James Hong (born February 22, 1929) is a renowned Hollywood actor of Chinese descent. He has performed in hundreds of roles in virtually all types of media, in a career spanning well over half a century. He is perhaps one of the most recognizable Chinese actors who ever lived, with recent performances in the Kung Fu Panda films and The Big Bang Theory. Hong's likeness permeated early television, where, like in Avatar: The Last Airbender, his versatility as an actor allowed him to portray multiple different guest-starring roles within a TV series. Lately, he has provided his voice for numerous projects in video games and animation, delivering a diverse array of Asian-themed portrayals ranging from serious and stoic to colorful and charismatic.
James Hong was born on February 22, 1929 in Minneapolis, Minnesota. His father, Frank W. Hong, was a restaurant owner originally from Hong Kong. When James was five, the Hong family moved back to Hong Kong, as his father believed the family had become too "Americanized". Five years later, however, the family returned to the United States to escape the impending World War II. James' English had suffered while away, and so he essentially began his entire education anew. This lead to extreme loneliness, despite the fact he had six siblings, but it also lead to a strong interest in acting and performing. "I spent a lot of time talking to myself," Hong recalls. James joined a drama club in junior high school. Though he had talent and passion, he was never really recognized for his acting throughout his high school career.
He attended the University of Minnesota, pursuing a degree in civil engineering. He still retained his passion for acting, and formed a comedy duo with his friend Don Parker called "Hong and Parker." A member of the National Guard, Hong was sent to Alabama during the Korean War. His performing career was significantly propelled by self-organized performances for the troops.
"It saved my life, in a sense: Because of my engineering background, I was a good organizer. And because of my performing background, I had the ability to entertain. It got me performing and producing; it was sort of my school."
After the war, Hong moved west and finished his civil engineering degree at the University of Southern California. The close proximity to major film studios allowed him to appear on the sets of early game shows. His dream of a career in acting became a reality when he formed an arrangement with an agent whom he knew through the Chinese Social Club. Apparently, the agent was convinced to represent Hong after seeing him perform a stunning impression of the host for the game show You Bet Your Life. Now, he serves as one of the most recognizable Chinese actors in Hollywood.
In 1967, he married actress Pearl Huang, whom he later divorced in 1973. In 1977, he married Susan (Yip) Hong. The two are married to this day, and have a daughter, April, who is an accomplished actress.
James Hong's acting career officially began in 1955, in a film called Soldier of Fortune. Soon after, he quit his job as a road engineer for Los Angeles County to pursue acting full-time. He went on to star in many famous films such as Blade Runner, Mulan, and Kung Fu Panda, and appeared in countless TV series. Since most of his early television roles were minor, he would often make recurring appearances on a show, portraying a different character each time. He is known for his distinct voice and has done numerous voice-over performances. Described as "gruff but gentle", his voice is very versatile and differs role to role—from the cynical Chi Fu in Mulan to the stone-faced Chinese military leader in Mercenaries, to the exuberant Mr. Ping in Kung Fu Panda and its sequel, Kung Fu Panda 2.
Hong's first career was actually as a road engineer for Los Angeles County. He quit once he felt he could pursue acting full-time.
Hong has been a strong proponent of racial equality in Hollywood. He has had experience being cast in negative stereotypical roles, and has since lobbied to give Asian-Americans better opportunities in acting. Even today, he feels things have not significantly improved from when he first started, but he still feels optimistic about the prospect of achieving better working environment for Asian-American actors:
"It's coming anyway, whether I do it or somebody else. I've waited fifty-five years, I can wait a few more."
Hong is one of the founders of the East-West Players, the oldest Asian American theater in Los Angeles.
He also served as president of the Association of Asian Pacific American Artists.