|Home from Hollywood: James Hong's nostalgic return to Minnesota|| || |
|Tuesday, 03 November 2009 10:28|
By Albert Leung, Staff Writer
The author and friend Stephanie Lau spent time with legendary actor James Hong when he returned to Minnesota for his 62nd high school reunion. This is the second installment of a three-part series on James Hong. The final installment will appear in the December issue of CHINAINSIGHT.
Life never seems to sail the course you expect it to, but no matter the route it takes, you will reach your destiny in the end. Although born in Minnesota, James was not allowed to stay during his entire childhood. Fearing that American culture was overtaking the household, James's father sent him back to Hong Kong for elementary school. After a few years of studying the Cantonese dialect and Chinese culture, James was allowed to return to the Land of 10,000 Lakes. It was a difficult transition for young James since he did not speak English anymore. He became a shy student when he returned mainly because of the teasing he received from fellow American students. James was determined and ambitious even at that young age. He would not remain that reserved boy after he made a life changing decision at Bryant Junior High School.
Following the high school reunion, James, Stephanie and I made our way to Minneapolis in search of James's most favorite childhood haunts. We weaved around the neighborhood streets of South Minneapolis looking for his former junior high school and two homes he and his family used to live in.
Bryant Junior High School
First we headed to Bryant Junior High School, which was described to us, by James's former high school classmates, as a large industrial looking brick building. The school has since closed and now operating out of the brick and mortar structure is Sabathani Community Center.
The building stood gallantly among the small rambler houses surrounding it. The brickwork's condition was nearly immaculate and showed no wear. The squared shaped building looked almost like an institution. It brick design and large windows made the building resemble some University of Minnesota's older classroom buildings. The structure looked ominous especially compared to the small homes surrounding it. As a child, I would have found it to be an intimidating building to attend school in.
“When was the last time you've visited here?” I asked James as we walked along the sidewalk and towards the front door.
“Well let's see,” James muttered. “I haven't been back here since I attended junior high, so that must have been when I was 13 or 14 years old. Nearly 66 years or so.”
The inside of the building was well kept just like its exterior. The walls were colored neutral and only adorned with a few pictures and posters. At first it seemed the building was unoccupied except for the few people conversing at the front desk.
James approached the counter and the gentleman and woman who were chatting stopped their conversation immediately. A long drawn out silence and a double take later, the gentleman at the front etched a sly smirk across his face. The gal next to him was less subtle and broke into loud chuckles and walked in a few circles while in disbelief. They knew it. A Hollywood star was in their presence.
“You're that guy. I know you,” the gentleman manning the front desk said as he drew his index finger up to point at James.
The lady next to us changed from chuckles to uncontrollable squeals of delight which filled the first floor hall with echoed shrills. Her shrieks resonated in the halls so loudly that the front desk man could barely hear James ask for permission to walk around the building and film his old junior high.
With permission, we took off to stroll around the building formerly Bryant Junior High School. Making our way to the building's second floor, it felt eerie to me to see many of the school's old remnants still affixed in the strangely quiet hallways. Old classroom numbers still hung above the doors and dark gray steel lockers lined the sides of the halls. These remaining artifacts are the only signs left that a bustling school filled with rambunctious children used to exist there.
We strolled through the hushed halls as James carefully examined the surroundings in search for a something to spark his memory. What were once classrooms have now become offices of small businesses and non-profits who serve the local community; though the second floor seemed completely empty. James stopped suddenly during our tour and turned towards Stephanie and me with an inspired expression.
“This is actually where my acting career began,” James said smiling. “It was here that I learned I had some talent. We should go down to the auditorium and I can tell you how it all started.”
As we turned around to wrap up our tour and downstairs where I thought I saw the auditorium door, James reached out compulsively to open one of the dozens of closed doors throughout the hallway. He was hoping for the auditorium but instead he found another gem.
“Hey, this is the gymnasium! I used to play basketball here,” he said as he waved us into the room.
The wooden gymnasium floors remained but missing were the basketball hoops. That, though, was merely a small matter to James. He strutted onto the court, took a deep breath and started to mimic his old basketball skills. It was a full repertoire that included crossovers, spin moves and a hook shot.
“We would be very lucky if we have even half of James's energy when we reach 80 years old,” I whispered to Stephanie while watching the veteran actor in disbelief.
Following the basketball display, we ventured back to the first floor where the auditorium was housed. It had undergone some updates and renovations since James's days but the general layout was similar enough for him to recognize immediately.
The three of us sat down in the auditorium chairs while waiting for the folks at the Sabathani Community Center to turn on the stage lights. It was on that stage where James the actor was born.
“Because after attending school in Hong Kong for a number of years, I could not speak English very well when I returned to Minnesota, I became a very shy child,” James recalled.
Rather than let the fear overbear him, James decided to try to overcome his fear by enrolling in Bryant Junior High School's drama club. It was with his drama coach Miss Bess where James realized his knack for acting and broke out of his shell.
“Miss Bess taught me a lot when I joined the drama club. For some reason she decided to take me under her wing,” James reminisced. “On stage, I began to realize I could express my emotions that I was feeling at the time.”
Nearing the end of his junior high days, James was cast as one of the leads in the graduating class' play. He was to play a villain in his first major role.
“I remember I got to play this villain with a huge fake mustache. It was a melodrama where I twirled the giant fake mustache and said the line, 'I'm here to collect the mortgage! Hahahahaha,” James said.
It was remarkable how clearly James remembered the play he acted in over 60 years ago. Not the details nor the lines escaped his memories. James recalled his first seamless ad-lib he delivered while on stage after a prop had fallen while he was sawing one of the characters in half. Rather than pausing the play and picking up the prop awkwardly, James extemporaneously recited a brilliant line where he blamed his assistant for not fixing the saw. Then he put the prop back in place and continued on with the play without a hitch. His mentor was impressed by James's creative ad-lib.
“After the graduation play, Miss Bess came up to me and said 'That was brilliant James! You are really meant for showbiz. That little ad-lib you did and putting the prop back after it fell while the play was running saved the day,'” James said with a smile. “It was all here at Bryant Junior High School where I began to find my expression in life.”
The Purple Home
A few blocks away from James's former junior high school on Quentin Ave. S. is where one of the three Minneapolis homes he and his family lived in during their time here. From this house James walked to Bryant Junior High School everyday.
As we pulled up to his old home, James immediately noticed some significant changes had been made.
“This is not my old house. Boy have they repainted and refurbished it,” James said. “It wasn't purple!”
The formerly stark white home had been made over. The house had since gotten a bit of color and is now dark green with purple trim. The front lawn that once had a large tree that James would climb regularly with his siblings had been overhauled also and redesigned with a collage of budding flower beds.
“Our first house in Minneapolis was a small place we bought in downtown Minneapolis for around $2,000. This was our second home that we upgraded to for around $3,000. Can you imagine owning a house for around $3,000 now,” James said chuckling at the thought.
After surveying the neighbor, we hopped back into my car and took off for the third and final home his family owned in Minnesota. This was his dwelling throughout his college days at the University of Minnesota and the place he called home before fulfilling his dreams in California.
James began to develop into a young man during his years at his home off of Pillsbury Avenue in South Minneapolis. In the garage he developed a love for tinkering with carpentry and also restored an old Chrysler. These hobbies eventually led to his decision to study civil engineering when he enrolled at the University of Minnesota. Many changes came about in this home.
“This was the home where I lived with my mother and younger sisters. A lot of my other siblings started to move away during this time as they went off to live their own adult lives. This was the home I returned to after my services during the Korean War,” James said. “This is where I tried to revamp my life after the war.”
Attending college at the University of Minnesota was an important goal to James and he did his best to ensure it would happen. He tried some creative means to earn money to pay for his courses at the college such as raking lawns for 25 cents and shining shoes at a local barber shop. Not finding much financial luck, James entered into the Minnesota National Guard while attending the University of Minnesota to earn some income for school.
“Once or twice every week I'd go down to the armory in Minneapolis where they'd train and prepare us for war if that was to ever occur. Then sure enough one summer, the Korean War hit and we were activated,” James said.
He and his fellow Minnesota National Guard comrades were sent down to Alabama for combat training at the famous Camp Rucker before being sent to the Korea to battle. Unexpectedly, fate intervened and James never left that camp to fight.
“After a full day of learning to fire artillery and running through obstacle courses, I would go to the special services group at night where you could socialize and see entertainers who came from all over the country,” James said. “I began working with the army's social club on the camp to organize shows. I would appear in the shows myself and one night the general happened to see me perform while I was doing an impersonation of Al Jolson's song 'My Mammy'.”
After witnessing James's entertaining prowess, the camp general asked him to stay at Camp Rucker and be in charge of the camp's live shows division. It was a lucky break for the actor that may have saved his life.
“I don't know if I would have liked to go to war in Korea but let's admit it that with a G.I. cap and this face charging at the Korean army, the Koreans would try to kill me. But then if we were to retreat and I turned around and ran back the Americans would try to kill me too because they'd think I'm an enemy in disguise,” James said. “I definitely think I would have been shot from one side and the other.”
After reminiscing over his army experience and looking back at the neighborhood, we decided to take off again. Before returning back to James's hotel, we decided to stop at Powderhorn Park nearby the home where James and his childhood friends went sledding during the winter days.
Lo Pan's Return
We approached the park and could see a large hill near the middle of Powderhorn Park that dove straight into a large clear pasture and a baseball field. We walked up to the top edge of large hill and stood looking over the steep decline.
“This park has really gotten big now. It's large enough to play a game a football. You guys want to throw me a pass?” He asked then took off into the open field with his arm stretched out as if calling for a pass.
Stephanie and I watched as he ran routes, called for passes and even stiff-armed some imaginary tacklers. The consummate entertainer once again brought on our laughs with his contagious energy for shenanigans. It felt as if he was getting loose and accustomed to Stephanie and I being around him. We were starting to see a very personable and rather funny side of James.
James Hong displays his powerful football moves while visiting Powderhorn Park in South Minneapolis
After a few more strides around the field, he jogged back to us and joked. “That was fun. When I come back at 90 I'll do some running again,” he said jokingly. “I'll be in a walker, though. I'll really be David Lo Pan then!”
James then peered into camera lens and with a sneering look on his face he was immediately in character. David Lo Pan, the soulless villain who crept into my nightmares as a child, had returned.
“I'm still looking for the girl with green eyes,” he said fearsomely.
Toying with the Stephanie and the video camera, he scowled at the lens and described his eternal search for the girl with green eyes: the search which had led him to scour the universe.
“When I have found her, I will marry her. I just want to make myself mortal again. Do you have green eyes,” he said while in character. He raised his finger to point into the camera and then with a deadly gaze he laughed sinisterly to end his live monologue.
In an unexpected turn, James Hong brings back to life the intensely villainous character David Lo Pan, who James portrayed in the movie Big Trouble in Little China, and sends one final terrifying message to the world
It was amazing to watch James's dedication to entertain even if his audience consisted of only Stephanie and me. His knack of drawing laughs was masterful.
Following the impromptu David Lo Pan appearance, memories of that movie flooded back into my mind. I decided then I had to share with him how fearful I was of the ghostly white Lo Pan when I first saw the film Big Trouble In Little China.
“I remember watching that movie when I was a child and you gave me nightmares as your Lo Pan character,” I said nervously as James listened intently. I was unsure of how he would react.
“It gave you nightmares,” James asked sounding surprised.
“Yeah, that movie is ingrained in...” I said but then was interrupted when James unexpectedly lunged for my throat and fake choked me on camera. He shook me around a few times and I feebly tried to contain my laughter. It was undoubtedly one of the best moments of my life even though it was startling at first.
“I am being choked by James Hong right now. How Awesome,” I thought at that moment.
A Good Day
After the dust settled and the three of us got our fill of laughs, we made our way back to the car to call it a day. Before reaching the vehicle, an older woman wearing a light blue t-shirt with the word “senior” printed on the front walked by us and recognized James immediately.
Her hands clapped in excitement and with a pricelessly infectious smile she asked James, “What are you doing in Minneapolis?”
“This is where I used to come and play,” James answered politely.
“This is where I used to come and play,” she said excitedly. She walked up to James, casually grabbed his hand and kissed it. She was thrilled to meet the man who she had admired in the television show Charlie Chan and in movies such as Chinatown.
The two talked about their neighborhood that they shared and grew up in. Although she was much younger than James, the two had similar sledding memories at Powderhorn Park and she was especially happy to learn that she had zoomed down the same hill that James had before her. Despite their generation gap and having never met before, their stories were so similar that it was as if they had played in the snow together long ago.
Curiosity struck James and he asked his dedicated fan about her background. She was happy to share even though life had been rather difficult for her lately. In their conversation, she told us that her ailing health had forced her into early retirement. Her health was difficult to predict as her moods and condition changed daily.
“I have good days and I have bad days. My doctor says that when I'm up and feeling good I should get out,” she said to James with her hands clutching closely to her heart.
James responded with a kind and touching remark.
“Well today's a good day now that you've met me. Tomorrow's going to be a good day too,” he said then followed it with a hug and a smile. “It's a sign. The great god has sent me to your life and I say 'heal'”.
With a swift flick of his arm in the air, he blessed the woman. Maybe not a blessing that will make her illness miraculously disappear but he blessed her with a wonderfully unexpected encounter. One she can always remember as a very good day.
She cheerfully smiled at James and gazed upon him with deep admiration.
“I am so blessed. Thank you,” she said. Her hands unclasped and she blew a sweet goodbye kiss to James.