So I was going through his credits, trying to figure out where I know him from (look, I haven’t ever actually seen Big Trouble in Little China), and I discovered some odd things about his career. Like the fact that, from what I can tell, he has almost exclusively played Chinese characters. Yes, a couple of Japanese or Vietnamese characters—look, when the character is named Kurosawa or Nguyen, you don’t have to be an expert on Asian names to work out the ethnicities in question—but not even the standard Token Korean Guy On An Episode Of M*A*S*H. Weirdly, about the only exceptions are episodes of Charlie’s Angels, where he played “Professor Perkins” (on an episode also featuring Scatman Crothers and Dean Martin?), and an episode of Ironside, where he played “Wilson.”
Mostly, though, when Hollywood is looking for a guy named Wang or Ching or Lee—or, yes, Lo Pan—they’ve gone looking for James Hong. Still. The man is ninety, and he’s got two episodes of a TV show listed as “in production.” (Funded by Kickstarter; let your employees unionize, Kickstarter.) For a total of 271 TV shows. Similarly, he has two movies in production, for a total of 122 movies. Okay, fine; quite a lot of what he’s done looks terrible. That’s hardly surprising, with that many credits; the only way to have a perfect list is to be John Cazale and die after five perfect movies. The man has been working steadily and consistently since 1955, long before many of the people we’ve discussed were born.
Interesting, then, to consider the world where he beat George Takei to the part of Sulu. Never mind that Hikaru Sulu is strongly implied to be Japanese; he was originally intended to be Sort Of Generic East Asian. And James Hong auditioned for the part. Now, Takei hasn’t entirely been resting on those laurels; he himself has well over a hundred TV credits and fifty movie credits. And of course, there’s no little overlap from their early careers; they both have episodes of Perry Mason to their credit, come to that. But would Hong have been Lo Pan if he’d been in The One With the Whales in the same year? I suspect not.
There is more to him than Lo Pan; there are even more movies that he’s been in that people have heard of. I grant you, people are not running around in T-shirts featuring The Satan Bug (though Gypsy would, if she had the body for T-shirts; it stars Richard Basehart), but they are wearing shirts with the poster for Blade Runner, and if I can’t remember his character from it, well, it’s been a while since I’ve seen it. Ditto Chinatown. I do remember him from Airplane! He commits seppuku rather than listen to Ted Striker tell his story. So I guess that’s another time his character wasn’t Chinese.
And if many of his post-Trouble roles have been deliberate references to it, well, is there anything wrong with that? Any more than all the people who cast George Takei for the Sulu reference? Besides, I’m sure he’d rather we talk about that than the pair of what appear to be soft-core porn movies he directed in the ’70s. (With names like Hot Connections and Teen Lust, and with the plot summaries I’ve seen, yeah.) Or even the horror movie he directed in the ’80s. I’m sure that wasn’t what he was expecting when he used his vacation and sick time from his job as an engineer for the County of Los Angeles to act, and it’s certainly not what he would have expected when his CO put him in charge of entertainment at Camp Rucker rather than send him to Korea—for which he’s grateful, because he’s pretty sure one side or the other would’ve shot him, and it would not, in the long run, have mattered which.