You have reached the official site of one of the most well-known
actors in the world. James Hong has been in over 450 feature movies
and TV shows and is still going strong. Mr. Hong has entertained
millions as Lo Pan in "Big
Trouble in Little China",
the voice of Chi Fu in "Mulan",
and appeared opposite popular stars like Harrison Ford in "Blade
and Jack Nicholson in "Chinatown"
His television credentials include Kung-Fu (both
and scores of others.
Versatility has been James Hong's trademark throughout his nearly
forty-five years as an actor and entertainer. His film roles have
ranged from Faye Dunaway's ominous butler in "Chinatown"
to a nerd master in "Nerds in Paradise".
Born in Minneapolis and "becoming too Americanized," Hong was sent
by his father to Hong Kong for a Chinese elementary education. He
returned to the United States shortly before the outbreak of World
War II and entered school in Minneapolis at the age of ten without
knowing a word of English. He somehow caught up, and in college he
studied civil engineering to please his parents. He started at the
University of Minnesota and ultimately graduated from the University
of Southern California.
His first stint in show business was performing in a nightclub
comedy duo with his partner, Don Parker. His flair for comedy led to
a spot as a contestant on "You Bet Your Life," where his
impersonation of host Groucho Marx earned him a contract at a
popular San Francisco club, Forbidden City. After college, he did
work at a Los Angeles civil engineering job for a while. He quit the
instant he was cast into three feature films, the first with Clark
Gable in "Soldier
and the third one being the 1955 hit "Love
is a Many Splendored Thing"
with William Holden and Jennifer Jones.
Despite the scarcity of roles for Asian-Americans in Hollywood, Hong
worked frequently and landed a regular role on a television series
as Number One Son to J. Carrol Naish on "The
New Adventures of Charlie Chan".
He has been a steadily employed actor ever since. He has also
produced, directed, and distributed feature films, such as
"Catherine's Grove," "The Vineyard," etc. He has many more in the
works, including some in China.
An Interview with
Hong, Man of a Thousand Faces
by Susie Ling
James Hong has been
working fifty years in the Hollywood industry. He has had over 450 roles in
movie and television, perhaps more than any other actor. His first non-credited
role as an Screen Actor's Guild (SAG) member was in "Soldier of Fortune"
starring Clark Gable. He went on in 1955 to play a "communist soldier" in
"Blood Alley" with John Wayne and then a bigger part as "fifth brother" with
William Holden in "Love is a Many Splendored Thing." He did about eight to ten
voices in the movie "Godzilla". He is more well known for his roles in the
1980s and 1990s such as Dr. Chew in "Blade Runner" (1997) and the voice of Chi
Fu in Disney's "Mulan" (1998). A most recognizable Asian actor and voice,
James Hong continues to work in the industry creating more faces and characters.
James Hong was born in
Minneapolis, Minnesota on 22 February 1929:
father, Frank W. Hong, came across the St. Lawrence from Canada. My grandfather
came in the railroad days. When he earned some money, he went back to Toisan to
get married. My father was born in China when grandfather already returned to
the U.S. But they didn't have citizenship or legal rights, so father came as a
"paper son" through Canada to Chicago near the turn of the century.
were too many Chinese in Chicago. They heard that Minneapolis was a good place
to go. My father started in the laundry business in Minneapolis and then became
a restaurant owner. He had a swanky club there during the Depression days that
catered to White people. He owned a lot of restaurants.
became president of the Hip Sing Tong (which rivaled the On Leung Association).
He was a leader in the fight for Chinese American rights. I remember he went to
see the attorney general and all that. That's where I got my aggressive quality
had enough money, he, in turn, returned to Toisan to marry my mother. They were
actually earlier betrothed. As a young girl, she had to live with her
husband-to-be's family to do all the work. Then she was plucked from the
village and brought to Minneapolis – in the middle of nowhere with no
relations. All those early pioneering women went through those difficulties.
lived in downtown Minneapolis. There was a Presbyterian church in Minneapolis
that ran a Sunday school for Chinese Americans. There were about fifty adults
and children in all of the Twin Cities area. I went to that school a lot with
Miss Brown and Miss May who taught piano. It was the only time I got any real
Christmas presents – a red wagon."
James was five years old, his father returned the family to Hong Kong for fear
that they were assimilating into American lifestyle too fast. But with World
War II approaching, they re-migrated to Minneapolis when James was ten. James
began performing. His father would encourage him to make patriotic speeches in
Chinese in front of a podium during Sunday meetings. While the family did not
intend for James to take on acting, he joined the drama club in junior high and
high school. While majoring in civil engineering at the University of
Minnesota, James did stand-up comedy. According to James in a separate
interview, "Being Asian American, you couldn't really do any plays… What would
they do with a Chinese American on stage in Shakespeare? In those days, the
thinking was very narrow. So there wasn't a chance to do any plays, drama, and
such. They wanted me in radio, but I didn't want to be just a voice. I wanted
to be seen. And so, I said, 'what’s next to do?' and I loved comedy, so I
started doing impersonations and that got me quite far locally" (Brinkley).
joined up with Donald Parker to establish "Hong and Parker," a stand-up comedic
team. After some local success, Hong and Parker decided to try a bigger market
in Los Angeles, where Hong already had some relatives. They came out to
Hollywood in 1953. Hong enrolled for his senior year at University of Southern
struck by the number of Chinese in college. I joined the student clubs and they
were tightly knitted. I had a lot of fun and learned a lot about Chinese
Americans. LA Chinese were much more cliquish; they clung together for their
social needs. It had good and bad consequences. The circle was small and you
relied too much on your own community and parents. In Minnesota, you had to
survive as you were only one Chinese amongst thousands of Whites. You begin to
think more like a Caucasian. You became more aggressive."
graduation, Hong obtained an engineering position with the Los Angeles County
Road Department. He would use sick leaves and vacation time to do acting.
After a year and a half, Hong quit to do acting fulltime. He never looked back,
working steadily on many movies and television roles.
like other Asian American actors faced much discrimination in the industry, but
he fought back:
formed an informal group of concerned actors. We went down and told the
producer of "Confessions of an Opium Eater" (1962 with Vincent Price) that we
didn't like all the stereotypes of Chinatown and tongs. But Albert Zugsmith
wouldn't listen. A lot of other Chinese worked on that film either because
they needed the money or they didn't see anything wrong. Today, we would
boycott. We had put another group together to see casting directors about
putting more Asian Americans on TV and movies. They said they would try. SAG
union members today are still advocating for minority rights. And it's still
not happening. You don't see too many Asians on TV series. We are still not
getting our fair share of representation. They just give us lip service. At a
recent SAG meeting, I saw about 200 young Asian Americans. They are very
discouraged because there just aren't a lot of roles out there. In the fifty
years I've been in this Hollywood industry, there has been very little
improvement. We need more regulars and guests on good roles in TV series."
Luke said one time to me, 'Jim, you're too impatient. Take your time. Wait
until the Chinese have the atomic bomb and then we'll get noticed.' Well,
Chinese already have the atomic bomb so I guess Keye Luke wasn't exactly right.
China is a world power, but Chinese Americans are still not getting
representation. Sometimes I think if China would buy more American movies and
insist on more fair representation. If China would use their economic power to
push Hollywood to compliance… Still, when Japan was on the top of the economic
market, Japanese Americans didn't exactly benefit either. And China has very
little interest in Chinese American affairs."
Hong credits the 1960-70s Asian American movement for having helped improve
racial understanding, he feels progress has been slow. Hong and other Asian
American actors established East West Players in 1965, an institute dedicated to
encouraging Asian Americans in theater. According to this first and foremost
Asian American theater company, about 75% of Asian American performers in action
unions living in Los Angeles have worked at East West Players.