GUM SAAN JOURNAL
HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA
SOCIETY HONORS PIONEER CHINESE AMERICAN ACTORS
by Mary and Chuck Yee
5, 1977, was the evening chosen by the Chinese Historical
Society of Southern California to honor pioneer actors Keye Luke,
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
to the audienvce; each received a standing ovation. Each of
the actors was presented a plaque from the Society honoring
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 ast 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
by Beulah Quo and Terry Tam Soon. The interview was conducted
by Ms. Quo, who is a noted actress in her own right. Following
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 yur families think about your going into the acting
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.
how long must I wait for my agent to call? Should I stay in the
business, and will I ever get more than 3 or 4 lines to
Victor: I agree with Benson wholeheartedly. It was not easy. When I was
under contract, things were great.
I got 3 square meals a day. A
guarantee of 40 weeks work out of 52, but when that was over, it was
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,
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 a myself in terms of a
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,
all kind 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
what did your family think about you going into the acting
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 art work for Grauman's Chinese Theatre. It was felt that
it was a Chinese Theatre there should be a Chinese artist.
My becoming an actor was mainly the result of being in the right
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 art work with me. He said, "What the hell do you
have those things
for?" I said, "I thought you wanted to see my art
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
took me downstairs to the casting dept. 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
felt someone staring at me. I was quite disturbed and asked the waiter
to tell the man to stop staring, instead, he came
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 meet many big stars such as Gary Cooper, Ray Milland, Bob Hope and
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 gven 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,
couldn't even fnd 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
demands that the studio makes on you today?
Victor: I thnk the studios are much more stringent today. For instance,
CHARLIE CHAN, in those days we had a
35-45 day shooting schedule. Today for a television show, we do 3 days
for a half
hour show like BONANZA. You sometimes get the script n the
day before the show; when you get on the set, someone is changing
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
Beulah: In the early days there were very
few Asian women i the acting
profession. What was the additude of the studios toward Asian women at that time?
I feel that the only parts availabile for Chinese actresses
were the LOTUS BLOSSOMS, or the sex objects of some Caucasian
Aside from these 2 stereotypes 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
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
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
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 ws
a challenge to be able to depict a Chinese man who loved
his children and hated the generation changes.
Victor, what do you consider your best performance?
Victor: THE LETTER I was young and under contract to Fox
the Charlie Chan pictures. I was loaned out to Warner Bros. 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 demension.
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
character, I believe portraying and developing a character on the screen
takes a great deal of work, plus good director.
you have to carry that image on characterization from show to
show with different director, different scripts.
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 doin 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
going to my drama class and started roaming around
Chinatown and Little Tokyo, sitting in bars, mingling and studying the
and learning characteization. In recent years, there has been a
very difinite and strong movement against those actors
who perform a
sterotype 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
critisized me for doing the part. The story, time-wise, is set in the
1800's when the Chinese were here working very hard in the gold
mines. Thn 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 oter 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
Keye: My favorite performance
was te part of Master Po, the blind monk
in KUNG FU, because it appealed to my temperament. I was given the
opportunity of speaking lines that came right from the lips of the
famous philosphers of old China-Cofucius, Meng-
tzu, Lao-tze and
Chuang-tzu, whose utterances have been part of the human patrimony in
wisdom and philosophy over the
centuries. . . .
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 wih the
Honolulu Police. He was so intrigued by this
character and his adventures that the idea of a fictional Chinee
was born. In 1925 Biggers wrote the first Charlie Chan story,
THE HOUSE WITHOUT A KEY. In 1926 Pathe Studios
bought it as as a
ten-chapter serial for Allen Ray and Walter Miller, but the part of Chan
was cut down to alost nothing.
It was played by the Japanese stage and
screen actor, George Kuwa. In 1928 Universal bought another Chan story,
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
of the series. I had the great pleasure and honor to work
with Warner Oand. I never thought of him as being anything else
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 apperance facially, and that they got it by way of the
invasion! Oland was an unusual actor. He was last of a dying
breed, a breed of actor who could get outside of their own
and create a living character. In fact, he spoke his Chinese dialogue
himself in the Chan films.
Benson, who portrayed your father in the Chan series?
Benson: My "father " was Sidney Toler, the same for Victor.
Toler was a very fine actor; he went through pages and pages of script
and never blew a line. I knew htat
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 2 years of Warner Oland's
career his dialogue had to be written on the blackboard for him?
No, it never got to that point, Benson, but there were occasions [. . . .]
Beulah: I would like to discuss another area - opportunities for Asians in yhr infudyty. Hoe fo you size
up opportunities of today
Keye: I think there is nothing constant in the world but change,
according to an old Greek philospher, and the
motion picture industry
has changed alonf with other changes in the world. The attitude now
toward the oriental is different
from the attitude fom 40-50 years ago.
China, regardless of your politics, has emerged as one of the leading
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
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 use these
new characterization. Then and only then will we have truly fine
characterizations and more acting opportunities for the
Beulah: We have a few playwriters
among us tonight and I am sure they like your statement.
Keye: The play is the thing.
agree with Big Brother Keye and I would like to go deeper into this. In the pass 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 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 stereotpe Asians.
. . . [?] . . .
when we had about 36 "takes". Oland had the most charming and endearing excuses. If he wsn'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 pidgeons were flying around his head! He was a most
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 whre we were able to play ourselves.
Keye: I felt the Chan pictures were a credit to
the Chinese people. Before this only menacing pictures od Chinatown were shown - opium dens, slave girls, hatchetmen, climaxed
by the arch-villian 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 [sic], 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 No.1 man from beginning
to end, and I think that did a great deal to erase the image of Fu Manchu.
Sorry! The line from Benson should
read "We Orientals have NOT made waves" I left out the word "not".
:)~~Amy with a "G"~~(:
~~It's an M&Ms
Keye: Honorable No # 3 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 we 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 villians
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 Mc Queen 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 No #3 brother has words of wisdom sometimes
startling in their penetration. What are your comments, Victor?
Victor: I agree with him wholeheartly.
I think it is basically an economic problem as far as the television situation is concerned. The only other detail is whether
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 stereotype? If you do a
characterization over a perid of time, it becomes 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 somethng 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 honorableCharlie Chan "sons".
The interview ended as it began, with a standing ovation. Bouquets of roses were presented to Beulah Quo for coductiong
an outstanding presentation, and to Helen Young for her expertise as chairperson of the banquet committee.
you enjoyed this transcript, will try to find more on this subject, seeing as how my mother is a member of the CHINESE HISTORICAL
SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA I might have access to other information. I love
finding this kind of stuff. Bye
for now, ~Amy~
:)~~Amy with a "G"~~(:
~~It's an M&Ms World~~