Victor Sen Yung (1915–1980) was an enduring Hollywood actor and television star who, over the course of his long career, was given billing under various names. It seemed that being Chinese meant your name did not matter because no one in the audience would remember you or send you a fan letter. Although he has been dead for 40 years, and there is no fan club that I know of celebrating his modest but real accomplishments, I thought I would write some of them down for reasons that I think will become evident.
Between 1937, when he had an uncredited role as a Chinese peasant boy in The Good Earth and 1980, when he played Mr. Wing, his final movie role, in The Man with Bogart’s Face, he appeared in nearly 100 films. He first appeared on a television program in 1953 and last appeared on one in 1979. For these roles he was either uncredited or billed as Sen Yung, Sen Young, Victor Sen Young, or Victor Young.
Yung got his first big break in 1938, when he played Jimmy Chan, the “number two son” of Chinese detective Charlie Chan in Charlie Chan in Honolulu, replacing the “number one son,” Lee Chan, who had been played by Keye Luke (1904-1991), the first Chinese American actor signed to a contract by a Hollywood studio. Luke had played opposite the Swedish actor Warner Oland, who played Charlie Chan from 1931 until his death in 1938. , When Oland was replaced by Sidney Toler, a white American actor, the change required a new son to replace Luke.
Yung played Jimmy Chan 10 times between 1938 and ’42. His performance in the role was interrupted when he joined US Army Air Force in World War II. In the early years of the war, before he entered the armed forces, he was cast, like other Chinese American actors, as a conniving, cutthroat, and deceitful Japanese, including the disloyal Japanese-American Joe Totsuiko in Across the Pacific (1942), starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor, and Sidney Greenstreet. In 1946, he starred as Jimmy Chan in two more films with Toler. When Toler died in 1947, Yung was renamed “Tommy Chan, number three son,” and starred in five more Charlie Chan films, with another white American, Roland Winters, in the lead.
Between 1959 and 1973, Yung played the easygoing cook, Hop Sing, in more than 100 episodes of the long-running TV series, Bonanza. This, of course, is all a Chinaman can do on television: hop, sing, spout gnomic bits of wisdom, and die. Because of Bonanza, the name “Hop Sing” has become synonymous with stupid Chinaman.
In the martial arts film, Best of the Best (1989), which stars James Earl Jones, one of the fighters, Travis Brickley, (played by Christopher Penn) says: “Raw fish? You keep eating that shit, you’ll end up like Hop Sing over there — your eyes will slant, […] your dick will shrink up, […] and you’ll open up a laundry!”
When Yung was not a cook on television, he was one in real life, authoring The Great Wok Cookbook in 1974. His other claim to fame, at least by pop culture standards, is that he was aboard Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 710, a puddle jumper flying from Sacramento, California, to Burbank, California, with a stop in San Francisco. On July 5, 1972, two Bulgarians, Dimitri Alexiev and Michael Azmanoff, hijacked the plane; they demanded 800,000 dollars, two parachutes, and to be flown to Russia.
The hijacking ended on a runway in San Francisco when four FBI agents stormed the plane, killed the hijackers and one passenger, and wounded two others, one of whom was Yung. They were the first passengers to be killed or wounded in a plane hijacking in the United States. His reward for this was a guest appearance on Gary Moore’s show To Tell the Truth, where none of the four celebrity panelists identified him as a character actor involved in a hijacking.
While all of these things are worthy of attention, I might not have discovered any of this if I had not seen The Letter (1940), directed by William Wyler, starring Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall.
In the film, Leslie Crosbie (played by Bette Davis) is married to Robert Crosbie (played by Herbert Marshall), a rubber plantation owner whose extensive land holdings are just outside the city of Singapore.
In the first scene, we see Leslie walking determinedly across a porch as she fires a pistol at a man, who has just burst out of her bungalow. She keeps firing bullets into his body, even after he falls down the porch stairs and tumbles to the ground.
We soon learn that the dead man’s name is Geoff Hammond (in an uncredited performance by David Newell). According to Leslie, the reason she shot him was because he “tried to make love to me,” and she wanted to protect her honor.
The real story, of course, is that Leslie and Geoff were having an affair, and that she became jealous when she learned that he had recently married a Eurasian woman (played by Gale Sondergard) and was, in fact, never in love with her.
The crucial information about their affair is contained in a letter that is in the possession of Hammond’s widow, which Leslie wants to get her hands on.
Leslie’s attorney, Howard Joyce (played by James Stephenson) learns of the letter’s existence from his clerk, Ong Chi Seng (played by Sen Yung).
As he is the only one who knows how to get to the meeting place, Seng drives the lawyer and Leslie to meet the widow in Chinatown. Sondergard, who arches her eyebrows and frowns but never says a word, forces Leslie to show her the payment demanded for the incriminating information, an envelope containing ten thousand dollars, before dropping the letter on the floor. Refusing to touch the money, she hands the envelope to her Asian servant, who is smoking an opium pipe.
The role of Howard Joyce’s clerk is the best part Sen Yung would ever get during a career that stretches over 40 years. It is apparent by the way he comfortably inhabits the stereotype of the smooth-talking, conniving, obsequious Asian, that he never really got a chance to let his talents shine in any of his other roles. The clerk he played in The Letter would never rise much higher in the colonialist hierarchy (which you could say is Hollywood), despite his self-evident skills. It was that role that made me want to find out more about him, always hoping that he got another chance to do something memorable, which he didn’t.
In 1980, Yung died at home from gas poisoning. His body was found 10 days later and the death was ruled accidental. He is buried in Greenlawn Memorial Park, Colma, California, most likely under the name, Victor Sen Yung. Pernell Roberts, the star of Bonanza, who also delivered the eulogy, paid his funeral expenses.
Each year, the Chinese Alumni Association awards the Victor Sen Yung Memorial Scholarship to a student at the University of California, Berkeley, where Yung studied animal husbandry.