Gum Saan Journal (Chinese Historical Society of Southern California), December 1977 (Contributed by Virginia Quin Kay)
SOCIETY HONORS PIONEER CHINESE AMERICAN ACTORS
By Mary and Chuck Yee
November 5, 1977, was the evening chosen by the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California to honor pioneer actors Keye Luke, Victor Sen Young and Benson Fong. A capacity crowd of over 400 persons enjoyed a delicious nine-course dinner at the Golden Palace Restaurant. President George Yee, master of ceremonies, had the group in a jovial mood with his series of jokes on Chinese-American stereotypes. Following the president’s introductory remarks, the honorees were introduced to the audience; each received a standing ovation. Each of the actors was presented a plaque from the Society honoring his achievements and historical contributions to the motion picture and television industry.
The three stars have a combined total acting experience of 115 years. All have portrayed sons of “Charlie Chan” in movies at various times, but this evening was the first time the trio shared a common stage. The program included a unique slide show using six projectors and audio tapes depicting the careers of the three actors. The presentation was produced by Beulah Quo and Terry Tam Soon. The interview was conducted by Ms. [Beulah] Quo, who is a noted actress in her own right. Following are excerpts from the interview, transcribed from tapes.
Beulah: Now that my family is assembled, maybe you can start by telling us why you became actors.
Beulah: What did your families think about your going into the acting profession?
Keye: Terrible – Worst thing you could do.
Benson: Same here.
Beulah: What were some of the early difficulties?
Benson: To be or not to be, to eat or not to eat, to act or not to act. And how long must I wait for my agent to call? Should I stay in the business, and will I ever get more than three or four lines to say?
Victor: I agree with Benson wholeheartedly. It was not easy. When I was under contract, things were great. I got three square meals a day, a guarantee of 40 weeks work out of 52, but when that was over, it was difficult. Today it is even worse. With the advent of television the amount of work I get is very little in terms of days worked. For example, the show BONANZA – I’ve been all over the country, selling a book, and everyone thinks that I have worked in every show and that I am a millionaire. The truth is sometimes I work one day in a show and only get a residual for that show. I appear in about 20% of the shows over a period of 14 years, and that was not enough to sustain myself in terms of a livelihood. To live, you do other things. My good friend Al Yee gave me a job driving a truck for Air Freight. I also worked as a waiter. You do all kinds of things. Being versatile comes in handy. When someone needs me to drive a truck, I drive a truck; when someone needs a cook, I cook.
Beulah: Keye since you are the oldest among the three but look the youngest, what did your family think about you going into the acting profession?
Keye: My family didn’t think anything of it, because they were in Seattle. I didn’t have any intention of going into acting. I was a publicity artist for RKO and Fox Studios. At Fox, I was handling the newspaper artwork for Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. It was felt that because it was a Chinese Theatre there should be a Chinese artist. My becoming an actor was mainly the result of being in the right place at the right time. When I did my first picture with Greta Garbo, I got the role because my former boss at MGM called me to his office one day. I took samples of my artwork with me. He said, “What the hell do you have those things for?” I said, “I thought you wanted to see my art work.” He replied, “No!………read page 35,” handing me the script for THE PAINTED VEIL. After I read it, he asked, “How do you like it?” I said, “It’s a very good part,” to which he said, “How would you like to play it?” “But, I’m an artist,” I insisted. “Don’t worry about that,” he answered, and took me downstairs to the casting department. I waited as my friend Frank Whitback went into the inner office where the casting directors were assembled. A few moments later I heard this big booming voice, “Gentlemen, out of China’s 400 million people, I give you China’s greatest actor! “
Beulah: Speaking of the early days of studio work, Benson, what was the attitude of the studios toward Asians when casting actors?
Benson: Let me tell you how I got into acting in the early forties. I was in a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco with some friends. Somehow I felt someone staring at me. I was quite disturbed and asked the waiter to tell the man to stop staring, instead, he came over, introduced himself as a director of Paramount Studios and said he was looking for a Chinese to do a film called CHINA. He told me if I came to Hollywood, I would get many big stars such as Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, Bob Hope and Bing Crosby. What young boy would pass up such an opportunity? At Paramount, the director gave me a script. I read words – not very well – but I read them. I was then given a small part; in fact it was so small that if you blinked your eyes, I was gone! Victor had a key role in that film, and was very good in it. Because my friends found out I was going to be an actor, but couldn’t even find me in that movie, I thought I would stay and let them see me in a scene or two. So I stayed on, it was fun, but it was rough.
Beulah: In comparison to the days of the early 30’s and 40’s, are there different demands that the studio makes on you today?
Victor: I think the studios are much more stringent today. For instance, take CHARLIE CHAN, in those days we had a 35-45 day shooting schedule. Today for a television show, we do three days for a half-hour show like BONANZA. You sometimes get the script on the day before the show; when you get on the set, someone is changing it. It is really very difficult. You have to be on your toes; you have to memorize and be able to change your lines at a moment’s notice. I think it is much more demanding to be an actor today because the duration of employment is much shorter, and the struggle to get the job is much more difficult.
Beulah: In the early days there were very few Asian women in the acting profession. What was the attitude of the studios toward Asian women at that time?
Benson: I feel that the only parts available for Chinese actresses were the LOTUS BLOSSOMS, or the sex objects of some Caucasian hero. Aside from these two stereotype parts, there was very few roles for Chinese actresses. There have been some very good actresses from time to time, but continued disappointments and the lack of opportunity cause them to leave the movie profession.
Beulah: Benson, what is your favorite and best performance?
Benson: I have two – the first, KEYS OF THE KINGDOM because I was young and my first character role – putting on make-up and putting on whiskers like a little boy trying to act like Daddy. Then, FLOWER DRUM SONG and for that, I have to thank Keye. I have followed Big Brother Keye’s footsteps for many years, not only in the Charlie Chan series, but also his counterpart Master Wang in FLOWER DRUM SONG. I enjoyed this drama because it was a part that represented the generation gap of the Chinese people. It was a challenge to be able to depict a Chinese man who loved his children and hated the generation changes.
Beulah: Victor, what do you consider your best performance?
Victor: THE LETTER. I was young and under contract to Fox Studios for the Charlie Chan pictures. I was loaned out to Warner Brothers to do the part of an attorney’s clerk, and had to speak with a British accent. I was polished and wore glasses and it gave me an entirely new dimension. I never considered the part of Charlie Chan’s son as meek. I always considered “he’s Pop, as real gung-ho as we say today.” That is character, I believe portraying and developing a character on the screen takes a great deal of work, plus good director. Sometimes you have to carry that image on characterization from show to show with different director, different scripts. I like THE LETTER because it gave me a chance to really broaden my experience. At that time I was going to drama school. I finished the course but decided not to continue doing those love scenes with beautiful blondes, brunettes and redheads when they would never happen to me in motion pictures. After all, a Chinese had to stay in his place! I discontinued going to my drama class and started roaming around Chinatown and Little Tokyo, sitting in bars, mingling and studying the people and learning characterization. In recent years, there has been a very definite and strong movement against those actors who perform a stereotype role which humiliate the Chinese image. I would like to say this: The one role that I feel has been criticized most and yet has achieved world-wide popularity in terms of a Chinese character is the part of the Chinese cook in BONANZA. A group in San Francisco has criticized me for doing the part. The story, time-wise, is set in the mid-1800s when the Chinese were here working very hard in the gold mines. Then the gold rush was over, many returned to China. Those that remained had to find other work, so the Chinese actually moved into the area of doing housework, laundry work, cooking and other types of labor no one else would do. I think it’s important to indicate that this is what we did, as a means of survival. Nowadays, you have to look at the situation from a different standpoint. In projecting the Chinese image of today, you have to ask “Is this entertainment? Is it propaganda? Will it have meaning for us in the future?”
Beulah: Let’s get to Big Brother Keye. What was your favorite performance?
Keye: My favorite performance was the part of Master Po, the blind monk in KUNG FU, because it appealed to my temperament. I was given the rare opportunity of speaking lines that came right from the lips of the famous philosophers of old China – Confucius, Meng-tzu, Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, whose utterances have been part of the human patrimony in wisdom and philosophy over the centuries. I was highly conscious of the fact that in a sense was sort of a trust, a responsibility to do justice to these great men, who belong not only to the culture of China, but to the world in the role of Master Po. I was given this opportunity, for which I am very grateful. It will always remain in my memory as a fragrant and golden moment in my Hollywood career. When we made the pilot for KUNG FU, we knew we had a good entertainment show, but questioned whether the public would take to the philosophy, because we had always been told in Hollywood that if you want to send a message – use Western Union! However, the public loved the wisdom that came from the Chinese monk and the show became an instant success, running three seasons.
Beulah: Let me go back to the Charlie Chan days with you gentlemen, since all of you had the distinction of playing the honorable sons. What were your main feelings about the main character of Charlie Chan always being played by a non-Chinese or non-Asian in the movies?
Victor: We had to look at the “system” of the motion picture industry at the time, because primarily, the theatres were owned by motion picture producing organization, that produced many pictures that had to be released. It was called block-booking. As for my personal opinion I didn’t think that there was an actor of Chinese ancestry who was capable of doing the role as well as Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, or Roland Winters. These three actors had a name and identity which the studio could capitalize on by starring them in other roles. I had no objection to them being Caucasian. To me they were portraying a “Chinese role.”
Keye: Let me tell you the story of the Chan pictures. In 1919, Earl Derr Biggers, a writer of note, went to Honolulu for a vacation. There he heard exploits of a Chinese detective named Charlie Apana who was connected with the Honolulu Police. He was so intrigued by this character and his adventures that the idea of a fictional Chinese detective was born. In 1925 Biggers wrote the first Charlie Chan story, THE HOUSE WITHOUT A KEY. In 1926 Pathe Studios bought it as a ten-chapter serial for Allen Ray and Walter Miller, but the part of Chan was cut down to almost nothing. It was played by the Japanese stage and screen actor, George Kuwa. In 1928 Universal bought another Chan story, THE CHINESE PARROT starring another famous Japanese actor Kamiyama Sojin, who received excellent reviews. However, Universal did not carry on with the series. In 1930 Fox Studios bought BEHIND THE CURTAIN. E. L. Park portrayed the part of the Chinese sleuth, but the role was practically cut out of the script in favor of a Scotland Yard detective. In 1931 Fox Studios bought CHARLIE CHAN CARRIES ON and Warner Oland was cast as Chan. He was an instant success and thus insured the continuation of the series.
I had the great pleasure and honor to work with Warner Oland. I never thought of him as being anything else but a fine creative actor. I did not think of him as being non-Chinese. He was Swedish and Finnish and laughed about it. He told me his whole family had this Chinese appearance facially, and that they got it by way of the Mongolian invasion! Oland was an unusual actor. He was last of a dying breed, a breed of actor who could get outside of their own personality and create a living character. In fact, he spoke his Chinese dialogue himself in the Chan films.
Beulah: Benson, who portrayed your father in the Chan series?
Benson: My “father” was Sidney Toler, the same for Victor. Sidney Toler was a very fine actor; he went through pages and pages of script and never blew a line. I knew that Oland was a great actor, but when someone has to follow in the footsteps of another performer, it is never the same. The first one creates a particular role, and the public never accepts the “replacement” as well. I really felt that Sidney Toler was a marvelous actor. He was the type that got on the set and could handle any changes made. Keye, was it true that in the last two years of Warner Oland’s career his dialogue had to be written on the blackboard for him?
Keye: No, it never got to that point, Benson, but there were occasions when we had about 36 “takes”. Oland had the most charming and endearing excuses. If he wasn’t quite on his mark, he would apologize profusely to “honorable” cameraman; or someone would rustle a newspaper and disturb him and he would chide his stand-in when the stand-in was not even on the set at the time; or pigeons were flying around his head! He was a most lovable man.
Benson: I really felt fortunate that during those years we enjoyed parts where we could speak English and not make with the accents. It was more fun to be able to speak your own language in films, and I think the Chan pictures were the only films where we were able to play ourselves.
Keye: I felt the Chan pictures were a credit to the Chinese people. Before this only menacing pictures of Chinatown were shown – opium dens, slave girls, hatchet men, climaxed by the arch-villain Fu Manchu. Charlie Chan came along and erased that image and spread throughout the world a much better picture of the Chinese. Granted it was entertainment, but the public takes the screen portrayal as the real thing, especially when it was done as convincingly as Warner Oland did it. I think that he created a better image for the Orientals, and that his “sons” helped him in that way. You can see that Charlie Chan was wise, sensitive, cautious, honest, gracious, courteous and compassionate. No one ever out-foxed him. He triumphed over everybody and everything. He was the number one man from beginning to end, and I think that did a great deal to erase the image of Fu Manchu.
Beulah: I would like to discuss another area – opportunities for Asians in the industry. How do you size up opportunities of today in comparison to your hey-day, Keye?
Keye: I think there is nothing constant in the world but change, according to an old Greek philosopher, and the motion picture industry has changed along with other changes in the world. The attitude now toward the oriental is different from the attitude from 40 to 50 years ago. China, regardless of your politics, has emerged as one of the leading nations of the world. In culture, there has never been any doubt as to her greatness and leadership. But now, politically, she is regaining her place in the sun. I think these important changes will be reflected in writing amongst the writers. Without a play you have nothing. The writers have to seize and dramatize these new ideas regarding the Oriental up-to-date. No matter how much the actor may scream for roles, there will be no roles till the writer writes them and the producers come along who will have the perception to us these new characterization. Then and only then will we have truly fine Oriental characterizations and more acting opportunities for the Oriental actor.
Beulah: We have a few play writers among us tonight and I am sure they like your statement.
Keye: The play is the thing.
Benson: I agree with Big Brother Keye, and I would like to go deeper into this. In the past thirty years we Chinese have played the houseboy, the laundry man, the cook, and all the Fu Manchu characters. In recent years the blacks and the Chicanos have forced an enormous change in the thinking of Hollywood producers. But we Orientals have not made waves. We have been sitting back, remaining in the background, serene, dignified and hoping for things to drop in our laps. I think we should do more to help the producers see that China is the most populous nation in the world with several million overseas Chinese all over the globe who love to make movies. We are now at all levels of American society. We have four generations of Chinese Americans. They must be told and made aware that we cannot continue to keep on playing stereotype Asians.
Keye: Honorable number three brother, you have spoken words of wisdom, but may I point out one thing that I think is even more important and pertinent to what we are saying here. It is a matter of selling beans, or if you want to put it, rice. Though the Chinese have attained great eminence in various fields of endeavor, they did not constitute a majority. The theatre is of and for the majority, and in this country, the Chinese are not a large majority. The advertising industry literally owns the business; their clients buy their services and want their goods advertised on television. Numerically, we Chinese do not have the voting clout, nor do have the economic leverage to be an effective force when we tell the producer that we want more roles. Now the blacks for instance, how many are there? Twenty million? In this country they buy a lot of soap or beans or rice, and the advertising agencies say, “Yes, use blacks in your shows or commercials because we want them in the grocery stores.” It’s about selling beans to the most people.
Benson: I have to answer my brother, by all means. We Chinese may not have the population to buy the cornflakes and the beans, but there are no racist villains holding us back. We simply have not called attention to ourselves. It has taken a long time for the blacks and Chicanos to gain their precarious foothold. If we should join other minority Oriental groups, together we can form a group large enough to have clout. Instead of remaining in the background, segregated, too small to demand anything, there must be a way we can reach the producers of Hollywood. In Hamlet, the prince told the players of his company to hold the mirror up to nature. And what is nature? Isn’t it a fact that the Chinese here are now in all levels of society? Why can’t Steve McQueen knock on his neighbor’s door and have a Chinese by the name of Victor Sen Yung open the door? Why does it have to be a white or a black or a Chicano?
Keye: Honorable number three brother has words of wisdom sometimes startling in their penetration. What are your comments, Victor?
Victor: I agree with him wholeheartedly. I think it is basically an economic problem as far as the television situation is concerned. The only other detail is whether a producer in China or Hong Kong would be able to tell a different story motion picture wise. The point I question is what actually is a stereotype?. If you do a characterization over a period of time, it becomes a stereotype. Warner Oland was a stereotype; Sidney Toler was a stereotype to me, the most important achievement in this regard is a true characterization that is enjoyable to an audience, portrayed under the direction of a fine director with a good script.
Beulah: Before we conclude this interview, I would like to ask you to elaborate on your individual quotations which were stated on the printed programs for this event. Victor, your sentiments indicate that: “There’s no business like motion pictures; stereotype or true to type, acting is a wonderfully trying profession.” What you have told us explains your statement very well. What about the other two brothers?
Benson: I expressed the opinion that “We should pave the road for others to walk on.” I again must say that the Hollywood producers have failed to see in their mirrors that the Chinese are in all levels of society, and unless you want us to depict all of you here as houseboys, waiters or Fu Manchu characters, we have to do something to open the eyes of the film-makers to show that we are truly Chinese Americans. We must start now to pave the road for others to walk on.
Keye: My statement is self explanatory. “Bend like the bamboo, but do not break before the storms of life.” That is all.
Beulah: This is a wonderful conclusion. Thank you, Benson, Keye and Victor for sharing some of your thoughts with us this evening. I wish we could go on, but I think this gives our audience a good idea of the thoughts and philosophy of our three illustrious actors and honorable Charlie Chan “sons”.
The interview ended as it began, with a standing ovation. Bouquets of roses were presented to Beulah Quo for conducting an outstanding presentation, and to Helen Young for her expertise as chairperson of the banquet committee.