I love old Hollywood studio films. Sometimes it’s tough viewing and I have to shed my social justice cap in order to enjoy what is happening on-screen, but mostly it’s joyful. There are racist images aplenty in some of these old gems, where yellow face abounds, where White actors portrayed “ethnic” roles with taped eyelids and spoke in stilted “Engrish.” The most prominent example that comes to mind are the leads in the 1937 adaptation of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. It is an excellent classic despite the main actors being White. In fact, Austrian actress Luise Rainier, who had landed the part over Chinese-American star Anna May Wong, went on to win the Oscar for Best Actress. However it’s still a beloved movie for me, and many Asian actors were cast in the film including: Roland Lui, Caroline Chew, Chingwah Lee, Mary Wong (Anna May’s younger sister), James Z.M. Lee, Soo Yong, William Law, Lotus Liu, and Frank Tang.
I’ve become fans of actors who defied odds and carved out successful careers in Hollywood. Let’s take a stroll down this emperor yellow brick road and review a few of my favorites:
Keye Luke, born Luk Sek Lam. Known for his roles from Charlie Chan’s Number One son to Kwai Chang Kane’s blind mentor in TV’s Kung Fu to the mysterious Dr. Yang in Woody Allen’s Alice. He costarred with Humphrey Bogart, Clark Gable, and most notably Paul Muni (playing his college-educated elder son in The Good Earth). His favorite role was as Master Po on “Kung Fu” because: “I was giving the actual sayings of great Chinese philosophers like Confucius for dialogue”¦It worked for me on every level.” Trivia: Originally a graphic artist, he worked on murals inside Graumann’s Chinese theatre.
Benson Fong, born KuÃ ng BingxiÃ³ng. Like Keye Luke, he was one of Charlie Chan’s sons, Number Three, Tommy, in the Sidney Toler films. Fong is most widely recognized as the virtuous house servant and assistant-and true Christian– not a rice Christian–to Gregory Peck in The Keys of the Kingdom, and as the befuddled patriarch, Wang Chi-Yang, in Flower Drum Song. He characterized himself as “a split personality – half a pound Oriental and eight ounces Yankee.” After retiring from acting he opened a chain of successful restaurants, Ah Fong. Trivia: Ah Fong Restaurants is mentioned as one of Darrin Steven’s clients on “Bewitched.”
Anna May Wong, born Wong Lau Seong. Wong had a successful career as the first Asian-American female star, starting in silent film then moving to talkies. She soon grew weary of being typecast as the exotic, the dragon lady, the vamp, and good parts were not readily available to her. There was one exception though: Daughter of Shanghai in which she played a female detective role, opposite school pal Korean-American actor, Philip Ahn. She left Hollywood after she was insulted by being turned down for the part of O-Lan in The Good Earth because of miscegenation laws. Instead she was offered the part of Lotus Blossom, the concubine, to which she responded why take the lowliest of roles and insult my own people with this depiction. Trivia: Her cousin was cinematographer extraordinare, James Wong Howe.
France Nuyen, born France Nguyen Van-Nga, is half-French and half-Vietnamese. She’s most recognized as the younger than springtime Liat in South Pacific, and as sad Auntie Ying-ying in The Joy Luck Club. Nuyen was discovered by a Life magazine photographer while at the beach. She originated the role of Suzie Wong on Broadway, but was replaced by Nancy Kwan in the film version. Trivia: She dated Marlon Brando.
Nobu McCarthy, born Atsumi Nobu, was Jerry Lewis’ onscreen love interest with whom she shared an interracial kiss in The Geisha Boy. Miss Atsumi had been a ballet dancer, model, and Miss Tokyo when she married an American serviceman, hence her last name. Once stateside, she was discovered by a Hollywood agent. Trivia: She is Canadian by birth, born in Ottawa.
Lisa Lu– born Lu Yan, has had a long career in television,and has also had notable film roles. She is best remembered as the dying empress dowager in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor and as Auntie An-Mei in The Joy Luck Club. Lu’s screen debut was opposite Jimmy Stewart–as his onscreen love interest too!– in The Mountain Road. Trivia: She is the mother of actress and musician Lucia Hwong.
Shirley Yamaguchi, born Otaka Yoshiko. Yamaguchi spoke Chinese, Japanese, and English in her films. To American audiences she’s best known as Robert Stack’s love interest in the cult noir film, House of Bamboo (1955 dir. Samuel Fuller), and the war bride of Korean vet, Don Taylor, in Japanese War Bride (1952 dir. King Vidor). Trivia: Yamaguchi made movies in the U.S, Japan, Hong Kong, and China and therefore has four professional names.