A Comic Con Q&A With James Hong

We talk to the Mpls-born character actor about everything from working at the Nankin to starring in Big Trouble in Little China.

James Hong
Photo by Mark Mainz/Getty Images for AFI

No, it’s not your imagination. That guy on Hennepin probably is dressed as the Hulk. Comic Con hits Minneapolis for the first time May 2–4, and it’s set to bring in an arsenal of pop-culture legends, from William Shatner to Spider-Man creator Stan Lee. Perhaps the most ubiquitous of them all is actor James Hong, who famously uttered the phrase “Seinfeld, four!” during the second season of Seinfeld. Now 85, Hong grew up in Minneapolis, worked as a “pantry boy” at Nankin, went to Central High, and studied civil engineering at the U of M before driving his Buick to Hollywood in 1953.

Nov01-75a.jpg James Hong as Hannibal Chew in Blade Runner

DW: Your IMDB is insane.
JH: That IMDB is only partial. There are a lot of shows that aren’t on there. So I think I’ve done more than 500 TVs and movies. I’m trying, one of these days, to get in the Guinness Book of World Records for the actor with the most roles.

DW: Talk about the legacy that comes with having more than 500 credits. 
JH: I’m the foremost Asian actor, probably ever. I was the man who came to Hollywood from Minnesota and said, ‘You can’t have these cliché roles. Let’s do something.’ I started the protest against the bad images of Asian-Americans in the movies.

That’s what living and competing and being educated in Minnesota has done for me. I was one Asian in among—I don’t know—thousands of [others] in Minnesota, so I just felt like one of them and when I came to Hollywood, I fought as hard or harder because I am Asian and have to make my mark in that caucasian world. A lot of that training and experience and hardship in Minneapolis pushed me forward. Had I not been in Minnesota, I probably would’ve accepted what California gave me as an image of Asians, which is backwards.

JamesHongSeinfeld.jpg Hong's infamous guest appearance in the second season of Seinfeld

DW: Yet, for most people, your entire career boils down to one episode of Seinfeld. What's that like?
JH: Even the Seinfeld people said that was one of their top five shows. They were trapped in that restaurant and the whole thing just went around in circles. People know all the lines. “Cartwright, Cartwright. Telephone for Cartwright.” That episode will live forever. And, since I so far haven’t received any Academy Award or, as of now, even a star on the Walk of Fame, fans’ reactions are my award. It just tells me that they love that work and it indels into their brains. In a sense it’s probably better than any award I can put on the shelf because those people and the generations to come will remember me for that role.

DW: What was it like growing up in Minneapolis in the 1930s?
JH: There were two little Chinese stores—two or three. Third Avenue South was Chinatown.

DW: What did you guys do for fun?
JH: My dad took us to Witts and I think we bought some stuff there. But there was a dime store right on the corner there on Nicollet and for a nickel you could get a whole bag of potato chips . . .  and were they good!

DW: You worked at The Nankin?
JH: It was huge; an upstairs and downstairs. I worked in the kitchen for I don’t know how long, maybe a year or a year and a half, as pantry boy. So I made the pies and made the coffee.

DW: You've lived in California since the '50s. How often do you get back to the Twin Cities?
JH: I think I’ve only gone back for class reunions, maybe twice. And now of course everybody’s in either crutches or wheelchairs. [Cackles.]

DW: How did you get your start?
JH: I went to Hollywood just to cruise around that summer before my senior year at the U of M. I drove all the way with a colleague at the time, Don Parker, who was my comedy partner. We were called Hong and Parker. Anyhow, I got onto Groucho Marx’s You Bet Your Life. I did an impersonation of Groucho, Jimmy Stewart, and Peter Lorre and I got the second biggest fan mail ever on that show.

BTLC.jpg Hong as Lo Pan in Big Trouble In Little China

DW: Comic Con has become an otherwordly cultural phenomenon. What's it like for you? 
JH: It’s quite an experience for me to meet my fans and to autograph pictures for them. It’s great to be out there to meet the people who love the movies like Big Trouble In Little China, Blade Runner, Chinatown, and all the so-called “classics” that I’ve done . . . Wayne’s World

DW: What role are you best known for among the Comic Con set?
JH: The one that people really like is Big Trouble In Little China. Hahaha! Forever they loved that picture. The character I created, Lo Pan, I guess will live forever really—long after I die—because Lo Pan kind of established that certain criteria for villains and there’s so many movies and people who come after me have more or less copied that roll. I even see commercials where they say, {in his Lo Pan voice} “Indeeeeeeed!” For some reason, Lo Pan caught the audience. 

DW: Why the hell doesn't a guy with a career like yours have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame? 
JH: I don’t know. Maybe I’ll hire you as a gun and you can force them to do it. I think if you get enough fans to write to what I imagine is the chamber of commerce and say, “This guy has done more roles on camera than anyone else, it’s about time you recognize the work he’s done before he dies” then maybe it’ll do something.

Wizard World Comic Con runs from May 2-4 at the Minneapolis Convention Center. Get all the details and schedules here.

Watch a our video interview with James here.