining a talent group at USC, where he earned a bachelor's degree in business administration. He performed with a live band in college, but now is accompanied by recorded music arranged the same way it was for Elvis.

Ron Smith, president of Ron Smith Celebrity Look Alikes Co. in Beverly Hills, said Elvis impersonators are common, but a Chinese imitator is rare.

"I've come across some funny things," Smith said, "but I would say a Chinese Elvis impersonator would be one of the more unusual things."

Jung, who also impersonates Paul Anka and does Julio Iglesias, complete with Spanish accent, says his parents have had reservations about his bid for show biz fame.

"They're old-fashion Chinese," he said.

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