Quick–who’s your favorite Asian American actor? How about who’s your favorite Chinese-Minnesotan actor? This dude, I’ll bet.
James Hong turned 93 this year, and he’s been acting since before the Korean War. In honor of Asian American & Pacific Islander month, it seemed only fitting to celebrate a gentleman who has had to play That Chinese Guy for seven decades. He only just got the star he deserved.
Number One Son
Hong was born in Minnesota in 1929. His father owned a restaurant. James spent a few of his early years in Hong Kong but came back home and completed high school in the land of golden gophers, making pies and serving coffee at dad’s business. Apparently, he hung out with the drill team helping with their sets and props. While he studied civil engineering at USC initially, his interest was more in their acting school.
I must interject to point out that my mother was born in 1930 in the Midwest and also went to high school less than a hundred miles away. She was a cheerleader before she got a Ph.D. in American Studies. Maybe they saw each other across the football field! Cheerleading and being part of the drill team were clearly handled by different cliques by the time I was in high school.
James finished the engineering degree, which sounds more like his parents’ idea than his, and worked as a road engineer in LA, acting on the weekends. He then went into the army during the Korean War (my father, same age, was sent to Germany during the Cold War). While he was in basic training, the army assigned him to Special Services, the entertainment division. They realized, as he did, that the Korean troops would likely shoot at him in a U.S. uniform, and that his own troops might as well. Better to have him tell jokes, do skits. Something tells me he always played the hapless Korean.
LA wasn’t close to his Minnesota home, but it was close to Hollywood. After he was discharged from the army, he started right in to roles in TV, like with Jane Wyman in “The Bamboo Cross,” directed by John Ford. Appearing on the Groucho Marx show, he won $140 doing impressions like Jimmy Cagney and Peter Lorre. Supposedly, he received the second-highest fan mail in the show’s history.
In the mid ’50s, he got a bigger break. He was hired to play Number One Son opposite the TV version of Charlie Chan. Chan in the movies was played by Warner Oland, who was Swedish. On TV, he was played by J. Carrol Naish, who was Irish. Even then, it was hard for Asians to get Asian roles.
But Hong landed the role and played it perfectly for three years. But one day, he missed a cue and flubbed a line, and Naish yelled that he wasn’t running an acting school for Chinese actors. And Hong was fired.
Never a Big Break
But he kept working. The vast majority of the roles were with thick Asian accents–he speaks perfect English–but it was work. “I Spy” at least hired him for multiple roles: the Fortune Teller, Dr. Hok, and The Curator. He also had several stints on “Hawaii Five-O” and on “Kung Fu.” Yet “Kung Fu” never hired him for a recurring role, so he was still doing one-off villains, henchmen, restaurant owners, and so forth. In one episode of “Kung Fu,” only half the credited actors are Asian, so even with that groundbreaking series of 1976, they couldn’t give enough work to the Asian actors.
Hong did start the East West Players, an Asian American theater company, to help provide roles, promote actors, and give more visibility to Asian roles. He also credits his Minnesota roots. Growing up in an urban Chinatown, he was comfortable with his culture. He says that California had far more ingrained racism, even though–or probably because–they had far more Asians in the population. (They championed the Chinese Exclusion Act, etc.)
Big Screen Roles
One of his Hong’s breaks, eye-popping roles you might say, was in Blade Runner in 1982. He plays Dr. Hannibal Chew, the man who created the body parts for the replicants–think androids–which Harrison Ford is hunting. Chew recognizes him immediately when replicant Batty, played by Rutger Hauer, comes into Chew’s freezing shop, hunting for information. “You Nexus? I made your eyes.” And Batty says, “If only you could see what my eyes have seen.”
Hong’s eyes were also the perfect casting choice for John Carpenter, who made him not just a villain but The Villain, the Central Villain, in “Big Trouble in Little China.” That movie has the best opening line ever, Kurt Russell in a semi truck, driving through a rainstorm: “Like I told my ex-wife, I never drive faster than I can see, and besides it’s all in the reflexes.”
Hong plays Lo Pan, a man who has lived for 200 years feasting on the blood of innocent virgins and that sort of thing. But he has a great fight scene with Russell and the entourage of helpers, zapping lasers out of eyes and long pointy fingernails. It’s awesome! I mean, if you’re going to have to play the Chinese villain, you might as well shoot lasers out of your eyes.
If that sounds too scary, then you could also see Hong’s tasty role in “Kung Fu Panda” as well. He plays Mr. Ping, the father of the panda Po. I do recall remember wondering at the time how a duck could father a panda, but it’s a good movie, best not to overthink it. On the other hand, since James Hong grew up working in his father’s restaurant, so he must having flashbacks to his own childhood, when he left the restaurant to go into acting. (Should I mention that the worst Chinese food I ever had was in Minnesota? No? Clearly, we didn’t know where the Hong dominions were in Minneapolis.)
In between more voice work on Jackie Chan’s cartoon show and “Super Robot Monkey Hyperforce Go,” Hong did one well known cameo after another. Always the Chinese ambassador on “West Wing.” An unforgettable stint as the maitre’d at a Chinese restaurant on “Seinfeld.”
Six hundred roles in (he says IMDB doesn’t have them all), he’s still acting.
Finally, a Star Where It Belongs
His latest is in Everything Everywhere All at Once. If you haven’t seen this tour de force for Michelle Yeoh (who I would have profiled except she isn’t Asian-American per se…) well, Why Not? Haven’t your friends raved about it enough? Are you just being stubborn?
Anyway, see the movie! Because Hong has a wonderfully meaty role as Yeoh’s cranky father-in-law, Gong Gong. It’s Gong Gong’s rigid attitudes about his daughter’s responsibility toward him that form the impetus for much of the action of the movie. He eats the role up with a spoon. As he always has.
And one more accolade in 2022. Hong finally got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. This was along with Nipsey Hussel, Carrie Fisher, Michael B. Jordan, and DJ Khaled. He’s the oldest person ever to be honored–meaning it took way too damn long for him to be honored. Actor Daniel Dae Kim led the charge to raise the money and give him the honor. Kim was a beneficiary of Hong’s crusade for more AAPI representation, which is paying off but still too slowly.
I mean no offense to Nipsey Hussel and DJ Khaled, but really? They got stars along with a guy that was has over 600 credits?
To quote Jamie Lee Curtis (sorry, but there’s no other way to say it):
About Fucking TimeJamie Lee Curtis on Hong getting his star at last