Today begins the celebration of Chinese New Year. As we welcome the Year of the Monkey I’d like to share some thoughts about Chinese contributions to the classic TV era.
One of the accusations often lodged against television from the 1950s-1970s is its lack of diversity. And this grievance is not without merit. However, it’s a condemnation that can also be taken too far, when it is exaggerated into accusations of racial stereotyping where they do not exist – or at the very least, were not intended.
There is no escaping the reality that back then many prominent Chinese TV characters were domestics: Hop Sing, the family cook on Bonanza; Hey Boy, the hotel porter that brings Paladin his messages on Have Gun Will Travel; Peter Tong, Bentley Gregg’s houseboy on Bachelor Father; Kato, the Green Hornet’s chauffeur.
Fair enough. But Peter Tong was in many ways the more responsible parental figure to Bentley’s daughter, and Kato (played by Bruce Lee) was a more charismatic character than his employer. When kids reenacted the previous night’s episode of The Green Hornet in the school playground, everybody wanted to be Kato.
Bonanza and Have Gun Will Travel were set in the American west in the 1800s, so the portrayals were historically accurate. The Bonanza episode “The Lonely Man” acknowledged the legal biases against Asians that existed at the time. And “Hey Boy’s Revenge,” from season 1 of Have Gun Will Travel, condemned the exploitation of the Chinese immigrants who built the railroads. Its message was so eloquently delivered that the show made TV Guide’s 1997 list of the 100 Greatest TV Episodes.
I probably should not admit this, as it may result in being sentenced to a week of cultural sensitivity training, but when I began ruminating on the topic of Chinese people in classic TV the first thing that came to my mind was this:
No company would dare run that commercial in our more “enlightened” era because the Chinese couple own a laundry, which some would classify as a stereotype.
But whether it’s my own naiveté or just the way I was raised, where others look at this commercial and see racism, I see an appealing young couple that owns their own business. And the “ancient Chinese secret” line is clearly tongue-in-cheek, its cultural grandiosity irreparably punctured by the Calgon revelation at the end. It’s a cute and clever spot, which is why it’s still so fondly recalled decades later.
Yes, laundries were traditionally associated with the Chinese in America, as discrimination forced them to turn to self-employment because other jobs were not available. This is what immigrants used to do in this country – in the face of unfair treatment and prejudice they found a niche and made it work until other opportunities presented themselves. How is that anything but admirable?
By the 1970s, when the Calgon ad debuted, Chinese-Americans could be found in all walks of life – yes, including the laundry business. I guess to some arbiters of inclusion this was like sending African-Americans back to the plantation. I don’t believe that is a fair comparison.
Now, I will concede that this was a time when there were not as many opportunities for Asian actors, even in roles that should have been a no-brainer. Why was David Carradine playing a Chinese monk in Kung Fu?
The series was a success and he imbued the character of Caine with dignity, but this type of bigoted casting was an unfortunate holdover from the era when John Wayne played Gengis Khan.
When Hanna-Barbera created The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan, Asian actors were hired to voice the famed detective’s ten children; but some were recast after their accents were deemed too difficult to understand. Thus, the role of Anne Chan originally played by Leslie Kumamota was ultimately performed by that lovely lotus blossom Jodie Foster.
A few actors overcame the barriers, and once they did they were rarely out of work. When a sitcom required a Chinese character, or an urban detective series set a story in Chinatown, astute TV fans figured this was probably a job for James Hong.
Even a cursory overview of Hong’s 400+ credits would require a separate blog entry; he was everywhere in the Comfort TV era: Dragnet, Peter Gunn, Perry Mason, The Donna Reed Show, The Man From UNCLE, Gomer Pyle, Family Affair, Mission: Impossible, The Bob Newhart Show, All in the Family, Charlie’s Angels, Taxi…it’s an extraordinary list. But you may recall him most readily as the maitre’d in the classic Seinfeld episode “The Chinese Restaurant” (“Cartwright!”).
The roles were not always varied – or distinguished – but Hong was a true pro, whether playing a fortune teller on I Spy or Billy Joe Fong on The Dukes of Hazzard. At age 86 he’s not only still with us but still acting.
When Hong was booked a few other actors also managed to find work: Keye Luke voiced Detective Chan in the Chan Clan series, and may be best known to TV fans as Master Po on Kung Fu. Robert Ito played Sam Fujiyama opposite Jack Klugman on Quincy from 1976-1983.
It is better now, though perhaps not as much as it should be. Today you have Fresh Off the Boat and Dr. Ken; Lucy Liu on Elementary, B.D. Wong on Law and Order: SVU and Ming-Na Wen on Agents of Shield. And television is enriched by their talent.
But on this Chinese New Year let’s also celebrate the television contributions of those that did the best they could with the opportunities available.