He walked so Shang-Chi could run: How James Hong created a space for Asian American actors when there was none

  • It is fitting that the multiverse-spanning “Everything Everywhere All At Once” features one of the most ubiquitous actors in Hollywood history — James Hong.
  • The sheer multiplicity of roles Hong has played throughout his seven-decade-long career can be attributed to his unyielding resilience and dedication to his craft.Hong also faced racial discrimination throughout the early stages of his career, with one incident costing him a major co-starring role.
  • The dearth of major roles for Asian actors burdened Hong and many of his contemporaries, so they created their own in the form of a theater organization.
  • At 93 years old, Hong’s acting career is still going strong. Just this year, he has appeared in two of the year's biggest films: “Turning Red” and “Everything Everywhere All At Once.”

It is fitting that the multiverse-spanning “Everything Everywhere All at Once” features one of the most ubiquitous actors in Hollywood history — James Hong.

Even if you have never heard of his name, chances are you will recognize one of his performances, ranging from evil sorcerers to CGI geese in over 650 film and television credits. The sheer multiplicity of roles Hong has played throughout his seven-decade-long career can be attributed to his unyielding resilience and dedication to his craft.

Born in 1929 to a family of immigrants in Minneapolis, Hong was first exposed to acting through the rehearsals of a Peking Opera Troupe that took place at his father’s shop. As the leader of the local Hip Sing Tong, Hong’s father dedicated his life to protecting and empowering oppressed Asian Americans – a pursuit that Hong would also embark on later in his acting career.

“[My father] survived fairly well in America being aggressive and being well respected,” Hong told the Los Angeles Times. “You had to be. If you were a nobody you were going to get beaten down to nothing.” 

Hong originally planned to pursue a career in engineering and studied civil engineering at the University of Southern California. His career trajectory shifted when he was drafted into the military.

At Camp Rucker, Hong cultivated a passion for the performing arts by coordinating the camp’s live shows and entertaining soldiers with his impressions.

When he moved to Hollywood to pursue his acting career, Hong’s roles were relegated to racial caricatures such as a Chinese railroad worker and laundryman.

Hong also faced racial discrimination throughout the early stages of his career, with one particularly scarring incident costing him a major co-starring role on “The New Adventures of Charlie Chan,” a popular television show that has aged poorly because the titular character was portrayed by a white actor in yellowface. 

In an interview with “CBS Sunday Morning,” Hong revealed that the show’s star, J. Carrol Nash, went on a racially-charged tirade before firing him — all because Hong missed a single line. 

While Hong spent the 1970s hopping from show to show, from a recurring role on “Kung Fu” to one-off appearances on “Hawaii Five-0,” “Taxi” and “The Rockford Files,” he would eventually land a major role in a blockbuster film as the villainous sorcerer Lo Pan in “Big Trouble in Little China.”

While the role was still a cliche, one-dimensional, oriental evil, Hong worked to humanize the character by interweaving emotional nuance into his performance.    

“Although he was the evil Asian, he was very human in the sense that all he wanted was a girl with green eyes,” Hong told Insider. “I got a chance to do a lot of emotions and explore facets of the character.”

Another example of his extraordinary ability to breathe life into even the most obscure characters is his performance as an eyeball designer named Hannibal Chew in the 1982 Sci-Fi cult-classic “Blade Runner.”

While Chew appears in a mere five minutes out of the film’s 117-minute runtime, Hong mentally crafted an entire backstory for the character so he could bring forth a more authentic and layered performance.

“When I recognized the eyeballs as my children in the replicant’s eyes… he was someone I loved because they are my kids, except until he tried to kill me,” Hong told the Television Academy. “That’s like your own child turning against you.”

Still, the dearth of major roles for Asian actors burdened Hong and many of his contemporaries — so they created their own. 

Banding together with a group of his Asian acting peers, Hong launched a theater organization called the East West Players in 1964 with the mission of creating a space for aspiring Asian actors to perform and tell stories without Hollywood’s stereotypical constraints. The organization counts many of today’s brightest Asian stars as its alumni, including Daniel Dae Kim, John Cho and BD Wong. 

“I was no longer the token Asian in the group. I wasn’t alone anymore—you all share the same experiences, issues, and concerns, and it was very rewarding to experience that,” Wen told Insider.

At 93 years old, Hong’s acting career is still going strong. Just this year, he has appeared in two of the year’s biggest films: “Turning Red” and “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” both of which were groundbreaking for starring Asian-led casts and telling authentic stories of the AAPI experience. 

His performance as Gong Gong in “Everything Everywhere All at Once” is particularly notable because he was finally given free rein to showcase his versatility and range by effortlessly juggling multiple personas and languages as the different variations of the family patriarch.

Most recently, Hong reprised his beloved role as Po’s adoptive father, Mr. Ping, in Netflix’s television spinoff of the animated “Kung Fu Panda” film franchise. In a recent interview with Nextshark, Hong revealed that he found Po’s doting dad to be a far more compelling character than Po’s martial arts mentor Master Shifu, the role he was originally slated to play until it was given to Dustin Hoffman. 

“I liked Mr. Ping a lot better because Mr. Ping has more personality. He’s buffoon and he’s a loving father and he’s a boss and has more facets to his personality rather than the master, who is semi one [dimensional] in the sense that he was mostly very strict,” Hong said.

While famed for his sprawling filmography, James Hong’s most enduring legacy lies within the doors he opened and opportunities he created for aspiring Asian actors. James Hong’s Lo Pans and Hannibal Chews of yesterday walked so that the Shang-Chis and “Crazy Rich Asians” of today could run.

 

Feature image via Great Big Story

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