Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Home from Hollywood:

James Hong's nostalgic return to Minnesota Print E-mail
Thursday, 22 October 2009 00:00
It was the first of many phone calls I'd have with the Chinese American thespian to discuss his plans during his return trip to Minneapolis. Nearly 30 years have passed since the actor last visited his home state of Minnesota. Before the red carpet events and blockbuster movie roles, James Hong first realized his entertainment dreams in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. It was in Westminster Church where he first graced the stage and in the former Bryant Middle School where he began to hone is craft.

web_james_kitchenStanding in Jensen's Supper Club's kitchen, Hong reminisces about his days before Hollywood where he spent three and a half years washing dishes at the now closed Nankin Chinese restaurant.

Today the Minnesota-native has turned into bona fide Hollywood veteran. Hong has been featured in movies such as Big Trouble in Little China, starred in one of the most famous Seinfeld episodes and garnered much recognition for his voice-over role as the goose noodle shop owner in the exceedingly successful animated movie Kung Fu Panda. In a career that has spanned over 50 years, Hong has amassed more than 500 movie and television appearances and helped pioneer roles in Hollywood for Asian Americans.

Personally, James Hong's role as David Lo Pan in Big Trouble in Little China resonates most in my memories. His devil-cursed character struck me fearsomely as a young boy. Lo Pan's deathly white makeup and sinister sorcery kept me from a good night's rest for weeks. I imagined him emerging from the darkness in my closet, staring at my hapless body tucked into the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle bedsheets. With my body paralyzed from fear, his eyes and mouth would emit light so fierce it would vanish me from the earth. Fortunately those nightmares never came to fruition and now as an adult, I was given an opportunity to face my childhood nemesis. Well, the actor who portrayed him at least.

Sitting in my inbox one day was an e-mail from a Hollywood press agent that said James Hong planned to return to Minneapolis for his 62 year high school reunion. Excited by the prospect of meeting the man who so successfully turned me into a child insomniac, I decided to reply and see if I could arrange a meeting. Though I expected to be denied, I e-mailed his press agent asking for an interview. I kept my expectations realistic and asked if Hong could set aside 30 minutes to talk but upon concluding a follow up phone call with his press agent, I managed to barter three full days with the movie star. Over those three days, I agreed to help Hong get around the Twin Cities. As it turned out, in the end, I would serve as more than just chauffeur.

A few days after speaking to the press agent, I received a phone call from an elated and energized Hong. It was bizarre to hear the formidably familiar voice of Lo Pan speaking to me over the phone. While we discussed his plans in Minnesota, Lo Pan's voice beckoned me to help him search for someone who could meet his needs. It wasn't a girl with green eyes he was in search of this time but rather someone with a video camera and the skills to film his return. His plan was to recount his life in Minnesota and I would be a lucky participant in this journey.

To be helpful, I called my friend Stephanie Lau, who recently graduated from the University of Minnesota, and asked if she could lend her cinema production training for Hong's project. Like a true striving professional looking for experience, she immediately agreed without asking many questions about how I came into contact with the Hollywood actor.

Even with over 50 years in the entertainment industry, Hong’s fervor and dedication towards acting continues to be unwavering. He first began pursuing his silver screen dreams in 1953 and today at the age of 80, Hong still continues to find work in front of the camera.

Rather than enjoy his return trip to Minnesota with his oldest friend and comedy partner Don Parker, the actor wanted film. Over three days Stephanie would record him reconnecting with old friends, visiting his old neighborhoods and seeing how his former schools have changed. I'd learn immediately on that first day of meeting that his energy and gumption trumps most 20-somethings like me.

The Reunion

The morning of our first day, Hong met Stephanie and me at his hotel lobby. Dressed in an autumn-leaves-patterned shirt, black vest, and blue and red baseball cap, the actor meandered out of the elevator smiling as he approached us. He greeted us politely and was unassuming as he shook our nervous hands.

Like a peace offering to Stephanie and a way to break the ice, Hong had specially prepared a little meal to give her for lunch.

“Stephanie, I made you a nice egg sandwich for you to eat during lunch. It's really good,” he said to her as we walked to my car.

My nervousness quelled from his generous gesture towards her, and I began to feel like we were in store for a good time.

We headed to Jensen's Supper Club in Eagan, Minn., where James's 62 year high school reunion was held over a luncheon. The class of 1947 had turned 80 years old so the remaining classmates felt it appropriate to celebrate in style.

James Hong (right) and his long time friend and comedy partner Don Parker (left) treat their high school classmates to an web_james_and_donimpromptu comedy show during their 62 year high school reunion at Jensen's Supper Club.

“I'm kinda anxious to see my old schoolmates,” James said to Stephanie as she filmed him climbing out of my car. “It's been a long time since I've been here [in Minnesota].”

The film kept rolling as we made our entrance. James walked towards the private dining room where the group of Minneapolis Central High School graduates was gathering with libations in hand. Amidst the décor of Three Stooges statues and Rat Pack memorabilia, James quickly became the center of attention amongst his fellow classmates. Everyone seemed to be anticipating his arrival. One-by-one, each of his peers re-introduced themselves to the man who they have adoringly witnessed climb to stardom in Hollywood.

“You can't recognize anyone anymore,” James joked with me after reacquainting himself with a few of his past high school pals. Not surprising, though, considering he hadn't attended a high school reunion in nearly 30 years.

The actor would grin slightly as he gazed across the room examining the subtly familiar faces. James seemed to honestly enjoy the moment. He wasn't snobby nor did he brush-off anyone who wanted to chat about his movie roles. He reminisced, joked, laughed and even re-enacted some of his famous lines from television shows and movies per requests.

While Stephanie was busy filming the reunion, it became apparent that I wasn't going to be a mere silent observer during the shindig. Being one of the few people in the room with DVD player experience, I was tasked to ensure that the star's DVD, that featured a compilation of his movie roles, ran smoothly and stopped promptly after the slideshow of photos.

Once queuing the DVD, James, Stephanie and I sneaked into the kitchen for a brief breather before the class of ‘47 took their seats for lunch. While casually examining the kitchen and sipping on a mug full of warm water, his eyes brightened when he realized we were standing next to the dish washing station.

“I feel right at home,” James said. “It all started in the kitchen where I used to wash dishes at the Nankin cafe in Minneapolis.”

For three and half years, the actor labored in the kitchen of the once locally famous Chinese restaurant The Nankin. During his years studying civil engineering at the University of Minnesota, Hong, like many other young Chinese Americans during that time, put in his dues at The Nankin cafe to earn some money.

“Back then the Nankin cafe owner said that if we stayed in school, there would always be a job at his restaurant. He never backed out of his word,” Hong recalled.

The now accomplished actor served as honorary guest at the reunion luncheon along side his long-time friend and former comedy partner Don Parker, who also was a 1947 graduate of Minneapolis Central High School. Following lunch, the two were given a warm introduction by the event's MC and fellow classmate Bert Leach. Then Bert handed the microphone to the two pals where they rehashed old comedy routines and impersonations extemporaneously for the audience, and recollected their endeavors following Central High School.

California Dreaming

Hong and Parker ventured to Hollywood together during the summer of Hong’s junior year of college. The duo packed their belongings, hopped into Hong's Buick and drove westbound to live out their entertainment aspirations.

The duo first tried their luck in San Francisco, Calif., but struck out after failing to book any gigs. They opted to drive southward to Hollywood in hopes to have a change in fortunes there. Feeling rather blue following their experience in San Francisco, it was in Hollywood where they found their inspiration again.

“When we drove down Sunset Boulevard (in Hollywood) past the original Hamburger Hamlet, we saw Jack Palance sitting there eating his hamburger,” Hong said in front of his classmates and then mimicked how Palance ate his burger. “He was one of our idols and had been in so many wonderful movies. From that moment on, we were captivated and wanted to try it out in Hollywood ourselves.”

While working the nightclub scene with Parker, James received a big break to perform on national TV. As a contestant on the Groucho Marx's show “You Bet Your Life.” Groucho asked if Hong could do an impersonation of him. The striving star agreed and stunned the audience with his funny impersonation of not only Groucho but of other stars such as Peter Lorre and James Cagney. He received the second biggest volume of fan mail ever on that show.

James left Minnesota when his family moved to California following his eventful summer. He transferred the credits he earned at the University of Minnesota and finished his civil engineering degree at University of Southern California. Following graduation, the budding entertainer worked as a civil engineer for the Los Angeles County. For one and half years he worked his day job while performing comedy shows with Parker at night. He never gave up on his dream.

Despite the hard work and the nightclub shows, Hong and Parker had yet to land a Hollywood agent. After brainstorming for many weeks, the cunning entertainers thought of a creative and daring stunt to pull as Christmas approached. They learned of where a potential agent was living, grabbed two candles and put on their mittens and stocking caps they had brought from Minnesota. In the California heat, the two went to the agent's home and knocked on the front door. When she opened the door, the two serenaded her with a rendition of “Silent Night.” Their daring paid off.

“She was so taken by our singing. We immediately got her as her agent and she never forgot that moment,” Hong reminisced before his classmates.

With the agent, Hong was able to secure his first three movie roles which starred actors Clark Gable, John Wayne and Bill Holden. Hong quit his civil engineer job after landing those parts so he could fully pursue his acting career.

“I was with that agent for a long time and she got me a lot of jobs,” Hong said as he began to finish his address to his classmates. “I still remember her voice. It was the most wonderful voice when she called me and said, 'Well James, you got the job.'”

Once Hong finished saying his goodbyes and posing in photos with his friends, the three of us made our way back to the car. As we pulled out of the parking lot and began driving towards South Minneapolis where James spent most of his youth, Stephanie and I commented on his remarkable journey.

“That was an amazing story,” Stephanie said.

“We really enjoyed your story about how you landed your first agent,” I added.

“It took a lot of guts. You have to have guts, though,” he answered chuckling. “All you could really get is just a 'no.' But you have the world to possibly gain.”

Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series on James Hong. The second installment will be in the November issue of China Insight.

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