Saturday, June 21, 2008

Chinese American Actor Keye Luke

I've been reading Ken Hanke's book Charlie Chan At The Movies and was surprised to find some great anecdotes and comments from actor Keye Luke.

Luke was known as Number One Son in the Charlie Chan movies of the 1930's. He later became the wise Master Po in the 1970's tv series Kung Fu starring David Carradine.

Apparently, Luke started out at Fox studios handling art work in the publicity department. He later got lured away to RKO where he the art work for King Kong and Flying down to Rio. It was at RKO that a producer asked him to act in a film with Anna May Wong called Ho for Shanghai.

Through his various connections around Hollywood, Luke eventually found doors opening up
for him as an actor even though he had no extensive prior training. As he tells it, the role of Number One Son came about through a former publicity boss who was working at Fox.

When Luke started getting his name in the Hollywood papers as an actor, his former boss called up and said, "Come out here and we'll see what we can do now you're a Cantonese ham."

So Luke went out there and met the casting director, Phil Friedman, who said that if Luke had come just a day earlier he could have been cast as a Japanese spy blowing up the Panama Canal, but now it was too late for that. Instead, actor Leslie Fenton, who was not Asian, but had "Oriental features" was given the part.

Luke was told to go down to the old Fox studio on Western Avenue where he talked to Jim Ryan, another casting director whom Luke knew. He said, "Keye, do you know we're going to put a Number One Son in the Charlie Chan pictures and there's no reason why you shouldn't play it."

Luke said, "Well, from the gods! That was unexpected."

As the story goes, they then called up Philip MacDonald, who was writing the script for Charlie Chan in Paris to tell him about it. MacDonald had just finished the Lost Patrol directed by John Ford and Luke had done the art work for the film so again a connection that turned out to be fortuitous.

After Ryan called up MacDonald and put Luke on the phone, MacDonald asked, "Who's this?"

Luke said, "This is Keye Luke."

And MacDonald let out a yell and said, "Oh, boy, I'll write a fat part for you!"

Luke goes on to add that MacDonald did indeed write him a fat part that went over well and the studio would sign him to a contract.

Although Luke became one of the first highly visible Chinese American characters in Hollywood films of that era, many years later Asian American and Chinese American groups have denounced the film series and the character of Charlie Chan as a demeaning portrayal of Chinese people and Asians as a whole.

As recently as 2003, Fox Movie Channel had to cancel a Charlie Chan movie festival because of protests from an Asian American group calling the Chan character the "most offensive Asian American caricature of America's cinematic past."

Interestingly enough in Hanke's book, Luke defends the movie series and actor Warner Oland, who was one of the first non-Asians to portray Charlie Chan.

Luke is quoted as saying, "A lot of people -- his [Oland's] imitators -- think that he spoke Pidgin English. And a lot of the detractors our here -- a lot of the young Chinese activists, who argue only emotionally, not with their heads, says," Oh, he talks, 'Me no savvy' and all that sort of stuff." I said," Oh, no. If you will listen to him, he as an actor, is thinking in terms of Chinese and then he has to put it into a language that is not his native language." That's why he fumbles, stumbles, gropes for a word, which all adds to the characterization. He had the genius to realize that. And his English, if you listen to it next time, syllable upon syllable, is what we call International Stage English. It's perfectly beautiful English. And so, I mean, there are a lot of things about the Chan character that these people don't understand. They think it demeans the race. I said, "Demeans! My God! You've got a Chinese hero!"

However, for the staunch Asian American and Chinese American activists who do the research they will find that the first Charlie Chan in the movies was played by George Kuwa, a Japanese actor. In fact, the second Charlie Chan was played by Sojin, another Japanese actor.

But due to Hollywood studio need to have a name on the marquee, the series producers later used Warner Oland, Sidney Toler and Roland Winters as Charlie Chan. All of which was part of the "yellow face" performances of that era.

As a Chinese American, I myself find all of this debate over a movie character rather amusing but stimulating at the same time.

I recently interviewed screenwriter John Fusco about the new Jackie Chan and Jet Li film The Forbidden Kingdom and I chose not to ask Fusco, who is Italian-American, about his choice to write the lead teen male character as Caucasian rather than Chinese American.

When the article was published online at, I found that some of the Asian American readers were upset that I didn't ask that question, which to me was unnecessary because I already knew the answer. That is John was the writer -- and it's his fantasy story of traveling back in time to meet these mystical Chinese martial arts legends. Since it's his fantasy, you would almost assume he's going to see it from his perspective as the Caucasian teenager, the outsider, who is not Asian, so why would he try to make the that character anything other than Caucasian?

So of course, in order to appease the readers, I go back and e-mail John Fusco and ask him.

ASIANCE: Why was a white teenager the protagonist rather than an Asian teenager?

This is the answer John Fusco emailed me:

The truth is: I was that kid. My son is that kid. Quentin Tarantino was that kid. It is a very real phenomenon, and what I think it speaks to is the fact that America, like Jason, is young and awkward and still trying to find its way. China is the wise master.

That said, after my third draft I had concerns and decided to write Jason as Chinese-American, playing more on an atavistic calling. Two people rejected this approach and said it was not as realistic as the notion of the white boy who wants to know Chinese kung fu. Those two people were Jet Li and Jackie Chan. They felt that I was abandoning the heart of the story that came from my own childhood.

Amazingly, someone still complained about my suggestion that Jackie and Jet were accepting of these roles -- and when you think about it, I doubt anyone forced them to take all that money to act in the movie!

To my amusement, someone actually thought that the characters played by Jet Li and Jackie Chan were "derogatory." I watched the film and could not see where this person could call the characters that at all. If anything they are fantasy cinematic caricatures of mythical characters played for laughs and to make money at the box office.

To me, this was another of the younger Asian Americans, who feel they just need to get away from anything having to do with Chinese heritage, culture or images that aren't mainstream.

But here's my take on that. Why then are a lot of Asian Americans trying to act like Hip Hop artists and Rappers? They emulate the clothes, dance moves, lifestyle and speech patterns of African American youths?

Are these young Asian Americans so alienated or disconnected from their own heritage and culture that they need to take on another culture's?


But maybe there's something to all of this? Do movie images affect the mass consciousness? Are young people really that susceptible to marketing and promotional campaigns geared to make this product or that product look more appealing?

I guess maybe if its cool, hip and trendy, that makes everything okay.

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