Emil Guillermo: On James Hong's "Everything Everywhere All At Once" awards moment and remembering Victor Wong
When the Asian American stars of “Everything Everywhere All At Once” (EEAAO) were raking in their well-deserved Screen Actors Guild Awards Sunday night, I was off-Broadway doing my one man show at Frigid.NYC (get tickets here).
I tell my friends that for Lent, I’ve given up real life and become an actor.
Just for the next 40 days or so.
It’s kind of exciting to play roles that wouldn’t have been there for someone like me more than 40 years ago when I considered acting for real.
Instead, I went into news, a business where the bad actors are always the stars.
But here we are, more than four decades later, and Asian Americans are on stage and screen in much greater numbers.
A lot of it is because the writers, directors, and producers have changed as well. I’m in a play written by noted African American writer Ishmael Reed.
People understand that the stories we tell ourselves better reflect the world we live in and the people who live in it.
In the one-man show I wrote myself, I’m telling an Asian American Filipino story, my story.
As a journalist and arts practitioner, I am inspired to see something so original and Asian American like “EEAAO” get top honors as a run-up to the Oscars.
It means there’s finally recognition for Asian Americans in our proper roles telling our Asian American stories. And it’s not just artistically sound, it’s commercially viable. It’s opened the door for the edgier things to be expressed, things that wouldn’t have been recognized even in our own community. For example, the Chinese Historical Society in San Francisco is putting together a storytelling show on Chinese drag queens on March 3.
Things are opening up for the Asian American story.
As for “EEAAO,” most everyone has already gushed about the main stars Ke Huy Quan and Michelle Yeoh, the first Asian actors to win in their respective categories. It never gets old to see them acknowledge that they are images for a new generation of Asian American storytellers to follow.
But the SAG award for Cast in a Motion Picture gave James Hong the opportunity to speak.
At 94, Hong is the Asian character actor we all recognize. He seems to have been in everything requiring an older Asian man.
He mentioned his very first role in the Pearl Buck classic, “The Good Earth.” But in 1937, the Chinese were played by whites.
“The leading role was played by these guys with eyes taped up like this and they talk like this because the producer said the Asians were not good enough,” Hong said as he pulled his eyes and showed off Hollywood yellowface of old. Then he said, “But look at us now.”
But I have to say, my favorite Asian character actor was always Victor Gee Keung Wong, who died in 2001 and would have been 96 if he were alive today.
I thought of Victor as I saw Hong speak at the awards show. Victor was Old Chong in “The Joy Luck Club.” He played janitors and grandpas. He was in Eddie Murphy’s “The Golden Child,” and with John Lone in “Year of the Dragon.” He suffered through the indignities of “Big Trouble in Little China,” playing Egg Chen. But he rose as Chen Pao Shen in Bernardo Bertolucci’s “The Last Emperor,” with Lone, Joan Chen, and Peter O’Toole.
I met Victor in San Francisco at the public TV station. He was a TV journalist before there was mobile handheld video, and I was a high school intern. Victor was the most eclectic Asian American man I had ever met, with ties to the Beat Generation and the civil rights and antiwar protest movements. For TV news, he took a film camera and created the photo essay. It looked like the style Ken Burns uses for photos in documentaries. Only Victor was doing it first in San Francisco. As his gopher, I used to mount his pictures on black cards on easels before big studio cameras that would zoom in and pan on the subjects.
And then Victor got into character acting.
Next thing I knew, I was in TV news, sometimes covering film, and I was seeing Victor at the movies.
As I do my thing on stage, I think of James Hong and Victor Wong.
They were among the first real Asians in shobiz, the character pioneers. Victor died in 2001, but thank God, Hong is still with us and has lived through the evolution of racism in Hollywood film.
He’s seen it all. It’s not all gone. But for now, Asian Americans are emerging.
People are noticing us finally. That’s no small thing. When Asian Americans barely show up in real life, you figure it should be easier to show up in the pretend world. But it hasn’t until now.
I’m in my last week of shows for “Emil Amok: Lost NPR Host Found Under St.Marks" at the Frigid.NYC festival in New York. If you are in the area, come see it live like these Asian Americans who caught I last week.
And if you aren’t in New York, get a ticket to stream it live from the comfort of your home in California, Hawaii, Paris, wherever.
It’s a story about my father. And how if he’d gotten lucky, I’d be about the same age as Victor Wong and James Hong.
That’s why they’re my acting heroes. Also Filipino American Alex Havier. For his story, you’ll have to come/see my show.
NOTE: I will talk about this column and other matters on “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” my AAPI micro-talk show. Live @2p Pacific. Livestream on Facebook; my YouTube channel; and Twitter. Catch the recordings on www.amok.com.