About a year ago, I picked up a DVD called “Top TV Westerns” that included a 1961 episode of “Laramie,” entitled “Dragon at the Door,” that happened to be about a troupe of traveling Japanese entertainers out west, with the lead character played by Japanese actress Nobu McCarthy. I was intrigued by the episode’s respectful treatment of its Japanese characters, avoidance of stereotype, and the honest depiction of culture clash in the interaction between the two American stage drivers, the series’ regular protagonists, and the five Japanese characters. I wondered how many other TV western episodes featured Asian guest stars like this and I did some research and found quite a few, including an episode of “Wagon Train” with Sessue Hayakawa as a traveling samurai (“The Sakae Ito Story”); an episode of “Rawhide,” in which Miyoshi Umeki played a geisha out west (“Incident of the Geisha”); and an episode of “Cheyenne,” in which the title character, working for a railroad, finds himself with a Chinese “bride,” played by Lisa Lu, whom he has to care for until he can reunite her with her father and send them back to San Francisco (“Pocketful of Stars”). After those, the one I most wanted to see was “Day of the Dragon,” an episode of “Bonanza,” guest-starring Lisa Lu and also featuring such august Asian-American performers as Philip Ahn and Richard Loo, along with series regular Victor Sen Yung, who played the Cartwrights’ cook, Hop Sing. I found this episode in a Bonanza box set of the series’ third season.
I last wrote about Lisa Lu in my entry on her film, THE MOUNTAIN ROAD (1960), on June 30, 2012. In “Day of the Dragon,” which first aired on NBC on Sunday, December 3, 1961, Ms. Lu plays Su Ling, a Chinese woman who had been brought to the U.S. by a Chinese warlord and then been kidnapped by two grifters seeking a ransom. When the warlord goes after them, they flee to Virginia City and lose the woman in a card game to the unwitting Little Joe Cartwright (Michael Landon), who’d been led to believe he was winning a horse. The two men then leave the woman with the baffled Cartwright heir and ride off. He takes her home to his father, Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene), hoping that “Pa” will know what to do with her. They try to give her her freedom, but she insists on being their slave (her word) and working for them from dawn to dusk.
Su Ling learned English from missionaries in China and is able to communicate with the Cartwrights, but only, at least in her early scenes, in the flowery, somewhat broken English that was standard for Chinese characters back then: “Su Ling work for master, work very hard. Eat little, sleep floor, no trouble. Like shadow in night forest, no see, no hear.” In her first meetings with the Cartwrights, she comes off as subservient and quick to kowtow, but it soon becomes obvious that she has her own agenda. She skillfully manipulates the Cartwrights’ sympathies, beginning with her sad saga of never-ending struggle in China from childhood on and being alone in this strange new land, and, in short order, gets Ben to agree to let her stay. This is, after all, the first secure situation in which she’s found herself in America and she’s clearly impressed with the comforts of the house and the magnificent land holdings of the Ponderosa property. She’s got a good deal here and she knows it. In fact, not long after settling in, she’s got all three Cartwright brothers peeling potatoes for her.
In one dialogue passage, she overturns the stereotype of the impenetrable orient by telling Ben, “You see, honorable sir, it’s very difficult for Su Ling to understand mysterious west. Very inscrutable.” (Now, where’d she get that word from?)
In the course of it, she meets Dr. Kam Lee, played by Korean-American actor Philip Ahn, who works in Virginia City, administering to its Chinese community, and needs qualified help. When Su Ling tells him she worked at a mission hospital in China, he has her spend the afternoon assisting him and he soon offers her a job. She prefers the Cartwrights for the time being, but will reunite with the doctor in later scenes.
Meanwhile, General Tsung (Richard Loo), the warlord who’d previously owned her, is on the path of the two grifters (Mort Mills, Harry Lauter) and eventually finds Su Ling at Ponderosa and confronts Ben and Joe in a dramatic scene where Ben and General Tsung negotiate Su Ling’s fate and Ben gets the General to agree to let Su Ling decide overnight.
General Tsung is not a cardboard “Yellow Peril” villain here. He treats Su Ling with tenderness and proposes marriage in these words: “Would delicate orchid blossom entertain this trembling proposal?” To which she replies: “It is ever wise to consider so wondrous a proposal, glorious General. Su Ling needs time to ponder breathtaking prospect. Su Ling will contemplate the boundless riches most carefully.” Her English has clearly improved after a few days with the Cartwrights.
General Tsung hedges his bets, however, and provokes a confrontation with the Cartwrights that culminates in the episode’s only action sequences, involving shootings, stabbings and a chase on horseback. In the end, Su Ling decides to go with the doctor and work for him.
There are many good character scenes involving Su Ling’s interaction with the Cartwrights. In one, Little Joe tries to discuss the concept of freedom with her and he uses her birdcage and its caged canary as an example. She makes her point by opening the birdcage door and trying, to no avail, to get the canary to fly out. “Bird not strong enough to fly away. In cage bird safe, happy.” Once she closes its door, the bird starts singing again.
Later on, she and Joe have a tender goodbye scene where she tells him, “Cartwrights’ love is what give Su Ling courage to leave birdcage she try build for herself. You teach cage shut in Su Ling not keep out world.” She even gives him a kiss on the cheek. Throughout, Ms. Lu portrays her character with dignity and grace.
There’s a lovely scene where Adam (Pernell Roberts) provides Su Ling with a pipa, a Chinese stringed instrument, and she accompanies herself as she sings a song about China (in English) and the men sit there transfixed. It’s a gentle moment of downtime for the Cartwright household. Throughout the episode, she’s treated with respect by the men and welcomed warmly into their home. The two other Chinese characters in the story, Dr. Lee and General Tsung, are also treated as human beings and not burdened with stereotype.
I believe it was rare for a woman to gain a foothold in the Cartwright household in the series. When they did, it was usually for a hidden agenda or it ended tragically. In this case, Su Ling was not a threat to the men or the Ponderosa and could indeed have stayed if she wished. That she leaves on her own, free to finally make her own choice, reflects a maturation of her character and not a contrived plot twist designed to keep the Ponderosa free of females.
If there’s any glaring flaw in the episode, it’s that we never see Su Ling and Hop Sing interact. They’re never even in the same shot together. One would think they would both have had a lot to talk about and would relish the opportunity to converse in Mandarin. Little Joe implies that they did indeed meet and talk, but I would like to have seen it. (Su Ling does exchange words in Mandarin with the other Chinese characters.)
The great thing about this DVD (from Paramount) is that it includes an audio commentary for the episode by none other than Lisa Lu herself. She reveals that “Bonanza” producer David Dortort had envisioned a series about a Chinese family out west, with Ms. Lu playing the matriarch, but, alas, it never came to be. (Think “The Big Valley” with a Chinese cast.) She allows how she found the flowery dialogue amusing in the way it reflected how Hollywood screenwriters “imagined” the way Chinese talked. She talks about her co-stars in the episode, Victor Sen Yung, Richard Loo (whose wife was Ms. Lu’s agent), and Philip Ahn, as well as another prominent Asian-American actor with whom she frequently worked, Keye Luke. (Curiously, she never mentions Benson Fong, the fifth member of that quintet of Asian character actors who toiled in Hollywood for so many decades.) She emphasizes that all of these men were college-educated, with training in other professions, and spoke excellent English. It means a lot to her that Ahn’s character in the episode is shown as an educated and cultured man, a far cry from the railroad workers and coolies Asian actors often had to play. Born in China, Ms. Lu was herself a graduate of the University of Hawaii, where she majored in banking.
A trained singer, Ms. Lu takes great pride in the song she sings in this episode, one of only two occasions where she got to sing on camera. She describes how she offered two ideas for how the song should be done, drawing on Chinese tradition, but was overruled by the series composer, David Rose, who relished the chance to write a song himself, which is what she sang—quite beautifully, I might add. She has nothing but high praise for the cast and crew of “Bonanza,” singling out Michael Landon and also the cinematographer, Haskell Boggs, who made her look quite young (she was 34 at the time the show was shot). She was hoping her character would stay at Ponderosa, so that she would get to be in more episodes, but, alas, this was her only episode of “Bonanza.” She adds that, except for one scene, all the costumes she wore in the episode came out of her own closet.
I wish there had been an interviewer alongside Ms. Lu for the commentary, asking questions and drawing her out. There is so much I’d like to hear from her. For one thing, I would like to know if there’d ever been a scene between Su Ling and Hop Sing, one that might have been cut for some reason. And if not, why not? I would like to have heard her comments on other Asian actresses active in Hollywood at the time, e.g. Nancy Kwan, France Nuyen, and Nobu McCarthy, and if she’d ever competed for roles with them. I would like to have heard about her work on other westerns, including the “Cheyenne” episode I mentioned, as well as her recurring role as “Hey Girl” on “Have Gun Will Travel,” with Richard Boone, and a recurring role as “Miss Mandarin” on “Yancy Derringer.” And, since there are no commentaries on the Hollywood films she’s made, I would like to have heard something about her films, THE MOUNTAIN ROAD and CHINA DOLL, both of which I covered on June 30, 2012. And what about her larger career, which took her to Hong Kong for a number of films, as well as China? I’m not sure when this commentary was done, but she sounds quite old. She’ll be turning 86 on January 19 and, remarkably, is still working. I hope someone does a career-length interview with her while it’s still possible.
The “Bonanza” episodes on this DVD all open with the old NBC “In Living Color” peacock logo, which should have nostalgic value for some of us.
I’ve done IMDB reviews of three of the TV episodes mentioned in this column. Here are the links: