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The Forgotten Child: A Profile of James Hong in Present Day Los Angeles

The ubiquitous and prolific character actor discusses family, his career, his foray into direction, and the racism of the film industry.
Samuel B. Prime
Above: Debra Winger and James Hong in Black Widow.
For two years, I sent e-mails back and forth with legendary character actor James Hong (Blade Runner, 1982; Big Trouble in Little China, 1986) trying to set-up this interview. Invariably, something would always waylay us: shooting on a film, pre-production on another, or we’d agree to chat on the phone to set the finer details of time and place, then life would get in the way (for one—or both—of us). It’s nobody’s fault, really. The man, he works. But, finally, late on a Monday afternoon in February of this year—Presidents’ Day—we met to speak at length. Five days later, Hong turned 91.
We originally met nearly a decade before, following a screening of a ribald, late seventies sex comedy entitled—unapologetically—Teen Lust (1979), which Hong directed. In spite of its disreputable sub-genre, it read to me as a salacious send-up of suburbia and a surreal, hilarious, and surprisingly sophisticated critique of American culture. I had not laughed so hard during a movie in years. After the screening, I approached Hong and, for only the second time in my life, felt legitimately starstruck. My hands were shaking, but I managed to pass on my contact information and collect his. I still have his business card.
Ten years later, my hands are steady. We’ve met several times for lunches or dinners, produced some live events and screenings together, and—now—sat down for a formal interview. The location: the Corner Bakery Cafe on La Cienega near the Beverly Center. I have only ever been here in Hong’s company. It’s a place I would never think to go to on my own, a place thousands of people pass by every day without a second thought, and a seemingly perfect place to blend in or disappear. Nobody comes looking for celebrities at the Corner Bakery. We settled on this location after at least three others were suggested and, though there was a slight miscommunication about our exact meeting time, waiting a half hour seemed a small price to pay to spend some quality time with a man who, with more than five hundred acting credits to his name, is perhaps best known for quantity.

NOTEBOOK: I understand that a long time ago you used to work for Roger Corman?
JAMES HONG: It’s true. And not even as an actor, either. I worked in sales for Roger.
HONG: Yes. Can you believe it? For almost three years, I think. On again, off again…
NOTEBOOK: What was your specialty?
HONG: Overseas. Southeast Asian region. Selling all of those silly “nurses” movies…
NOTEBOOK: There were plenty of ‘em. I think I like [Stephanie Rothman’s] The Student Nurses [1970] best. Do you have a favorite among the films you sold?
HONG: No, not particularly.
NOTEBOOK: So, you turn 91 soon. What do you plan to do to celebrate your birthday?
HONG: Nothing.
NOTEBOOK: Nothing?
HONG: I’ll be working… or, well, the day before—that Friday—I’ll be working [on the set of the new film by Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, a.k.a. Daniels, Everything Everywhere all at Once, starring Jamie Lee Curtis and Michelle Yeoh], so… They asked me what kind of cake do I want, so I think I’ll go for a chocolate cake, although definitely not with ninety-one candles. [laughs] So, that’s pretty much it.
NOTEBOOK: [laughs] Do you remember what you did last year, turning ninety?
HONG: You know, I don’t remember what we did… Oh, oh, wait a minute! I had a big party over at Far Bar. I invited everybody. About sixty family members came down from all over California. We had a show, we had music, we had all sorts of things going on…
NOTEBOOK: What kind of a show are we talkin’?
HONG: Well, everybody was invited to do something if they wanted to, so some people played guitar, some sang their own songs, some danced. Costumes, surprises, anything!
NOTEBOOK: So, like a talent show. That sounds fun.
HONG: Yeah, it was big. Lots of fun.
NOTEBOOK: What was your favorite birthday ever?
HONG: I think that was it, actually: the 90th. The party was so big…
NOTEBOOK: I can’t imagine seeing people from far-flung corners of the world or all different parts of your life back at once for a big celebration. Do you like to throw parties?
HONG: No, no. Birthday parties, here and there, but mostly no. Another year gone… [laughs]
NOTEBOOK: What’s your idea of a good time? For example, on a regular Thursday night.
HONG: Nothing really special. Just a good dinner: a good Chinese dinner. That’s all, really.
[At this point, a man enters the restaurant with a large group of people, the once quiet space now comparatively loud and boisterous. His eyes widen as he notices Hong. He says to him: “Heyyyyyy! I’m a fan of yours!” Hong silently accepts the warmth from the stranger, and then quickly gets up to relocate. Thus begins a comical five-minute process of Hong attempting to find the spot in the restaurant with the best acoustics, highlighting his comedic prowess in the process or perhaps a general dislike of noises. Maybe both.]
NOTEBOOK: I’m going to tell everyone you made me run a relay race around this place.
HONG: You could ask them to turn down the music…
NOTEBOOK: Let’s talk about Valentine’s Day. How long have you been married now?
HONG: Oh, my God… Forty-some odd years now.
NOTEBOOK: How do you keep the romance alive?
HONG: We just both do whatever we want to do, you know, and get together when we need to, but we both have our preferable things that we want to do, just like anybody else. That’s the only way to do it - to exist and subsist. Do whatever you want to, pursue your own passions, but be together when the time calls for it.
NOTEBOOK: I can only assume that your primary passion is acting…
HONG: Yes, and producing. I’m in the early stages of producing a documentary that is the story of my life, my career. Not anymore directing. I think it’s too tough. However, perhaps with a very strong co-director I could still make it work and direct something.
NOTEBOOK: Do you have passions that extend beyond acting, producing, and directing?
HONG: Not really, except that I imagine I can travel the world. I have standing offers from England, Germany, and Australia… Australia, it’s burning. I hate that. I feel very badly about that. It’s almost totally unbelievable that a whole continent could be on fire.
NOTEBOOK: It’s difficult to properly understand the enormity of something like that.
HONG: But, you know, there are wars happening all over the world. That part is totally unbelievable. All of that turmoil in the Middle East and we sit here at peace in America, and we’re very thankful for it, but when you see on TV what is happening everywhere, it’s a bit hard to understand what this or that culture means to us over here in America.
NOTEBOOK: What would motivate someone to do something so violent, so…
HONG: …Inhuman.
NOTEBOOK: Have you had any personal encounters with either war or violence?
HONG: No… Thankfully, I didn’t have to go to Korea. I was drafted, but I stayed in the United States because—of all things—I was good at organizing camp shows for the army. Of course, I always thought that if I had gone to Korea, I would be dead. I wouldn’t be here. I can’t stand the cold, for one thing, so I would freeze to death. And if I didn’t freeze to death, the second thing is both sides would’ve thought I was the enemy.
NOTEBOOK: That’s quite a realization, to fight for something that might fight you back.
HONG: Since I am 91 soon, I don’t know if I can make it, but I would like to take one more trip to China. Back to maybe even the place where my father was born.
NOTEBOOK: Where was that?
HONG: In Toisan [a.k.a. Taishan in Guangdong province]. In a small village called Kee Mei Son. Actually, I’ve been there twice before in earlier parts of my life. Maybe I’ll go back there once more just to be there and also to feel the spirit of China coming over me.
Above: James Hong at 24.
NOTEBOOK: What did your father do as a profession?
HONG: In America, he was a restaurateur and he helped the Chinese community as the president of the Hop Sing Tong for the Midwest. In that sense, he did a lot. He owned an herb store in Minneapolis, MN. He also owned a huge nightclub called Golden Pheasant during the Depression time. He was quite an operator, a storeowner, and a restaurateur.
NOTEBOOK: And before he came to America?
HONG: He came over here very early. 1911, I think. He was first a laundryman.
NOTEBOOK: And what about your mother?
HONG: My father went back to the village, then married her, and brought her over. That started his family. I had five sisters and one brother. In those days, people believed in big families. Not like nowadays. Nowadays, two is considered pretty much maximum. Three, definitely, maximum. But in those days, big ones. Nowadays, it is too tough to bring up so many children because the expenses are so high. College alone eats up a man’s salary.
NOTEBOOK: Is there a specific piece of wisdom or advice that either your father or mother imparted to you when you were young that you still carry with you to this day?
HONG: Well, obviously—being parents of seven children—they had to be very strict. If anything, that influenced my life a great deal. I was kept under their thumb, taught not to do anything wrong, and follow the rules and the law, as well as to study like crazy to be an engineer, not an actor. I did all of those things and, in a sense, maybe that’s why the acting became successful, because of all of the repressed expressions that I experienced earlier in life blossoming out onto the screen or TV or whatever. Because those were the hidden feelings that I had as a child and young person and never got a chance to express. Now it comes out in my movies.
NOTEBOOK: Out of the seven children, where do you fall?
HONG: Right in the middle! The neglected child, that’s all…
NOTEBOOK: The middle child always seems to be the one who bears the brunt of things and therefore inevitably, albeit unfairly, makes it easier for others coming down the line.
HONG: Yeah, yeah, yeah… Just forgotten.
NOTEBOOK: Forgotten?
HONG: The Forgotten Child.
NOTEBOOK: You’re the Forgotten Child?
HONG: Yes, I would think so.
NOTEBOOK: Have you felt this way since…?
HONG: Yes, I would think so, yeah. Neglected.
NOTEBOOK: Did you ever express this to your parents?
HONG: Yes, because nobody ever gave me any help. My sisters and brothers… You were always a loner, even though you had all these sisters and brothers. They were around you, sure, but nobody ever helped each other very much. Too many kids…
NOTEBOOK: Would you say that being a loner came naturally to you or was it something that you were forced to adopt for yourself more out of circumstance?
HONG: [pauses] Out of circumstance.
NOTEBOOK: Sounds like a tough way to be brought up.
HONG: I would say definitely. You have to seek expression outside [of the home]. You have to join high school clubs, organizations, play whatever sports you had, and you just had to find your schoolmates. Lucky that, in those days, gangs were not in style. I think if I had been living a little later in my days as a student, I might have fallen in with the wrong crowd. But in the old days there wasn’t much in the way of so-called gangs or hoodlums. We more so stayed within the measure of the law. We had our fun, but…
NOTEBOOK: Did you have any nicknames as a child?
HONG: Well, my original Chinese name sounds very much like the word for “toothpick.”
NOTEBOOK: [laughs] Toothpick!
HONG: So, they kind of called me “Toothpick” because I was so skinny, you know…
NOTEBOOK: Did you take to and embrace the name, or did you not care for it much?
HONG: Didn’t care for it. I resent—well, not resent, but… Because I was so thin in the earlier days, I was kind of shoved under the pile in a lot of ways. Certainly, I could not get a date in Minnesota. Too much prejudice: hidden prejudice, not outward prejudice. All through junior high and high school, I never had a date with anyone. It was all white people, so an Asian kid was not accepted. They just didn’t care. It was… too different.
NOTEBOOK: Was there someone in particular whom you were crushing on at the time?
HONG: Of course! But you couldn’t go to the prom with one of your classmates because they wouldn’t accept you as a date. They would accept you as a classmate, but not a date.
NOTEBOOK: Did you ever ask anyone to the prom or get asked for Sadie Hawkins?
HONG: Actually, I wrote a play for Sadie Hawkins. It was performed in junior high. At the end of the play, the principal said, “Let’s bring James Hong out to the stage and give him a big hand.” And he was surprised because I raised my hand from the audience. I guess I was so good at writing and directing that the cast just carried on without me. I guess he thought I was coaching them from backstage. No, I just sat there and enjoyed it. But that never blossomed in the sense of becoming a great director; again, the prejudice was too much in Hollywood for someone of Chinese descent to become a great director.
NOTEBOOK: Tell me more about your experience of prejudice working in Hollywood.
HONG: They didn’t accept Asian Americans in the main or dignified roles—doctors or lawyers, that sort of thing. There were very few opportunities for Asian American actors.
NOTEBOOK: But that didn’t seem to stop you from making your mark in Hollywood.
HONG: Lucky for me, I can do everything—comedy, tragedy, you name it. I’ve played the best of villains as David Lo Pan [in Big Trouble in Little China], a scientist eye doctor as [Hannibal] Chew in Blade Runner, or just goofing off in a comedy like Wayne’s World 2. Thank goodness, I have the talent to do almost anything. Anything that they’d throw at me, I would always take the role and, in a way, conquer it.
NOTEBOOK: At the start of your career, presumably all that was available to you were these minor or negatively stereotyped roles? How did you feel taking roles like these at the time? Was it a necessary evil in order to get work and become known? Any regrets?
HONG: I had some fairly large roles—however, they were almost all stereotyped. My first feature was Soldier of Fortune [1955], starring Clark Gable. I was playing a Chinese policeman. I was glad to be working and in my early years averaged about ten roles per year between film and TV. It wasn’t too hard for me to get an agent, I guess because of my type and talent. I added as much in the way of human feelings into these roles as I could so the characters would be believable. I think the audience was with me.
NOTEBOOK: You do have a way of making each role your own. Do you pursue roles?
HONG: Most of the time, I just trust my agent to go after the roles. I didn’t spend a lot of time pursuing specific roles.
NOTEBOOK: Maybe that emotional distance is the reason you stand out so much as the committed actor you are even in a not especially great film, like one I recently watched…
HONG: Which one was that?
NOTEBOOK: Shadowzone, from 1990. It’s one of those Full Moon pictures. In it, you play a vaguely Eastern European doctor. A bit of a stretch, but you make it work. Do you have a philosophy that guides you and allows you to “conquer” each role you take on?
HONG: In any role I play, I try to put real human feelings into the characters. I give them a background as part of the preparation process. My acting lessons and my own feelings are what help to make a role prominent. For example, in Big Trouble in Little China, I gave David Lo Pan a life that went beyond the script. He became a famous villain with a heart. All that he wanted was the love from a woman, a green-eyed girl.
NOTEBOOK: In other words: no matter the size of the role, you do the work.
HONG: Yes.
NOTEBOOK: The primary concern is the work.
HONG: I think so. I have to say, by the way, I don’t remember the one you mentioned…
NOTEBOOK: Honestly, I don’t blame you, with the sheer number of roles you’ve had…
HONG: Well, possibly I have the most roles of anybody dead or alive. Over five hundred.
NOTEBOOK: That’s certainly impressive.
HONG: Thank you.
NOTEBOOK: Is there a specific performance or film you feel has gone unrecognized?
HONG: Yes, my role in Black Widow [1987] with Debra Winger. Bob Rafelson, the director, traveled to Europe to help promote the film for [20th Century Fox]. He told me: “Everywhere I went, the critics asked me ‘who was that wonderful actor who played the Asian detective, Shin?’” He told me that he was going to push me to get nominated for the Academy Awards, but the studio said no because the movie was not popular enough.
NOTEBOOK: That’s the movie business in a nutshell: seduced, and then abandoned.
HONG: I suppose you’re right.
NOTEBOOK: Do you see yourself as a “character actor?” If yes, what does it mean to you?
HONG: Well… it’s more that the industry considers me a character actor, due to mostly playing supporting roles throughout my career. This gave me a lot of work over the years, as we discussed, but I would have liked to have been the main star in a few movies. That—so far, at least—has not proved likely to be during my time. Oh, the horror! The horror! [laughter]
HONG: Actually, I’ve been very lucky. My fans remember me as Chew and David Lo Pan. These most prominent roles are those that bring the most satisfaction, the most joy.
NOTEBOOK: Who inspires you nowadays?
HONG: Awkwafina. Her videos are… quite different. She’s crafting a style of her own. I’m not crazy about rap music, but she’s a great actress. She’s really making her mark.
With that, the conversation turned to the next day’s work—back on set for the new film by Daniels. By example of one of Hong’s co-stars in the new film, we discussed how Ke Huy Quan, best known for his memorable role as “Short Round” in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), failed to get much work following the studio blockbuster. This led us to lament the historic lack of onscreen opportunities for Asian Americans, how much has changed since then, and how much still must be done in order to eliminate prejudice in the entertainment industry and help one another to build a more equitable society. Hong continued to reflect on his versatility as an actor as a matter of good fortune, while conscious of the fact that the types of roles typically offered—if at all—to Asian American actors were deeply embedded, problematic racist gimmick roles.
When asked if he would do anything differently looking back on a career spanning nearly seven decades, Hong confessed: “I would have liked to have had more opportunities to direct. I think I am a very good director. I think I have a sixth sense about it. I would have definitely liked to have been a director.” Though Hong so far has directed five films—four features and a short—in his lifetime, he again points to the industry’s lack of acceptance of Asian Americans in top-tier creative roles and the problem of consolation diversity programs that are pats on the back instead of the promise of a paycheck. That said, Hong gets a noticeable kick out of the fact that his film Teen Lust has been rediscovered in recent years, a film he admits—and I agree—was “ahead of its time.”
Before we departed and went our separate ways, I asked Hong whether he had a birthday wish for the upcoming Saturday. He took a deep breath, let out a big sigh, and hung his head low. I wasn’t prepared for what he said next. “If I had one wish [for my birthday], it would be for what all of us want: a little peace in the world. We have to save ourselves and our environment. Homelessness, gang violence, people who smash windows, grab things, and run. What kind of a life is that? What kind of a world is that? We have to change the way we live and find some kind of solution. I remember when plastic first came out, they told us it was gonna save the world. Now, it turns out that it’s actually gonna kill us all. Every cycle has an end. The dinosaurs came and went. We are just like the dinosaurs. It sure looks like [the end] is coming.” See you in the Wasteland, James.


InterviewsJames HongLong Reads
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