• Film

James Hong: At 94, Pioneering Asian Actor is One of the Most Prolific

At 94, James Hong is still unstoppable. With more than 650 film and television credits going as far back as the early 1950s, Hong is one of the most prolific actors ever.

The actor, who is also a producer and director, earned a new generation of fans with the absurdist comedy-drama Everything Everywhere All at Once where he portrayed Gong Gong, was Chuck Lee in the coming-of-age adventure film Patsy Lee & The Keepers of the 5 Kingdoms, was the voice of Mr. Gao in the animated film Turning Red, and the voice of Father Bests in the horror comedy Wendell & Wild.

The Minneapolis, Minnesota native, born on February 22, 1929, has been the voice of Mr. Ping in the Kung Fu Panda franchise, including the upcoming fourth installment.

After the Everything Everywhere All at Once cast won SAG’s Best Ensemble Cast Award, Hong – during his turn in the group’s acceptance speeches – called out the industry for its “yellowface” practice (mimicking the appearance and speech of an Asian person) by recalling the time when he began his career in The Good Earth, a film about a farmer in China during the early 20th century, in which the main characters were played by white actors.


Hong said, “The leading role was played by these guys with their eyes taped up like this (he pulled his eyes sideways) and they talk like this because the producer said the Asians were not good enough and they are not box office-[worthy]. But look at us now.”

The busy nonagenarian, who became popular with several generations of audiences with his roles in The New Adventures of Charlie Chan, Hawaii Five-O, Bonanza, Perry Mason, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., I Spy and Kung Fu, finished his civil engineering degree at the University of Southern California. He finally gave up his engineering career after five and a half years and pursued his passion for acting full-time.

In an interview with CNN, Hong revealed that he used to practice acting in front of a mirror but kept his dreams to himself.

“Well, you know, Chinese parents want you to do some professional jobs rather than be an actor,” Hong said. “Being an actor is like the last rung in the ladder of professions. They don’t even call it a profession because it’s shameful to demonstrate your feelings in front of an audience. You were taught to be kind of quiet and to keep to yourself.”

He disclosed that he got acting inspiration from his father’s herb shop in Minnesota. “All the laundrymen from Minneapolis had nothing to do on weekends, so they would gather at my father’s herb store,” Hong recalled. “I remember that, because we’d have those little wooden stools and they all gathered there, and they hired these Chinese opera people from San Francisco to come and do their thing…I was only a little boy. You watch them with wide eyes, ‘Wow! What a profession.’”

To help increase Asian American representation in the industry, Hong co-founded East West Players, the first Asian American theatre organization and currently the longest continuously- running minority theater in the United States.

He told Spectrum News, “I was only getting the so-called gimmick roles (the stereotypical, cliché roles).” So, in 1965, Hong and fellow actor Mako Iwamatsu founded the East West Players “to break from stereotypical roles.”

The child of Chinese parents who emigrated from Hong Kong and moved back when he was five, and then returned to the US when he was 10, Hong experienced bullying and racism from his classmates when he studied in Minneapolis because he could not speak English well and he was seen as a foreigner.

He told The Irish Times that when he started joining high school productions, he recalled how his teachers chose a fair-skinned, red-haired boy instead of him for a British play.

He confessed, “I felt very bad because I was one of the primary members of that acting group, and yet the teacher turned me down because I was yellow. And none of the girls would want to go out with me as I was a Chinese guy. There are a lot of stories I can’t tell you in just a few minutes. The hidden prejudice in white society in Minneapolis is not something that I would want to live again.”

As an actor who has been in the industry for nearly 70 years, he said that the Asians “were given the side parts as ‘coolies’ or distressed Asians being rescued by the white guy. We were underlings.”

Although he has performed with the likes of Clark Gable, Lauren Bacall, James Coburn and Harrison Ford, Hong pointed out that “I can count on my two hands the roles that I got that were non-cliched. I played a doctor in a couple of series and pictures, and a scientist in the movie Colossus: The Forbin Project.”

“We were not important people in the United States as far as the film industry was concerned,” Hong said. “Until about 10 years ago when we started to win awards. So, it’s been a journey from Ground Zero to what it is now. But there’s still a long way to go.”

Today, the bullied and ostracized Asian guy is proud to say that he has truly opened doors for other Asian actors, broken ceilings and paved the way for better roles for more Asians. He now has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his contributions to the American film and television industries.

His wife Susan of 46 years, with whom he has three daughters, keeps asking him when he is going to retire. But the still energetic Hong is soon reprising his role as Mr. Ping in Kung Fu Panda 4, will do a comedy series about figures from Chinese mythology and is looking forward to working on a documentary on his career and how Asian American actors “have become major contributors to the art of acting” in Hollywood.”

We were fortunate to have attended Hong’s recent birthday party at The Federal Bar & Grill in North Hollywood. The joyous occasion was preceded by a screening of Patsy Lee and The Keepers of the 5 Kingdoms in which the veteran actor, sprightly in his 90s, had the lead role opposite young costars.


At his milestone birthday, a beaming Hong blew all 94 candles on his cake, looking like he could go on and on – the Energizer Bunny who persevered and shattered glass ceilings for actors of color.