He's acted in over 650 roles, but James Hong says there's still a long way to go for Asian American representation in Hollywood
- As one of the most prolific actors in
Hollywoodhistory, James Honghas paved the way for Asian American talent in Hollywood.
- The 93-year-old star founded East West Players to boost
AAPIrepresentation in theater.
When James Hong received his star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame in May, it was a seven-decade-long dream come true.
"Everyday I wake up and I think, it cannot be," Hong told Insider.
At 93 years old, Hong made history by becoming the oldest actor to receive a star, which he celebrated in a red silk Tang suit, surrounded by a flurry of drums and Chinese lion dancers.
The recognition comes after nearly 70 years of acting, during which Hong strived to carve out a space for Asian American talent in an industry dominated by white actors.
Hong has more than 650 film and television credits under his belt, including "Blade Runner," "Seinfeld," and, most recently, A24's "Everything Everywhere All At Once."
As a member of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organization behind the Oscars, Hong helps to advocate for the newest generation of AAPI talent.
"We have meetings once in a while to help boost the image of Asian American actors, because they haven't been duly recognized until lately," Hong said.
Films created by and starring Asian actors, directors, and producers like "Minari" and Marvel's "Shang-Chi" have recently captured Hollywood's attention—a rise that many in the
"No one will have blazed the trail the way that James Hong has," Kim said.
Working within the limitations of Hollywood
Hong, a Chinese American who grew up in Minnesota, long entertained the thought of becoming an actor, imitating famous actors like James Cagney and James Stewart in front of his mirror.
"That was my so-called exhibition in the arts," Hong joked.
When he landed in Hollywood in 1953, Hong redubbed soundtracks of several Asian films, eventually making his break when he appeared on Groucho Marx's game show "You Bet Your Life."
Many of the roles Hong played early in his acting career were Asian stereotypes: diabolical villains or two-dimensional Chinamen.
"If you didn't do the roles you were offered, you didn't work. So you have to keep working and improve your craft," Hong said.
Instead, he worked to turn cliched parts into multi-faceted characters. One of Hong's favorite roles was the villain in "Big Trouble in Little China," a martial arts comedy that, on the face of it, could be seen as stereotypically hokey.
"Although he was the evil Asian, he was very human in the sense that all he wanted was a girl with green eyes," Hong told Insider. "I got a chance to do a lot of emotions and explore facets of the character."
Seeing Hong on television and the silver screen inspired a host of other Asian American actors.
"It's always important to see someone of Asian descent be represented on screen," actress Ming-Na Wen, who starred in films like "The Joy Luck Club" and "Mulan," said. "They're pure inspiration, a reminder of how much I can do."
He launched his own theater to create a space for Asian American actors
Despite Hong's efforts, some roles were unplayable. In 1962, Hong said he was given the script for a movie called "The Confessions of an Opium Eater." The only roles available for Asian actors in the movie were "opium dope people and the prostitutes and so forth," he said in an interview with CNN. Incensed, he turned down the role, and led a petition against the film.
Frustrated with the limitations of Hollywood, Hong and eight Asian American artists banded together to found East West Players in 1964.
From its inception, East West Players' mission was to create a space where Asian American actors could play roles beyond the stereotypical caricatures offered by mainstream Hollywood. Hong and his co-founders picked "Rashomon," a psychological thriller by the Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, as their first play, which they performed at the basement of a church in Los Angeles' Griffith Park.
East West Players began to amass positive reviews and funding, and now commands a theater in Little Japan. It's since staged more than 228 plays ranging from Shakespeare's "The Tempest" and "Mamma Mia!" to works by Asian American writers like David Henry Hwang's "Yellow Face" and "Chinglish."
A roster of now-famous alumni have performed on stage at East West Players, including Daniel Dae Kim, Kal Penn, John Cho, and Ming-Na Wen. Beyond helping to launch their acting careers, the theater group became a place of community and connection.
"I was no longer the token Asian in the group. I wasn't alone anymore—you all share the same experiences, issues, and concerns, and it was very rewarding to experience that," Wen said.
Hong says Hollywood still has 30% of the way to go
Films like "Parasite" and "Crazy Rich Asians" have continued to break ground for Asian and Asian American creators in Hollywood, but Hong thinks there's still a ways to go.
"After 70 years, I've seen maybe a 70% upgrade in progress. We still need the 30% going until we're truly in the mainstream, where Asian American actors are recognized as actors in Hollywood," Hong said.
"I don't really see a lot of mainstream roles of Asian American actors, because we're still looked down upon. We're still in the so-called silent minority race, because it takes Hollywood such a long time to realize we are important in the movie industry," he added.
Writers and producers must capture America's increasing
"Asian Americans are leading businesses, politics, the arts," he said. "Hollywood is just a couple steps behind the changes in society, and movies have to catch up."
In the meantime, Hong plans to continue starring in and creating works that showcase Asian talent. His upcoming projects include "Kung Fu Panda 4," the TV show "American Born Chinese, and "Patsy Lee & the Keepers of the Five Kingdoms," which he's producing himself.
"At 93, I'm still making moves, acting in movies—and I can still breakdance," Hong said.
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