Happy Chinese New Year tomorrow! In celebration, I thought of examining some of the fine Chinese-American actors who have been on the series.
The idea first sparked in some form when I saw an episode of Ironside in which Perry alumnus Benson Fong played a large part. He was excellent in the role of a father with a wayward son and brought a great deal of emotion and heart to the part. I wanted to highlight him on the blog for his Perry characters, but upon realizing I mixed up one role with another actor, I decided to celebrate them both (and more).
Born October 10th, 1916, Benson Fong left his California home for a time to study in China, but then returned to the United States and his mercantile family. He was found by Paramount while working as a grocer and asked if he would like to be in a movie. The result was a role in China with Loretta Young.
Quite an impressive film career followed! While in many movies he had small parts, in others he had a great deal of screentime. He even played Charlie Chan’s Number Three Son in some installments of that popular detective series and also had a major role in the musical Flower Drum Song. He appeared as well in the moving religious movie The Keys of the Kingdom and the Disney comedy The Love Bug, both of which I’ve seen. I vaguely remember his character in The Love Bug and am quite sure I enjoyed his performance.
On Perry, Benson appeared one time each in the first four seasons.
His first character is in The Empty Tin, and while that’s a favorite season 1 episode, I don’t remember the character too well. He is the servant of a man who was nearly killed when the photographer John Lowell sold him out to the Chinese Communists. Benson’s character comes after his boss’s death to kill Lowell out of revenge, but learns that he sold out from fear of the Communists and not for money, and that he was haunted by it ever since. This softens the servant’s heart.
He has a very prominent part in season 2’s The Caretaker’s Cat, as the staunchly loyal caretaker and defendant James Hing. That’s the role I immediately think of whenever I think of him. The episode’s plot is so quirky and bizarre, first-rate Perry, and the cat is so cute. And while on the one hand it’s mind-boggling that James Hing went along with his employer’s plan and never questioned the possibility of something going wrong, I love his loyalty and love towards his employer. That man’s death is definitely up there with the victims that didn’t deserve to die at all.
As has been the case with quite a few Oriental actors, Benson has played characters from other Far East countries. This happens in his third Perry role in The Blushing Pearls, where he plays Japanese pearl expert Itsubi Nogata. This is the only Perry character of his who actually commits a crime, being the actual thief of the titular object. He’s the one Perry tricks into coming out of his hotel room with the pearls when he thinks there’s a fire.
Benson goes back to playing a Chinese character for his final Perry venture, The Waylaid Wolf. As Oolong Kim, he is one of the housekeepers for the eponymous character’s father and is involved in the mystery. Perry tries to find out if he’s the one nicknamed “O.K.” by the murder victim.
Also of note is the person playing Oolong’s wife, Frances Fong. I wonder if she’s a relation? She apparently had quite a career as a character actress from the 1950s all the way up to 1999, but I can’t learn any biographical information.
Benson acted right up to the year he died of a stroke, 1987, and he also found time to open a chain of Ah Fong restaurants in California. He’s definitely one of the most prominently seen of the Oriental character actors during the heyday of classic movies and television, one I greatly enjoy discovering.
The actor I somehow mixed up for him is Keye Luke, in his role of C.C. Chang in The Weary Watchdog. Oddly enough, they do have a connection, as Keye played Charlie Chan’s Number One Son in that film series! (Keye’s younger brother Edwin also appeared in that series.) Later on, another connection was born when they each appeared in incarnations of Kung Fu—Keye in the television series and Benson in the follow-up movie.
Born in China, Keye was raised in Seattle. The Wing Luke Asian Musuem is named for a relative.
An unusual notation is that author Lisa See decided to depict Keye’s naturalization as an American citizen in her book Shanghai Girls. That’s neat that she chose to show that event.
Keye worked for a time as an artist in Seattle and Los Angeles, even in Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, before moving on to acting. And it didn’t take long before he netted the role as Charlie Chan’s son. Over the next decades, he kept a steady stream of work at the movie studios, playing all manner of characters.
While Benson Fong’s list of credits is impressive, Keye Luke’s is even moreso, with over 200 listed on IMDB.com. Out of all of those, he brought his talents to Perry twice.
In The Weary Watchdog, C.C. Chang appears initially to be a respectable businessman, but Perry eventually strips away the façade to reveal quite a wretched character. Stealing the titular art object is the least of his offenses! C.C. has been running an abominably cruel ring where family members of tortured loved ones still in China are forced to pay blood money to keep said loved ones alive. He’s also the murderer, killing his partner when he found out the guy was cheating him.
This episode boasts an assortment of fine Chinese-American actors, including James Hong as C.C.’s stepson, Judy Dan as Trixie Tong, the son’s love interest, and Beulah Quo as Mrs. Tong. Another Chinese-American character, James Wong, is played by a Korean-American actor, Philip Ahn.
Keye Luke’s second Perry appearance is in season 8’s unique venture The Feather Cloak. He plays Choy, a character whose role in the episode I can’t quite remember. I’ve only seen it once, something I want to rectify, as it’s certainly one of the most unusual Perry episodes of all. Arthur Wong, another Chinese-American actor, plays the judge.
Keye Luke has been awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, an honor definitely well-deserved. There has also been a recent short film made about some of his life and work.
He passed away in 1991, also of a stroke. Like Benson, he was acting almost right up to the time of his death.
A list of Chinese-American Perry actors would never be complete without the lovely Irene Tsu. Also born in China, Irene moved quite a bit at an early age, going from Taiwan to Hong Kong and finally to New York, where she, her mother and her sister settled down for a while. An aunt was already living in the city. Her father, meanwhile, had remained behind in Taiwan.
Irene took ballet lessons and eventually auditioned for the Broadway version of Flower Drum Song. A staff member for another production, The World of Suzie Wong, saw her audition and got her to audition for the other show, where she got a part. When she later auditioned for the film version of Flower Drum Song, she got a part there as well and came to Hollywood. She soon appeared in the Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day film Take Her, She’s Mine and her career in movies and television was launched.
One of the most recognizable and hard-working of the beautiful Oriental actresses frequently seen on television, Irene made her Perry appearance in season 7’s The Floating Stones, as defendant Julie Eng. James Hong returned to play Lewis Kew, a lawyer who is in love with Julie, while Richard Loo played Mr. Eng, Julie’s grandfather. The case revolves around smuggling and mysteriously disappearing and reappearing diamonds. Julie is eventually accused of murdering the thief.
Irene is still alive and acting, in between being a real estate agent for Coldwell Banker and spending time with her family.
And while working on this post, I discovered something else. To say that James Hong is productive would be a vast understatement. IMDB lists 387 credits (!!!), with more very likely on the way. He studied engineering, and worked for a while as an engineer, but became interested in filming and took time off to make films before deciding that was what he wanted to do full-time.
A founder of the East-West Players, the oldest Asian-American theatre in Los Angeles, and a former president of the Association of Asian Pacific American Artists, James plans to produce his own films. I certainly wish him much luck!
To properly highlight every Chinese-American actor on Perry would take many pages. But I offer this sincere tribute to all of their efforts. Together they created some of the most interesting Perry characters and brought a great deal to each episode in which they appeared.
Happy Chinese New Year!