Whether or not you know his name, odds are you’ve seen James Hong on screen. The 88-year-old character actor has more than 400 credits to his name. And this new hour-long episode of the YouTube series No Small Parts dives into Hong’s lengthy career. Born in 1929 in Minneapolis to parents who emigrated from Hong Kong, Hong spent his childhood in both the U.S. and China. After showing an early aptitude for impressions (his Jimmy Stewart is uncanny), Hong eventually found his way into a showbiz career that has now spanned six decades.
The episode delves into the specifics of Hong’s career and also also zooms out to look at larger issues of Asian representation. Host and creator Brandon Hardesty discusses representation in a nuanced but comprehensible way, acknowledging the complexities and contradictions of the issue. For instance, Hardesty explains he was surprised that many of Hong’s roles in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s were actually less overtly racist than he expected. But taken together, they reveal Hollywood’s limited conception of the kind of roles Asian actors could play. Even today, Asian actors are often cast only in roles where their ethnicity is a key component of the character.
Despite those limitations, Hong’s versatility as an actor and comedian—coupled with the fact that he’s fluent in both English and Chinese and able to speak English with and without a Chinese accent—has allowed him to play a huge number of different roles over the years. From supporting turns in movies (Hannibal Chew in Blade Runner and David Lo Pan in Big Trouble In Little China) to voice-over work for cartoons (Chi-Fu in Mulan and Mr. Ping in the Kung Fu Panda franchise) to hundreds of guest-starring TV roles (from Bonanza to The Big Bang Theory) to even a brief stint in porn (as an actor rather than a performer), Hong’s willingness to do just about anything has turned him into a legend in his own right. And despite never having a substantial role to his name, Hardesty argues Hong is still an actor well-worth celebrating.
For those who enjoyed this episode, Hardesty has also explored the careers of Warwick Davis, Harry Dean Stanton, Linda Hunt, Crispin Glover, Pete Postlethwaite, and many more character actors. You can find all of those full-length episodes as well as some shorter features on the No Small Parts YouTube channel.