A Bonanza of Representation
By Terry Watada
It’s 2019 and Asian North American representation on television and film is burgeoning. In 2018, there was the harrowing spy drama Killing Eve with the luminous Sandra Oh; the mediocre comedy of Kim’s Convenience, despite the large comedic talents of Paul Lee and Jean Yoon; the equally mediocre sit-com Fresh off the Boat, though there are flashes of brilliance and the extensive talent of Constance Wu and Randall Park cannot be doubted; the predictable plots of Carter with Brenda Kamino and Denis Akiyama in supporting roles; and the enormous success and paper-thin portrayal of Crazy Rich Asians. There were also Second Gen (starring the energetic Samantha Wan), Private Eyes (supported by the aforementioned Samantha Wan) and an array of other shows that feature Asians. Yes, most speak with fake accents, but they sound authentic enough to accept. And most if not all of these will continue into 2019.
Yet, it wasn’t that long ago that Asian actors lamented their place in the acting hierarchy. Relegated to roles as flunkies, side kicks, would-be lovers who ultimately fail while denigrated and being made fun of, science geeks and subservient servants being an Asian actor could not have been what was envisioned for a satisfying career.
But it was last year that I caught, quite by accident, a truly unique episode of Bonanza. The second longest-running television western (Gunsmoke being the longest) was on-air from 1959 to 1973. It starred Canadian Lorne Greene, Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker and Michael Landon. The premise of the show centred on a wealthy rancher, Ben Cartwright, who had three sons from three different wives (each died mysteriously, tragically). Implausible but it was fiction.
Also, on the show was Hop Sing, the house’s cook and general servant. Played by Victor Sen Yung, Hop Sing appeared in 106 episodes throughout the run. He of course exhibited many negative stereotypes (and it was hard watching him at the time and even harder now – his Pidgin English is particularly problematic), but he did have a moment or two in the sun.
Generally, the role of Hop Sing is racist (common for the time), though deniers have asked, “How can a faithful, considerate character be racist?” But in episode 404, season 13, Hop Sing takes a three-week vacation to pan for gold (instead of losing money to the fan tan dealers as he claims). Near Miracle Creek, he camps out in the shack there. While he cooks, a stranger, an attractive white woman with red hair (played by Kelly Jean Peters of Little Big Man fame), steals some supplies. Hop Sing is mystified by the occurrence and quickly forgets it. When the stealing reoccurs, he sets a kind of trap by leaving the food on a plate and watches. He soon discovers her. After much persuasion, he convinces her to join him in eating pancakes. She eventually becomes attracted to him, seeing him as a protector, especially during a thunderstorm. I was amazed to see that she runs to him at night, cuddles next to him and holds his hand. Even when they go into town, they hold hands. Must’ve been scandalous at the time! Look at the furor over Capt. Kirk kissing Lt. Uhura (1968) and Petula Clark just touching Harry Belafonte’s forearm for a duet (again 1968).
So, Hop Sing and Missy (as he calls her and then she calls herself) become engaged. It seemed strange to me that Hop Sing didn’t know about the anti-miscegenation laws of the mid-19th century but then there would no drama. Hop Sing and Missy stood defiantly and proclaimed their love: “Ranch hands get married, Hop Sing ranch hand, why no marry?” The white townsfolk then turned into a mob wanting to kill the “coolie” for being with a white woman. I must say I was impressed by the understanding and compassion of Ben Cartwright, the judge and the deputy sheriff. They rescued Hop Sing and sympathized with him but could do nothing because of the law. In the end, Hop Sing sends Missy back home for her own good. Which seemed ridiculous since they were willing to break the law to marry and yet did not think to live together in sin on the Ponderosa. I suppose that wouldn’t be tolerated by a white man (Ben Cartwright) who saw his three wives die “accidentally”.
Audiences at the time probably accepted the relationship since Missy ran away from a home “on the other side of the mountain”, was afraid of crowds and thought herself a “China girl”. Obviously, something was wrong with her. And doesn’t red hair mean audacity, sensuality and immorality?
I have to hand it to Victor Sen Yung. He took full advantage of his chance. Prior to this, he played “Number Two Son” in the Charlie Chan movie series as well as the “Broken-down” emcee, comedian and singer in the Celestial Gardens of Flower Drum Song fame. Actually, not bad as an actor. He played bit parts in hundreds of other movies and television shows, but he never rose to the heights of a real dramatic character as he did in Bonanza’s “Lonely Man” episode.
His life was eventful too. He was shot twice in the back during an airplane hijacking in 1972, and he died under mysterious circumstances in 1980. The official report says he died of natural gas poisoning as he worked on his clayware for his side business. Others say he was murdered.
Despite all that, Sen Yung did his best to negotiate his way through to a successful career in Hollywood. He never won a serious award (he gained the Favorite Made-for-TV Maid Award from TV Land, a US cable channel, in 2003), but he was a gourmet chef, a frequent guest on TV cooking shows and a cookbook author. Perhaps this was where he found dignity in his life.
And maybe because of his beginning efforts, we have a bonanza of Asian representation today.