When James Hong entered C124 at the Portland Convention Center, he was greeted with a standing ovation from the audience, along with a hearty, "Welcome!" Portland fans are incredibly wonderful people and exceptional students of popular culture. I started the session by asking James Hong about his transition from engineering to acting. That certainly opened the flood gates, because the questions kept coming from there. No one else knew that James Hong was a USC grad in engineering, so it was a great place to begin. Mr. Hong talked about how he'd always wanted to be in film--at the time, television was relatively new and did not share the same exposure (or prestige) that 21st century TV currently enjoys. Growing up in Minneapolis, Minnesota, James Hong credits hard-working parents and a pervasive cultural attitude that pushed him even harder toward obtaining his goals. Though it doesn't translate as well in written-English, Mr. Hong referred to the common Chinese refrain, "Ni zhen mei yong," meaning, "You're useless," as having fueled his desire to be anything but.
For seven years, James Hong worked as an engineer in LA by day, while using nights and weekends to pursue acting. What was very refreshing was how passionate James Hong was about education. And his message was clear: Without study, in any field, it's impossible to be the best. As a college professor for more than 18 years, I tend to agree. The young actors in the audience certainly benefited from this counsel, as one young woman attested to later in our session.
At some point, Mr. Hong had used all of his sick days and vacation time doing acting jobs when he realized acting was no longer a part-time gig. Though he quit his engineering job, now being paid regularly as an actor, James Hong was honest with the audience about the unpredictable nature of landing jobs in Hollywood. He even mentioned a brief return to engineering just to pay the bills.
His career began with redubbing Asian films in the 1950's, including Godzilla, King of the Monsters in 1956. This lead to several other roles, including playing a prince in Walt Disney's Zorro. James Hong also began making guest appearances on Perry Mason as well as The Bob Newhart Show, and the cult classic, Kung Fu. I fondly remember watching those original episodes of Kung Fu on the little black-and-white television my parents proudly had in our living room. James Hong has remained a role model ever since. His eyes somehow translate his quick wit, no matter what character he plays. Even Lo Pan from John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China had that flash. You can see that James Hong loves what he's doing, and really has fun doing it, too.
James Hong is known for his role in Bladerunner, as well as his famous scene in Seinfeld's episode, "The Chinese Restaurant," which he joyfully repeated for an appreciative audience. Mr. Hong also did some of his lines from Kung Fu Panda and Big Trouble in Little China, a thrill for everyone in the room. After which, I made sure to point out the green in my own eyes. ;)
Mr. Hong enjoyed working on shows like Friends and Charmed, and talked about how making guest appearances on a show with a recurring cast does change the dynamic in terms of the role, but that on both shows, he was made to feel very welcome. His work in comedy, including Wayne's World 2 and Balls of Fury, was also fun for James Hong. He particularly enjoyed working with Tia Carrere, who played his daughter in the Mike Myers SNL-skit-turned-big-screen-franchise. His role as Master Wong, the blind ping-pong teacher in Balls of Fury, is a personal favorite. James Hong's comedic timing made that film funny. Dan Fogler and George Lopez were good, but only because of the backdrop provided by James Hong.
James Hong spoke at length about the hurdles he faced in Hollywood as an Asian American when most male roles were written for non-Asian actors. His efforts to bring change in the industry included being a founding member of the East West Players in 1965, one of the first Asian American theater organizations, as well as helping to found the Association of Asian/Pacific American Artists (AAPAA), later serving as President.
Part of what is so remarkable about James Hong is his versatility--he didn't balk at being comic relief in shows like King of Queens or working as a voice actor for video games like Diablo III or animated series like Chowder. Study. And practice. Even when you're the incomparable James Hong. And it doesn't hurt that he has a flawless sense of humor.
Before his Q&A ended, James Hong suddenly became serious and reflected for a moment. After the span of mere seconds, he said, "Just once, I would have liked to have been cast in a main role as a doctor, or maybe a lawyer...." His haunting words still sit with me; I would have liked to have seen that, too. But James Hong says he's not going anywhere. And we're all a little better because of it.
As we wrapped the Q&A session, the audience, once again, gave James Hong a standing ovation. After a moment or two, we began singing "Happy Birthday" to the man we all admire, the man who has brought us laughter and tears for more than fifty years: The Incomparable James Hong.
Thank you, Mr. Hong! It was a rare pleasure to work with you. I look forward to seeing you again in St. Louis this month.
If you would like to see James Hong on the Wizard World 2013-2014 tour, please visit: www.WizardWorld.com
James Hong also teaches acting workshops in LA; please visit his website for details: http://www.jameshong.com/
And, yes, James Hong is #PopCultureProfessor APPROVED, not that he needs my approval, or anyone else's for that matter. I mean, he's James Hong!