Tuesday, January 12, 2010

James Hong's nostalgic return to Minnesota Pt. 3

Home from Hollywood: James Hong's nostalgic return to Minnesota Print E-mail
Tuesday, 24 November 2009 12:27

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 final installment of a three-part series on James Hong.

After a day full of driving around town, I was looking forward to an easier schedule during James's second day in Minnesota. There were no old haunts to tour but only a visit to local private school Breck, located in Golden Valley, Minn., to speak to some of their students.

The invitation came from the school's Chinese language teacher Margaret Wong who invited the actor to share some insights and tell tales of his Hollywood experience. Although expecting to address a large student body or drama class, James found out upon arriving his audience would actually consist of a few Chinese language classes that Margaret taught.

Despite not receiving the details of his presentation until he arrived, James was very accommodating to Margaret's schedule which asked him to speak to a handful of Chinese languages classes separately.

web_james hong day 2  3 001 James takes a seat in the lobby of Breck School while waiting to meet Margaret Wong and her Chinese language students

Within a state-of-the-art auditorium, James and his brilliantly entertaining antics were displayed to a small collection of students that consisted of grade schoolers and high schoolers. Under the spotlight again, the consummate entertainer did not disappoint. Even with very little time to prepare, James improvised as he spoke to the students and delivered very thoughtful advice for the kids to heed as they venture into adulthood.

“With Asian philosophy, right and wrong is one thing. There is no devil sitting on one shoulder and an angel on the other. They are one thing and it is on you to separate the right from wrong and what you want to do,” James said compassionately. “I can't tell you what to do. Nobody can. You have to weigh it yourself and make your own decision. It is on you to make the right decision”

Margret Wong and James sharing the stage in Breck School's auditorium as James greets grade school and high school Chineseweb_james hong day 2  3 010 language students

To the high schoolers who attended, James spoke about his past and how he came into acting. He shared his wisdom, guidance and advice in hopes the young students would apply it in their lives. Most important in his messages was his advice on pursuing their dreams.

“In China, back in my days, being an actor was the lowest rung in professions and my parents were against me being an actor. It was not good to demonstrate feelings on stage and be demonstrative,” James said. “But there was something there that kept telling me to be an actor.”

Watching and listening to James speak to the younger generation was motivating to me. Listening to how much he enjoyed studying Chinese while attending the University of Minnesota left me wondering if I should rededicate myself to studying my own language as well.

One of the most important messages, in my opinion, that James left was valuable for anyone and should be kept in the minds of many. It was a sound reminder that you must remain responsible and level headed no matter where life takes you.

“If you ever become a star, no matter what you do in life, you have to remember to remain balanced,” James shared. “By now you've probably heard of stars who have lost their way like my friend David Carradine, who hung himself in Thailand. They couldn't handle success.”

web_james hong day 2  3 041 James shares his wisdom with Breck School's high school students

While keeping his discussion mostly serious, James found opportunities to break the tension and maintained a loose environment with cleverly added jokes and impressions to incite some life into his audience. He performed celebrity impressions such as Elvis Presley and broke out his famous voice over roles in the movies Mu Lan and in Kung Fu Panda. While running his film credit, he unexpectedly jumped on stage and re-enacted the brief clip of him as Lo Pan, which amazed and surprised the students. Staying hip with the times, James even displayed his hip-hop dancing skills which he said he picked up from street performers he met in Toronto.

There was no doubt in my mind: James was truly put on this Earth to entertain.

The Final Day

On day three we had an ambitious schedule to maintain. Stephanie and I lurched out of slumber early in the morning to meet at James's hotel and get the day rolling as soon as possible. After packing a small lunch, the three of us headed to the University of Minnesota where our first stop was at East River Flats, located by the Mississippi River where James parked his car when attending college.

The East River Flats is a large parking area and field that sits on the banks of the Mississippi River right behind Coffman Memorial Union on the University of Minnesota campus. Back during the days when James attended college, the area was a popular parking lot where students could leave their cars for free.

“I remember parking my old car there by the river and during the cold winter, it would have a terrible time starting again,” James said. “It would get down to below 20 degrees but we did it. We parked down here because there was no where else we could park for free.”

While admiring the view of the river, James's eyes suddenly twinkled with an idea. He positioned Stephanie about 50 feet away from him and had her turn on the camera. His decided to edit together a slew of footage of him running across the River Flats, through parts of the University of Minnesota campus, and finally end somewhere near the Civil Engineer building.

web_james hong day 2  3 058 Showing his fortitude and endurance, James prepares for another shot of him running through campus so it can be edited into a comical video skit

James dug his feet into the ground and sprinted towards Stephanie and the camera. His energy was child-like and I was amazed of his fervor. Admittedly, I was also a little worried if he could handle all this activity.

The actor was tireless, though. We drove into the heart of the University of Minnesota campus so he could jaunt through the Civil Engineering building. Upon arriving, Stephanie pitched the idea of him running up the stairs of Northrop Auditorium similar to how Sly Stallone did in the movie Rocky. James loved it.

Since most of the University buildings have been re-renovated and updated, the veteran actor couldn't recognize much of the area any longer. We walked around the Civil Engineer building for a few minutes as James reminisced about his days as a college student.

“It's nice to be here. This is where I spent about three and half years of my life,” James said. “I was always studying. I always had a tough time memorizing all those formulas. Three and half years of studying formulas.”

After touring the Civil Engineering building grounds, we continued with the video shoot. We toiled around Northrop Auditorium so James could finish filming his skit. The three of us then wandered into the building and found ourselves deep in the bowels of Northrop Auditorium. In the basement level of the building, we stumbled on a room labeled “First Aid Room” near the bathrooms. It was the perfect discovery we needed to finish off the skit.

As the camera rolled, James stumbled down the steps and huffed and puffed his way up to the door in desperation after his winded journey across the college campus. It was as if we were working on a college project or just goofing around with a camera. It was another moment of unforeseen fun Stephanie and I were able to enjoy with James.

Standing outside of the Civil Engineer building, James looks in amazement of how the University of Minnesota campus has changedweb_james hong day 2  3 062 since he attended the college

The Beginnings

Wrapping up our filming session on the University of Minnesota campus, we made our way into Downtown Minneapolis to visit the site where James and his family first moved to when arriving in Minnesota. Back when James was a child, it was known as the Chinatown in Minnesota.

Once resting on 3rd Avenue between 7th and 8th Street in downtown Minneapolis was where James's family store and first home was built. Their neighbors were also Chinese so the small city block was known as a Chinatown. On the first floor of the building was a few store fronts, one of which was James's father's. On the second floor of the building was where James's family and a couple other Chinese families lived.

“My mom would yell from the second floor for me to come home so I wouldn't be kidnapped by bandits from China,” James recalled. “Look at this place now. There probably aren't any bandits around downtown Minneapolis anymore.”

Picture 068: With Stephanie wielding the camera, James talks fondly about his first Minnesota home and father's store which was located in Downtown Minneapolis where Accenture's office building now reside

The site where James's first home was has since been replaced by Accenture's office building and its surrounding garden. Although understanding that cities change dramatically over the years, James still seemed a little forlorn to see that a large corporation had built over an important landmark in his life. Although the old days where Chinatown in Minneapolis thrived were gone, he quickly quelled those feelings by reliving old memories with his former Sunday school teacher Jane Wilson.

Once Upon a Time

In an assisted living home outside of downtown Minneapolis, we visited one of James's most important adult figures he had while growing up. Ms. Wilson (as James continues to call her) worked as a Sunday school teacher at Westminster Presbyterian Church located in downtown Minneapolis.

In the early days when many Chinese families started to settle in Minnesota and lived near Minneapolis, most of them congregated and connected at Westminster Presbyterian Church in downtown Minneapolis. Westminster Church, during those days, served as the community center for the Chinese people. Ms. Wilson served as one of the leaders of the church and helped coordinate assemblies and activities for the Chinese community. All her life she has been deeply involved in the Chinese community and because of that has kept in contact with many of the original families who first arrived in Minnesota.

As we parked my car outside of Ms. Wilson's home, I looked over at James to see him grinning in excitement. It had been many years since he and Ms. Wilson have seen each other. It was apparent that James was very excited to see his former teacher again.

We took the elevator up to the top floor where Ms. Wilson, James's old neighbor and childhood friend Oy Huie and current Westminster Presbyterian Church Reverend Dean Seal waited for our arrival.

As the elevator door sprang open, immediately sitting in front of us was Ms. Wilson. Her eyes grew wide once she gazed upon James's face. She reached up and gave him a loving hug.

“I'm sorry we're ten minutes late,” James said as if he was ‘fessing up to being in trouble.

“You're ten minutes late,” Ms. Wilson asked. “No matter. Let's go sit down.”

We all settled in an open room on the top floor of the building. The windows allowed us a brilliant overview of the city skyline. Oy, James and Ms. Wilson sat around a table, looking at old photos and a recently published book called Chinese in Minnesota which told stories about the first Chinese families that settled in the state. A photo of Oy as a young girl graced the cover of the book and much of the content was provided by Ms. Wilson who kept extensive records and documents dating back to 1919 from her involvement with the Chinese community through the church.

Oy and James paged through old family photos and reminisced over their childhood with tales of their family. Oy, whose father and mother owned the store next to James's father's, recalled fond memories with James's family following her father's sudden passing after her family had arrived in Minnesota.

“I remember your mother took care of us. My mother was devastated after my father passed away because she had three of us one right after each other and she didn't speak any English,” Oy recalled. “I remember at the funeral, your mother got me and asked me to go say goodbye to my father. I remember that very well.”

“Yes, my mother had that ability to take care of others. But why then did you give me so much trouble,” James asked jokingly.

“Me? That's my nature,” Oy answered playfully.

The two teased each other as if they were children again. James brought up old insults that Oy threw at him when they were kids such as saying that his legs were too skinny. Now as adults, they were able to laugh at the fun they had at each other's expense.

Oy, though, wasn't the only one to experience old tendencies with James. Ms. Anderson also had her own flash backs. For instance while trying to show James some old church photos, she enticed him with a bookmark which featured the book Chinese in Minnesota as if she was back in class and he was her student.

“If you're good, I might let you have that,” Ms. Anderson said with a stern tone.

“I'm good, I'm good. I'm always good,” James responded. “Are you giving this to me now?”

“No. You put that back into the book. You keep interrupting me,” Ms. Anderson answered. “Show some respect.”

After a couple hours of sharing stories about the good and bad times, James, Stephanie and I had to depart. The actor helped his former Sunday school teacher up from her chair and led her out the room with care. The two continued to talk about the old times until we reached the elevator doors. They exchanged one last hug and said their goodbyes in hopes to see each other again in the near future.

The End... For Now

Our journey had come to a close. Having retraced his beloved life in Minnesota, it was time to put the camera to rest. As we started to drive away, I wondered if James had hoped to discover something during his return home. Many of the buildings and former homes have changed since he last saw them which could make Minnesota feel less like home than it had before he came back.

Whether he was expecting it or not, I think James did find that familiar feeling of home again. Even though his former homes have been built over or re-renovated and his former schools have changed dramatically, James found it true that some things really don't change. With his friends from Central High School, childhood friend in Oy Huie and former teacher Ms. Anderson, James found something that managed to stand the test of time. They were the same people who he grew up with, shared wonderful memories with, and continued to treasure when he left to pursue his Hollywood dreams.

As I took to the highway and headed home, I looked over to James to tell him how much I appreciated the time I was able to spend with him.

“This has been a great experience for me. Thanks for letting me tag along,” I said. “You had really great stories and gave such valuable advice to many of the students.”

“I had a really great time too,” Stephanie echoed.

I told James how I admired his guts in pursuing his acting career. His insightful words would have been very inspirational to hear if I were one of those students sitting in the auditorium chair. I told him how I wished I had heard him speak years before while I was still figuring out my life.

“Well, life is too short not to do what you love,” James said as he gazed out the window and watched the Minneapolis skyline pass by one last time.

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