Digital story, City Pages, May 1, 2014
Photo courtesy of James Hong
A good actor relishes playing all kinds of roles -- a sorcerer here, an assassin there. But 500 characters? That's insane. That's exactly what makes Minneapolis native James Hong a great actor instead of merely a good actor.
Hong, who was born in 1929 in the City of Lakes, will trade Hollywood for his hometown this weekend to be a celebrity guest at Wizard World Minneapolis Comic Con. Famous for his performances in Big Trouble in Little China, Blade Runner, Kung Fu Panda, and more, the longtime actor certainly has made a name for himself in show business. But Hong is especially proud to help Minneapolis kick off its first Wizard World event.
"I'm very thrilled to go, because it is my hometown," says Hong. "I'm honored to be there, and to meet everybody in Minneapolis who's really interested in what I'm doing as an actor."
Hong will be available for autographs throughout the weekend, and during an intimate Q&A session on Saturday, fans can grill the actor about his memorable roles, including the oblivious Chinese restaurant host on Seinfeld and the blind ping-pong mentor in Balls of Fury. Hong doesn't mind chatting; he's looking forward to the adventure.
"I get so caught up in the fans and talking to each one of them," Hong says. "I do all my voices from Kung Fu Panda, and they all laugh and they look."
We chatted with Hong about his childhood in the Twin Cities, his career, and his Wizard World plans. Here's what we found out:
Hong grew up on Third Avenue South, where plenty has changed since he was a child living above the family store.
"It's all gone now, of course. All those little stores when I was born, the department stores," Hong says. "[My childhood home] was on the second story of my father's Chinese grocery store on Third Avenue and Seventh. We were a big family -- seven children -- and I was right in the middle."
It's been a few years since Hong's last visit to Minneapolis.
"Me and my comedy partner, Don Parker, 60 or 61 years ago, we left Minnesota and Minneapolis and headed over to Hollywood," Hong says. "Since then, I've been back twice; the last time was maybe seven years ago. Don Parker had a little reunion party at his hotel, so we had a good time."
Hong's family will get quite the tour when they tag along this weekend.
"I'm going to show my daughter and my wife the University of Minnesota, of course, and also the site where Central High School was, because it's been razed. My junior high school is still standing there -- Bryant Junior High School," Hong says. "Then I'll show them some of the 10,000 lakes in Minnesota. [I'll show them] where I worked down at the Mansion Restaurant, which has also moved to another location, my Minneapolis playground, and the church where I went, Westminster Presbyterian Church. It was right in downtown.
"That's an interesting thing," Hong continues. "Westminster Presbyterian Church had a Chinese Sunday school. So there were a lot of Chinese there in Minneapolis to attend that Sunday school every week. I have to show them that place."
Hong isn't sure what to expect from the crowd at Minneapolis's first Wizard World event.
"[Before Wizard World's first convention in Sacramento, California] I thought, 'Well, it's Sacramento. Hardly anyone will turn up for the Wizard World Comic Con,'" he recalls. "But it turned out that they were completely sold out; they had a huge crowd. So I'm wondering how it's going to be in Minneapolis, and if the people are interested in comic books and celebrities and movie stars. There are some huge names there."
How many actors have had more than 500 credits of on-camera roles, or have been in the business for 60 years? Not many. But Hong has.
"I'm celebrating my 60th anniversary in show business in Minneapolis," Hong beams. "It's very important to reach this milestone, and I doubt if any other actor alive or dead has accomplished 500 credits or more.
"To be in my hometown on the 60th year and having done all those roles -- some of them classics like Blade Runner, Chinatown, Kung Fu Panda, and Seinfeld -- it's just a big thrill."
Speaking of Kung Fu Panda, Hong says the third installment should come out next year. Hong also is working on a new film of his own.
"It's going to be a horror film called The Shaman. It's about an Asian ghost coming into the community here in California, and haunting certain people. I can't give away more than that, but I've just had fun doing it," Hong says. "I love the people who contribute, whether it's efforts or money, and the filmmakers -- I love to see them work. It's a blessing to be in this business."
At Wizard World, Hong will geek out over the Hollywood set, just like the rest of us.
"I'll walk down the aisles there and say hello to everybody. William Shatner, I know well," Hong says.
The Blade Runner actor is looking forward to meeting Minneapolis fans of all ages.
"They've seen me way in the old, old days, you know? If they're old enough, they've seen me in things like Wayne's World and The Golden Child with Eddie Murphy," Hong says. "All those movies are as old as they are, in a sense. Twenty-five years ago I did most of those big films. Now, they've been around forever, it seems like."
And what about after Wizard World ends? Could a Central High School class reunion be in Hong's future this weekend?
"I'm hoping that at the convention I will see some of my old classmates from high school," Hong says. "Maybe I'll call a couple of them."
Read my 2018 piece about James Hong in Minnesota magazine, the alumni magazine for the University of Minnesota.