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The longevity and legacy of Hollywood’s James Hong | Talking Post with Yonden Lhatoo

The longevity and legacy of Hollywood’s James Hong | Talking Post with Yonden Lhatoo

Kung Fu Panda’s James Hong on 70 years in movies, his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and why, at 93, he has no thoughts of retiring

  • Known as ‘the hardest working man in Hollywood’, actor James Hong has close to 700 film and TV credits and has been a trailblazer for Asian-Americans in cinema
  • He talks to the Post about playing football in Kowloon, coming to Hollywood when it was just ‘ground zero’ for Asian actors and why he will not be retiring

In May 2022, James Hong became the 19th Asian-American actor – and the oldest person – to earn a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Recognition for the 93-year-old, who has close to 700 film and television credits, may have long been overdue but the actor remains humble about his achievements.

“As a young fellow, I never thought my voice would be anything,” Hong says in a Talking Post interview with South China Morning Post chief news editor Yonden Lhatoo.
Yet it is his expressive voice that has reached and touched audiences the world over – with his roles voicing animated features such as Mulan, Turning Red and Kung Fu Panda – and gamers who play World of Warcraft.

“Everybody seems to recognise Mr Ping,” says Hong, referring to the adoptive father of Kung Fu Panda’s protagonist, Po.

Hong’s many roles include voicing the adoptive father of Kung Fu Panda’s main protagonist, Po. Photo: Facebook

In July, Netflix released a new Kung Fu Panda series called The Dragon Knight, in which Hong reprises his role as the happy-go-lucky goose. It is a character he cherishes and is happy to be playing “all the way through, from the beginning to what it is now and to the future”.

He is known among his peers as “the hardest working man in Hollywood” and has been a trailblazer for Asian-Americans in cinema.

Hong filming NBC miniseries Marco Polo in Beijing, around 1982. Photo: James Hong

While Hollywood is still called out for its lack of representation of actors from ethnic minorities, and of women, in his seven-decade career Hong has seen the advances Asian-Americans have made as show business evolved.

“I said to myself, wow, it took me 70 years to get this star put on the Walk of Fame – a certain recognition of my 600-700 roles,” Hong says. “It’s well worth it.”

When Hong started working in Hollywood, Asian-Americans were at “ground zero” – heavily typecast, and their roles often demeaning. The only parts Hong was offered were ones that played on his ethnicity.

Hong (right) as child in the US state of Minnesota. Photo: James Hong

“It was all those minor roles and cliché roles,” Hong recalls. “Gimmick roles thrown in there to make people laugh.”

These bit parts were meant to provide comic relief for cinema-goers and relied heavily on the stereotype of Asian-Americans as working- class immigrants who spoke heavily accented or broken English.

Looking back, Hong believes things have improved but that there is still work to be done. For one thing, there are still too few roles written for or offered to Asian-Americans.

“A lot of my good friends, who are very good actors, had to quit because right now there are not enough roles to sustain the Asian-American actors as far as livelihood goes.”

Hong (left) with his family in a photograph taken in a Kowloon studio around 1936. Photo: James Hong
But Hong is hopeful. With films like Marvel’s Shang-Chi and The Legend of the Ten Rings and Everything Everywhere All at Once – in which Hong has a part – he thinks the situation for Asian-American actors may improve in the coming years.

“It’s going to blossom,” he says.

Hong was born in the US state of Minnesota. His family moved to Hong Kong in the 1930s, and growing up in the city underscored the cultural differences between East and West when he returned to the US five years later.

“I vaguely remember being in Kowloon,” says Hong. He recalls playing soccer at primary school and scuffing his knees in the dirt. “It’s very memorable in a sense that I didn’t get into any violent situations or fights,” he says. It was a different story once he was back in America.

Hong has spent seven decades in show business. Photo: Facebook

Hong’s Chinese school experience abroad opened him up to persecution by his American classmates. “I had to get used to the violence,” Hong recalls, “because I didn’t speak English right away at the age of nine.

“I was picked upon and they beat me up.”

He went on to study civil engineering at the University of Minnesota, and took up comedy after successful performances while in military service during the Korean war (1950-1953). But still he could not escape discrimination in its various forms.

Hong at a demonstration for authentic representation of Asians in cinema around 1975. Photo: James Hong

Hong said there was a lingering feeling “that the Chinese were still second grade citizens”.

After playing his fair share of one-dimensional Asian characters, Hong decided it was time to initiate change.

In 1965, he was one of the nine co-founders of the Asian-American theatre company East West Players, which was committed to raising the visibility of Asian-American actors. That prompted the industry to “notice that we are principal actors”, he says.

The company still operates today, with most, if not all, the roles in its productions filled by Asians.

Hong during his Hollywood Walk of Fame Star ceremony in Hollywood, California, on May 10, 2022. Photo: AFP
Gradually, Asian and Asian-American actors and actresses were given more leading roles, although Bruce Lee had to leave Hollywood to find worldwide fame and few received Academy Award nominations, let alone took home Oscars. The last five years have seen success in Hollywood for actors of Asian descent in films such as Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell and Minari.
Hong says he has Hawaii Five-0 actor Daniel Dae Kim to thank for his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Kim, a friend and former co-star, started a GoFundMe page for Hong to recognise his film and television credits and achievements.

The page went viral and, with donations from more than 1,700 fans, and reached the target of raising US$55,000 in a few days. This covered the creation, installation and maintenance of the star.

Hong has been a trailblazer for Asian-Americans in cinema. Photo: TNS

Asked if retirement is on the cards, Hong says he is eager to carry on. “I’m 93 now, and I’m not going to stop. There are so many projects to do and so many more movies. Everything is so exciting around me.”

He adds: “I think I better keep living and take advantage of some of those things I had the chance to create.”