At 94 years old, James Hong is showing no signs of slowing down. The veteran actor, who has appeared in over 600 films and TV shows, has recently received recognition and acclaim for his role in “Everything Everywhere All at Once”, a sci-fi film with a mostly Asian cast that won seven Oscars, including best actress for Michelle Yeoh.
“It just came out of me that after all these years of working with producers and directors, and they were always saying, ‘Oh the Asian, the Chinese, are not good enough to play the leading role,’” Hong told The Associated Press. “But look at Michelle (Yeoh) and all these colleagues now coming forward to be recognized … You can’t help but say ‘Look at us now.’”
Hong’s co-star Yeoh praised him for his performance and his legacy. “I’m very proud of him,” she said. “He’s been such an inspiration for all of us. He’s been fighting for representation and diversity for such a long time.”
Hong also has other projects that showcase his talent and versatility. He lends his voice to “Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai”, an animated prequel series of the movie franchise that explores the origins of the cute but mischievous creatures. He also appears in an episode of “American Born Chinese”, a Disney+ show based on a graphic novel that follows three interrelated stories about identity, culture, and belonging.
“He’s a legend,” said Tze Chun, the showrunner of “Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai”. “He’s been in so many iconic movies and he’s always been so funny and charismatic. He brings so much life to every character he plays.”
Hong’s influence extends beyond his own work. He has inspired generations of Asian American actors who grew up watching him on screen. Simu Liu, who stars in Marvel’s “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”, said Hong was one of his role models.
“He’s one of the reasons I became an actor,” Liu said. “He showed me that it was possible for someone who looked like me to be on screen and have a successful career.”
Hong’s career is not only remarkable for its longevity and diversity, but also for its resilience. He started his career in 1953 after serving in the Korean War and faced many racist stereotypes and limited opportunities for Asian actors in Hollywood. He had to endure roles that were demeaning or dehumanizing, such as playing servants, laundry workers, or villains.
He also had to witness white actors playing Asian characters with prosthetic eyes or fake accents. In one case, he played the son of Charlie Chan, a Chinese detective who was portrayed by a white actor.
“Then he would just talk in a very stoic pattern that’s supposedly Chinese,” Hong recalled. “That irritated me for many, many years.”
Hong did not let these obstacles stop him from pursuing his passion. He also did not shy away from speaking out against injustice or supporting his fellow Asian American artists. He co-founded the East West Players, one of the first Asian American theater companies, in 1965. He also advocated for more representation and recognition for Asian Americans in Hollywood.
“He’s not just an actor, he’s an activist,” said Gene Luen Yang, the author of “American Born Chinese”. “He’s always been vocal about the issues that affect the Asian American community and he’s always supported the next generation of artists.”
In 2022, after a fan-led campaign that raised over $55,000, Hong finally received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It was a long overdue honor for one of the most prolific and influential actors in history.
Hong said he was grateful for the recognition, but he was not ready to retire. He said he still had more stories to tell and more roles to play.
“I’m still going strong,” he said. “I love acting and I love entertaining people. I hope I can do it until I’m 100.”