The last days of Victor Wong

He’s been all things artistic and interesting: a comedian, an artist, a poet and one of the most successful Chinese-American character actors ever. Now he’ll be remembered.

Courtesy of Helen Plenert

Well, Jack Kerouac and his gang inspired people to write about their experience. The time of the Beats were a time of celebration of the arts. Hey, in those days, the word was, ‘Don’t be a debutante. Don’t dabble; plunge in. It’s your bag, man, dig it.’ “

—Victor Wong, speaking at a tribute to Jack Kerouac

On a hot, sunny afternoon in late July, Victor Wong sat in a chair on the porch of his modest home on Andrus Island in the Sacramento Delta. On the following Tuesday, he would turn 74. A small group of family members and friends had chosen this day to celebrate the latest milestone in his life.

For much of the past two decades—in which he had appeared in nearly 30 Hollywood films—Wong had lived in Midtown Sacramento. But after suffering two strokes that left him struggling to speak and walk, he had moved with Dawn Rose, his fourth wife, back to the Delta where he had lived as a young child in the early 1930s.

This birthday was an occasion to reminisce about a multi-layered career that spanned five decades. During those years—amid ongoing illness, depression and tragedy—Wong would reincarnate himself again and again. He was at varying stages a teenage Christian evangelist, a Protestant minister-in-training, a Buddhist, a visual artist, a poet, a Beat Generation luminary, a Merry Prankster, a pioneering photographer and broadcast journalist, a comedian, a successful stage performer, a teacher, a mentor to younger writers and filmmakers, and, in the end, possibly one of the most famous Chinese-American character actors in Hollywood.

“He has multiple personalities,” said his younger brother, Zeppelin, who had driven up from San Francisco on this day to join in the celebration.

One of the turning points in Wong’s life occurred during his years in the heyday of the San Francisco Beat scene.

“I met Jack Kerouac in the early ’60s,” said Wong, who was wearing tennis shoes, gray sweat pants and a bright red T-shirt that read: “May All Beings Live in Peace and Harmony.”

Kerouac chronicled the encounter between Wong and himself in Big Sur, the final novel by the Beat icon. It was a wild spree involving a troupe of drunken bohemians. The setting was City Lights bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin in the mountainous woods south of Monterey. Those who showed up included poets such as Lew Welch, Michael McClure, Neal Cassady (the inspiration for Kerouac’s novel On the Road) and Ferlinghetti himself.

Victor Wong, with friends Bobby Horiuchi and Helen Plenert, at his home in the Sacramento Delta.

Courtesy Of Helen Plenert

Kerouac—who gave Wong the name Arthur Ma in his book—wrote, “little Arthur Ma who never goes anywhere without his drawing paper and his Yellowjack felt tip pencils is already seated in my chair on the porch (wearing my hat now too) drawing one of his interminable pictures, he’ll do 25 a day and 25 the next day too—He’ll talk and go on drawing—He has felt tips of all colors, red, blue, yellow, green, black, he draws marvelous subconscious glurbs and can also do excellent objective scenes or anything he wants on to cartoons … ”

One night, Kerouac’s clique of creators sank one by one into drunken snores on cots and sleeping bags, but Wong and Kerouac were not sleepy. Like impromptu Buddhist comedians sitting up by the late fire, they spouted spontaneous questions and answers. Kerouac called it “goofing.”

Kerouac: “Unless someone sicks a hot iron in my heart or heaps up Evil Karma like tit and tat the pile of that and pulls my Mother out of her bed to slay her before my damning human eyes … ”

Wong: “And I break my hand on heads … ”

Kerouac: “Everytime you throw a rock at a cat from your glass house you heap upon yourself the automatic Stanley Gould winter so dark of death after death and growing old … ”

Wong: “Because lady those ashcans will bite you back and be cold too … ”

As Kerouac explained it, this back-and-forth “yelling and announcing” between him and Wong went on until “the birds woke up outside.”

Kerouac’s description of the duo’s verbal gymnastics in the woods of Big Sur was fairly accurate, according to Wong. At the time, Wong was a graduate student at the San Francisco Art Institute and a leading player in the city’s cresting beatnik movement, so it was no surprise that he had snared an invitation to the most famous literary party of its time. It was a feat—his ability to find cutting-edge art—that would mark the rest of his life and career. Four decades later, in the late evening of his life, he looked back at his Zelig-like ability to be in the right place at the right time.

By the late ’60s, he was heavily involved in the civil rights movement, yet functioning by day as a trailblazing journalist, covering some of the most exciting stories of the epoch. By the ’70s, he was a successful stage actor. By the ’80s and ’90s, he achieved his Hollywood breakthrough. Through it all, he managed to do it uniquely, remaining to the end deeply religious and persistently creative, yet always irreverent and stubbornly unconventional.

Victor Wong was a boyish- looking 30-something when he was hanging out with Kerouac during the Beat era. By 1987, the year I first saw him in the flesh, his age had nearly doubled. Sacramento’s new generation of literary beatniks was gathered in Cafe Metro, a dark, smoky subterranean bar in the basement level of what is now the IMAX Theater on the K Street Mall. On this crisp autumn night, we paid homage to Kerouac by listening to performances of his work. B.L. Kennedy, the Sacramento poet who organized the event, called it “October in the Railroad Earth.”

Wong, who served as the night’s MC, shared stories about his party life with the legendary Beat writer. But now Wong was a star of another sort himself. At an improbable age of 58, he had made it in Hollywood as a character actor. By that year, his film credits included The Last Emperor, Prince of Darkness, Big Trouble in Little China and Year of the Dragon.

Victor Wong, during his pioneering journalism days at San Francisco’s KQED.

Photo By Joe Rosenthal

Unlike the other people who were there to read from the many works of Kerouac, Wong was barely tall enough to peer out over the top of the podium on the stage. Unkempt and disheveled, he could have been a Chinese pirate or a wizened Zen master. His stringy long hair was held back by a black headband. His goatee was emblazoned with gray hairs. He had dark circles under his eyes and had that unmistakable squint on the right side of his contorted face, a result of the Bell’s palsy that had struck him in midlife.

The droopy look, disfavored in the world of television news, had prematurely ended his career as a broadcast journalist in 1974. But the same sagging face figured prominently in Wong’s Hollywood breakthrough. The mystique of his lopsided appearance was hotly sought after by directors such as John Carpenter and Oscar-winner Bernardo Bertolucci.

On that smoky night in 1987, Wong’s sardonic, irrepressible wit was readily apparent. In his husky, sonorous voice, he introduced Kennedy as a “poet for the criminally insane,” and described local writer D. R. Wagner as the “only surviving member of the 12 disciples of Jesus.”

Unlike most Hollywood actors, Wong eschewed the fast life and glamour of Los Angeles and continued to live humbly in his unassuming Midtown Sacramento residence where he could be close to his children. Near his home was the former Stucco Factory, an abandoned building that served as a renegade hangout for underground filmmakers, poets, musicians and artists, including two of Wong’s own sons. The actor was a mentor to many of them, including Kennedy. By 1986, when Kennedy organized an infamous marathon reading at the original Java City cafe at the corner of 18th Street and Capitol, Wong was a daily poetic presence.

“They were having the Oliver North hearings at the time,” remembered Kennedy. “Victor would always be there with his little transistor radio, just checking out the hearings when all the poetry was going on.”

A year later, Kennedy had added Wong to his lineup at the annual Kerouac tribute. A video from that night shows the actor telling ribald, crowd-pleasing stories:

“We’d go down to Big Sur, ’cause under [a] creek was this cabin, about a mile from the ocean, that Ferlinghetti had. In the morning, after we’d all gotten drunk the night before, I got up early to find Kerouac sitting on the two-seater outhouse, the side-by-side, and he was naked, you know, so, I got to see what he looked like. He was quite burly ’cause he played center for Columbia University. He had a lot of hair. He had to shave about three times a day. … He had hair on his back, on his shoulders. I asked him whether I could touch him, you know, it was so strange that he had hair all the way down to his you-know-what. And he had some on his butt, too. He had a big dick, too. I think he made good use of it. He had hairy legs, even to his toes. He was a very hairy guy … ”

During the Stucco Factory period, I had met Bobby Horiuchi, another local artist and one of Victor Wong’s closest friends. A stout, swarthy Japanese-American, Horiuchi was kind-hearted and easy-going, and had been assisting in recent months with the actor’s homecare. He had been suggesting for nearly two years that I do a profile on his friend. Concerned about Wong’s failing health, he wanted to see the actor receive due respect during his own lifetime. On the way to the birthday party, Horiuchi had his own stories to tell about his friend.

The two had met in the early 1980s when both were involved in San Francisco’s Asian-American Theater Company, a new avenue that Wong had turned to after his Bell’s palsy had ended his six-year stint as a reporter for KQED, San Francisco’s public television station.

“Victor used to come around, and he wore loose fitting clothes,” said Horiuchi. “He looked like a bum. He had a backpack with him all the time. His hair was a little disheveled. He always parted it to one side and he would just kind of move it over when it got in his face. He was kind of quiet.”

There were more stories about Big Trouble in Little China, a 1986 film directed by John Carpenter that stars Kurt Russell in the lead. Horiuchi was able to land a small role in the cult classic, which is set in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The film features Wong in one of his most well-known roles. He is Egg Shen, a comical tour bus driver who knows about Chinese sorcery and other secrets of Chinatown.

Victor Wong at Java City’s marathon poetry reading in 1986.

Photo by B.L. Kennedy

Horiuchi received a call from some of Chinatown’s Asian-American activists. They were claiming that Big Trouble in Little China would exploit the ethnic community and cast Asian Americans in a bad light. Knowing that Wong was playing a key role in the film, Horiuchi sought his friend’s opinion on the matter.

“By God, it’s just a fantasy,” Wong told him. “It’s a movie, for Christ’s sake. It’s not reality.”

Shortly after the film was finished, Wong experienced one of the most tragic events in his life. His son, Lyon, was killed in Sacramento in a fight with another young man. In the week after his son’s death, the actor learned that he was sought back in Hollywood by Carpenter, who had decided to cast his character Egg Shen in a new scene that would open the movie.

“I remember the wake,” said Horiuchi. “At a time when Victor was at a very vulnerable emotional moment of his life, he had to go down and film that scene. He went back down and filmed it right after the wake. Not long after that, Victor suffered his first stroke. I think it was a direct result of Lyon’s death.”

Another story by Horiuchi concerned Wong’s role in The Last Emperor, the Oscar-winning film, and his controversial relationship with Bertolucci, the film’s legendary director.

“Victor is very knowledgeable about history, especially the Chinese dynasties,” said Horiuchi. “Victor was very knowing about how even the emperor was holding his teacup, or which way he would turn his face when somebody would come to talk to him … the details. Victor was telling me that there was some scene in which he went and told Bertolucci how to film it. Bertolucci got mad. He said, ‘I’ll never work with you again.’ He wouldn’t work with Victor again because he was telling him what to do.”

Inside the musty historical museum in the Chinese-American Delta town of Locke, old photographs adorn the walls. In one of those photographs, taken during the early 1930s, is little Victor Wong. This picture shows the face of a mischievous spirit, a performer in the making. A first generation Chinese-American, Victor Keung Wong, the family’s eldest son, was born in San Francisco on July 31, 1927.

“I was born on the second floor of a home near Sacramento and Stockton streets in Chinatown,” said Wong. “It was at the end of the tunnel where the street car came by.” His earliest memory was the sound of it passing his home.

The family moved to the Chinese-American community in the Delta town of Courtland when Wong was 2. His father, Sare King Wong, had taken a job as principal and teacher of a school there that catered to the children of the Chinese-American farmers and laborers in the Delta.

The father, a poet himself, was a well-known intellectual in the Chinese-American community. He had carved out a career for himself back in China in the 1920s, according to Zeppelin, Victor’s brother. Although the father grew up in the part of China known then as Canton, he later moved to Shanghai where he established himself as a journalist. Victor Wong’s mother was a devout Christian, educated at a school for women in China that had been operated by Southern Baptist missionaries.

Within three years, the family moved from Courtland back to Chinatown, but the actor’s memories of his early days in the Delta never left him and influenced his decision to move back there during his retirement years. Back in San Francisco, Wong’s father opened a successful store and eventually became known as the unofficial mayor of Chinatown.

“ABO,” one of the many computer-generated art pieces Victor Wong completed after suffering disabling strokes.

At some point, the young Victor Wong contracted tuberculosis and spent several years in a sanatorium, isolated from family and community. The isolation had a profound influence on his temperament, making him more introverted and contemplative. Another huge influence was his mother, who insisted each week that her kids attend the First Chinese Baptist Church, located across the street from the family’s Chinatown home.

“One Saturday morning, he woke me up early,” said Zeppelin, chuckling at the memory. “He said, ‘We got to go convert souls today.’ He had me bring my little Bible and the two of us walked through the Stockton tunnel. You end up at Union Square. We spent several hours trying to convert heathen souls. We spent so many hours trying to convert this one stubborn old fellow who was Italian. We weren’t too successful.”

At the University of California, Berkeley, Wong studied journalism and political science, but returned to his spiritual leanings after receiving a scholarship to the Graduate School of Theology at the University of Chicago. There, he began preparing for a life in the ministry under the tutelage of religious scholars such as Paul Tillich and Martin Buber.

However, he got sidetracked from his religious studies after joining Chicago’s “Second City” comedy troupe. During that time he stayed for a while with Langston Hughes, the famous African-American writer. Wong’s wife recently discovered an amusing letter from that period which Hughes wrote to his friend, Buddhist scholar Howard Thurman. In it, the writer complained that he couldn’t get Wong to move out of his house, and that the budding young comedian was trying to tell him how to write his books.

But after coming to San Francisco for the summer, Wong got asked to take a role in a theater production and never made it back to Chicago. He continued graduate studies at the San Francisco Art Institute under painter Mark Rothko, eventually earning a master’s there in 1962. At the 1987 Kerouac tribute, Wong told stories about his days at the Institute. He described it as a time when Kerouac and the other Beat writers dominated the art scene, while visual artists isolated themselves with their focus on abstract art.

“Sometimes, I’d see De Kooning when I would go to pick up my kid at the Union Street Nursery School,” said Wong. “I used to be assistant librarian at the Art Institute and all these painters like Don Hudson and Bill Wiley used to be security guards at the playland down at the beach. They had the graveyard shift. That’s how they made money to go to school. I would open the library at nine o’clock, and they would come in, really cold. It was a wealthy school and so they had a lot of these leather couches, and the guys would just flop down. And they would tell when there first classes were, and I would wake them up and they would go to their classes.”

Wong’s father had hoped that his eldest son would carry on the family retail business, and he wasn’t happy with his contemplative, spiritual son’s decision to become an artist. Soon, Victor had become the black sheep of the Wong family. The subject of Victor’s father, and his disapproval of his son’s lifestyle, even gets raised by Kerouac in Big Sur:

“Arthur came from a large family but as a painter and a Bohemian his family disapproved of him now so he lived alone in a comfortable old hotel on North Beach tho sometimes he went around the corner into Chinatown to visit his father who sat in the back of his Chinese general store brooding among his countless poems written swiftly in Chinese stroke on pieces of beautiful colored paper which he then hanged from the ceiling of his little cubicle … There he sat, clean, neat, almost shiney, wondering about what poem to write next but his keen little eyes always jumping to the street door to see who’s going by and if someone came into the shop itself he knew at once who it was and for what … He was in fact the best friend and trusted adviser of Chiang Kai Shek in America, true and no lie … ”

“We were not the typical Chinese family,” said Betty Anne Wong, one of Victor’s younger sisters at the birthday party. “We were always causing problems for my father who was very Confucian and a scholar.”

By the mid ’60s, Victor’s spiritual explorations had led him to Zen Buddhism. He soon joined his younger sisters who were already participating in sittings at the San Francisco Zen Center. Wong fell under the influence of Suzuki Roshi, the famous Zen Buddhist monk.

“Victor accomplished something quite extraordinary,” said Betty Anne. “Suzuki Roshi and Victor got along very very well, and he asked Victor if he knew any Chinese scholars. Victor said, ‘Well, you know, my father’s a Chinese scholar.’ You remember that Victor? Suzuki took off his robes and wore a suit, and you took him up to see Pa and you never knew what they talked about. It was just the two of them. That was one of the most extraordinary years we ever had in our lives. Don’t you think that, Victor?”

Some of Victor Wong’s 28 films included <i>The Joy Luck Club</i>, <i>Seven Years in Tibet</i>, <i>Tremors</i>, <i>Prince of Darkness</i>, <i>The Golden Child</i>, and a TV movie called <i>Nightsongs</i>.

Courtesy Of Heather Wong

But the actor had been distracted. His granddaughters wanted him to open his presents. As he did so, someone else brought out a cake. The actor smiled as he listened to the young children singing “Happy Birthday.” His gifts included Frank Sinatra CDs, a book on Tibetan Buddhists, and a nice reproduction of a photograph of his parents during the family’s years in Courtland.

Another car pulled up into the driveway. A tall, striking African-American woman stepped out. Although her hair was graying, she was still a beauty. It was Olive Wong, Victor Wong’s first wife, who had shown up with Emily, the former couple’s oldest daughter. Victor Wong had met Olive in the 1950s after returning from his aborted studies in theology in Chicago. In Big Sur, Kerouac called her “the most beautiful Negro girl in the world.”

A stage director, she was the daughter of Howard Thurman, a famous African-American author and minister. A disciple of Gandhi, Thurman had established San Francisco’s Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, a radical Christian ministry. Olive had moved to San Francisco to direct a special stage performance as part of an anniversary celebration of her father’s church. Looking for actors, she was referred to Victor Wong by one of his own sisters and was impressed with his acting abilities.

“He was very talented as an actor,” said Olive. “He was very creative. He was a natural.”

Wong and his first wife became a dramatic team, staging productions in the auditorium of her father’s church and other locations in the city. She directed. Victor acted and designed and built sets. They had just parted ways when Kerouac showed up during the Big Sur period. It was an exciting and turbulent period in San Francisco. The Wongs rubbed elbows and shared friendships with communists and socialists who used the same auditorium of Thurman’s church for organizational meetings.

Like much of society, Wong was deeply affected by the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963. It inspired him to pursue a career in journalism. JFK’s death “made me want to help society,” said Wong.

But it would take the budding journalist another five years to land the major gig of his journalism career. He was hired in 1968 to work as one of the on-air reporters for KQED’s Newsroom, a TV news show. The new program sprang up during the vacuum that was left when a big strike had shut down publication that year of the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Francisco Examiner. KQED billed it as a “newspaper of the air.”

“We covered Chinatown for the Western world, for the English-speaking world,” said Wong. At times, Wong covered other big stories, too, including the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) terrorist group and its kidnapping of media heiress Patty Hearst.

At the time, there were no other Asian-American TV journalists in San Francisco. Some of the later Asian-American broadcasters have cited Wong’s on-air presence as inspiration to them, leading them to pursue a career in TV news.

But the stress of TV journalism took a toll on Wong and he woke up in 1974 to learn that he had contracted Bell’s palsy and had developed his infamous lopsided face as a result. It was like he had become the Elephant Man in the newsroom and felt he was quickly cast aside because he wasn’t “pretty looking.”

“I was very depressed for a long time,” Wong told a reporter in 1987. To conquer the depression, Wong turned back to his earlier love of acting by getting involved with the Asian-American theater. By the early 1980s, Wong began landing stage roles in New York City and eventually caught the attention of television and Hollywood directors.

Victor Wong as Egg Shen from the film <i>Big Trouble in Little China</i>.

He was cast in Nightsongs, a 1984 TV production. The same year, director Wayne Wang cast him in Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart, and his Hollywood career was off and running. Wong said his two favorites among the 28 he made over a 14-year span are Big Trouble in Little China, and Eat a Bowl of Tea, a film he did in 1989. He worked continuously until suffering his two disabling strokes. His last film was in his familiar role as Grandpa Mori in High Noon at Mega Mountain, the final segment of the Three Ninjas trilogy, which was released in 1998.

Around that time, Wong moved back to the Delta with Rose, a Unitarian minister who had an art studio in Locke. For a while, the couple lived in Rose’s studio before moving into the home on Andrus Island. Although the strokes left Wong partially paralyzed, he found a way to remain creative, the common denominator that informed his whole life. He used a “paint program” that allowed him to create colorful paintings on his computer with the use of a mouse.

“It’s a blessing,” said Wong, using a walker to move inside the house where he can show off some of the paintings.

He likened the colorful, cartoonish collages to the work of Chagall. In one of the pieces, semi-hidden faces, some clown-like, peered out of a mélange of bright greens, reds and yellows. The whole soup of images and fields of color swirled around Chinese calligraphy, the painting’s focal point.

Spirituality also remained at the core of the retired actor’s life. He remained faithful to Christianity, yet he continued to appreciate many other spiritual traditions. In recent years, he sought out the wisdom of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people. He donated funds to Tibetan causes and allowed traveling monks to stay in his home and attended the Dalai Lama’s lectures.

At one of those talks, a 1998 peace conference, Wong caused a commotion that left the Dalai Lama himself wondering what was going on. Oodles of Tibetan kids in the audience were scampering up to Wong’s row to get a look at the actor and ask for his autograph. They recognized him as “Granpa Mori” from the Three Ninjas.

When I began taking photos of him in his kitchen next to his art, he started goofing for the camera, making faces, looks that were not unlike the physiognomy of that mischievously grinning kid in the photo of the nearby Locke museum.

But on this day, Wong now showed signs of fatigue so we left him with vows to come back again for another chat. But it was a chat that was not to be.

Like many artists and creative people, he was a night owl, painting or watching TV most nights until the wee hours of the morning. In his daily routine, he went to bed around 7 a.m. and slept until early afternoon. He had the TV on the morning of September 11 when news broke out about the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, D.C.

That morning, Wong couldn’t sleep. He sat transfixed before the screen, wondering, like so many, about the state of the world, and worrying about the fate of two sons who now live in New York City just a few blocks from World Trade Center site.

Fatigued and sleep-deprived, Wong sat with his wife throughout the day, continuing to watch the horrifying news. They made many calls to family in New York, trying to find out if his two sons were OK.

“He was very quiet,” said Rose. “We were exhausted. He stayed up to see what was going to happen. It seemed like our whole life was in question. I can remember the concern we had for what was going on for the families and what was going on on the planet.”

At some point during the long day, the couple finally learned that Wong’s sons were alive and well. But the former journalist kept up his vigil by watching the TV coverage. At about 10 p.m., his exhausted wife told him that she had to go to bed. She left him working at his computer screen.

“The world is never going to be the same,” he told her. Those turned out to be his last words. After hearing a sound later that night, Rose learned that her husband had died of a heart attack.

She paused, then gave her sense of what wisdom her incessantly creative late husband had to offer to the world.

“Victor had maintained complete diligence at his work even until the last day,” she said. “Every day he did art work. Victor just wanted us all to go do our thing and not be intimidated by the world. Up until the day he died, he was his own man.”

The memory of Victor Wong will be honored at three different memorial events in the coming weeks. The first will occur at 2 p.m. this Sunday, October 21, at the First Unitarian Universalist Church, 1187 Franklin Street, San Francisco (415) 334-5844. B.L. Kennedy is dedicating this year’s 21st annual Kerouac tribute reading to the memory of Victor Wong. It will be held at 7 p.m, October 26, at the Gallery Horse Cow, 1409 Del Paso Blvd. in Sacramento (916) 922-9142. Wong’s family and friends in Sacramento are holding another special memorial at 2 p.m. on November 24, also at the Gallery Horse Cow, 1409 Del Paso, Sacramento. For information on that event, call (916) 482-2608.