Elvis Lives! In Many Shapes and Colors : King’s Spirit Infuses Multicultural ‘Elvi’
By day Gary Jung of El Monte is an officer of Gardena’s Sumitomo Bank. By night he’s “The World’s First Chinese Elvis.”
“Elvis inspired me,” said Jung, who came to the United States from Hong Kong when he was 2. “His music and life were like the American dream everyone has.”
Jung has taken his Elvis act to Hong Kong and Japan.
“Asian culture is stereotypically passive and refined, and Elvis comes as a cultural shock,” Jung said. “Just as Elvis’ gyrations shocked 1950s Americans, (my) Elvis moves sometimes shock Chinese audiences at first. But they love to hear me as Elvis, with a Southern drawl. Elvis is truly international.”
Indeed. Cultural diversity is alive and well on the Elvis impersonation front. Elvis clone sightings include Samoan, Cambodian, Moroccan, Korean and American Indian. There is a Mexican-American father-and-son Elvis duo. There are black and Jewish Elvises. They call themselves “Elvi.”
For a few, Elvis is a full-time gig. For others, like Jung, day jobs pay the rent and Elvis is purely a passion. Some are members of the Los Angeles-based Elvis Performers Impersonators International Assn. It’s a sure bet that the 500 Elvis impersonators it has identified worldwide will be busy tonight, on this 16th anniversary of the day Presley died.
The Times recently brought together Jung and eight other ethnically diverse Elvi and within minutes they were harmonizing “Love Me Tender.”
Korean-American Robert Kim of Los Angeles, one of the Elvises in the movie “Honeymoon in Vegas,” began his Elvis career years ago on TV’s “The Gong Show.”
“I faked an accent, and made all the Caucasians think I was a card-carrying Japanese tourist,” said Kim, a fifth-generation American. “Then I put on some dark glasses, and acted as if the spirit of the King had entered my body, miraculously transforming me into Elvis. My idea was to break down prejudices and stereotypes. And I won the $1,000 prize!”
Recently his career as an Elvis impersonator reached new heights. He was hired for two national commercials--not as a Korean Elvis, just as Elvis Presley. It was, Kim said, “a big benchmark in my Elvis career because I wasn’t hired as an Oriental Elvis, but just as the most Elvis-like.”
Kim tried to explain the Presley appeal: “Elvis embodied the American dream. He came up from grinding poverty and was thrust into being a superstar--which is part of what screwed him up--but he always kept that feeling of innocence and of respect for others.”
“Elvis is an American cultural hero,” agreed Ron Stein of Alta Loma, who is a Jewish Elvis. “He was a poor guy who grew up on the wrong side of the tracks. But after he made good he never forgot where he came from or the people who helped him get there.”
Stein has appeared as Elvis in the film “Death Becomes Her” and in countless commercials. This fall his Elvis nightclub show, with its seven back-up singers and nine-piece band, will tour China.
Joel Perez remembered the first time he saw Presley. It was in his homeland of Mexico when Perez was 4, a year before he migrated to California. “We were too poor to have TV, so we’d give a peso to a neighbor to watch his little black-and-white set. . . .
“Onstage, I get the same feeling Elvis had when he was on stage, a feeling of respect and caring for the audience.”
A hospital laundry team leader, Perez has performed Elvis for three years and is also the father of 5-year-old budding Elvis performer Nathan Perez.
“A year ago at an Elvis event, Nathan suddenly exploded doing Elvis moves. The audience all turned around to look at him. They loved it,” said Perez. “He can’t enter most Elvis events because he still lip-syncs, but he’s learning the words to ‘Blue Suede Shoes,’ and we practice together three times a week.”
Sam Leilani of Reseda, the Samoan Elvis, formerly danced with a Polynesian troupe and has just formed a rockabilly band. He calls himself a singer first and Presley fan second, but so popular is his Presley persona that he sometimes fears it could take over his whole career.
“Every month some woman calls from Las Vegas trying to get me to stand behind a glass window at some drive-through wedding chapel, and sing ‘Can’t Help Falling in Love With You,’ ” Leilani said. “I tell her: ‘No way!’ I’m afraid I’d eventually end up in an Elvis Jack-in-the-Box or something.”
Leilani wears traditional Elvis attire from the waist up, with a few leis topping the gold chains around his neck. But from the waist down he’s pure Samoan, in Bermuda shorts and bare feet.
“Like Elvis, I’m different,” Leilani said. “I’m not a white guy, not a black guy, I’m a rock ‘n’ roll-singing Polynesian guy. Polynesians love Elvis. When I perform in Hawaii, I’m their hero.”
C.J. Charlton of Dana Point, a full-blooded Cherokee Indian, is one of 16 Elvis impersonators in the Elvis Assn.'s Elvis Hall of Fame.
Charlton met and later even worked for Elvis.
“At a karate tournament I won in Long Beach in 1972 Elvis came over to say ‘Hi,’ ” he said. “I was working as a cook at Denny’s and got them to transfer me to the Denny’s on Elvis Presley Boulevard near Graceland in Memphis. I hung around until eventually Elvis hired me. For five years I was supposed to be his bodyguard, but I did about everything, even got on his karate team. Had a real good time.”
Pete Peterkin, an African-American Elvis, works for KKBT-FM (92.3), where his job is impersonating Presley and some 100 other celebrities in comic call-ins.
A jazz guitarist and comedian who performs in a 1950s-type zoot suit, Peterkin prefers Elvis’ early songs, with “more of a black sound,” he said. “Elvis had a lot of black fans.”
Kevin Thongpricha of El Monte, who was born in Bangkok where “there are many Elvises,” achieved Presley fame there before bringing his act to this country in 1972. He wears an Elvis-styled jumper with a colorful Thai shirt and flowing sleeves and tinted rhinestone-trimmed aviator glasses.
“Elvis respected his audience; he always got dressed nice. That’s why I get dressed nice too,” said Thongpricha, who sings in English but throws in an occasional Thai phrase.
“Sometimes I feel Elvis’ spirit is helping me. I think wherever his spirit is, it’s kind of following what I’m doing. I told my friends that, and they said: ‘Might be.’ Sometimes in my mind I say to Elvis, ‘Please help me,’ and sometimes he does. Some people say to me: ‘Why don’t you change your act? People are tired of Elvis.’ But I say I’ll never change it. I love him, and I don’t care.”