Chinese-American actress Lisa Lu turns 88 today, January 19, 2015, and, as of this writing, is still active in the business. I’ve written about her in past entries (see THE MOUNTAIN ROAD and the Bonanza episode, “Day of the Dragon” ) and have made an effort to track down some of her numerous TV appearances in the 1950s and ’60s, finding some on Encore’s Western Channel, some on YouTube and some on DVD.
In an episode of the TV western, “Bat Masterson,” called “Terror on the Trinity” (originally aired March 9, 1961), Ms. Lu plays an unusual role, that of Hsieh-Lin, the daughter of a Buddhist priest stationed in a “joss house,” a storefront Buddhist temple serving Chinese gold miners in the western town of Weaverville. We never see her father or learn what happened to him. When we meet her, she is being forced to take care of a band of outlaws, led by Dick MacIntyre (William Conrad), who have taken over the town and set up shop in the storefront. Bat Masterson (Gene Barry) has come to the area to stake a claim but has found his young partner murdered and has come to town to investigate. When he is introduced to Hsieh-Lin, she identifies herself in Chinese and Bat impresses her by understanding the phrase she uses to identify herself as the daughter of a priest. Even though MacIntyre is delighted to have such a famous visitor, Bat expresses disgust at the way the outlaws have dishonored the sacred site of the temple and brought in alcohol, tobacco and the piano from the saloon. A local man, a bearded giant named Tom (Mickey Morton) who’s been ostracized as a freak, is being used as muscle by MacIntyre and is subdued by Bat’s skillful use of his cane. Bat realizes that Tom hasn’t killed anybody and tries to help him and Hsieh-Lin, who has treated Tom with kindness. Eventually, the outlaws are neutralized and Bat urges Tom to shave and see how Hsieh-Lin reacts. She responds quite favorably and Bat leaves town at the end, having signed Tom on as a partner to work his gold claim.
While Hsieh-Lin is at the mercy of the outlaws for a long stretch, she carries herself with quiet dignity throughout, never showing fear or subservience. It’s not a showy role, but it reflects Lu’s capacity for showing inner strength and fortitude in the frontier Chinese characters she often played. And when she warms to the idea of a relationship with Tom at the end, it seems to be the uniting of two people who are both outcasts in their own way in this remote outpost but who have gentle, decent souls.
I saw “Terror on the Trinity” on the Encore Western Channel, which runs “Bat Masterson” six days a week.
Next, we find Ms. Lu in a more contemporary setting, Hong Kong in 1960 in the series, “Hong Kong,” starring Rod Taylor (who died this past January 7) in the role of American newspaperman Glenn Evans. The series was inspired by the 1955 20th Century Fox film, SOLDIER OF FORTUNE, which I wrote about here last year on September 26, and includes one cast member from that film, Jack Kruschen, playing a slightly different, somewhat softened version of his character from the film.
In this episode, “The Turncoat” (originally aired November 23, 1960), Ms. Lu plays Mai Loo Chu, a Mainland Chinese journalist who has come to Hong Kong with the intent to defect and join her American boyfriend, Harry Keefer (Christopher Dark), who had been in China since the Korean War, where, as a prisoner, he’d become a “turncoat” and participated in anti-American propaganda efforts. He’s been allowed to leave China to deliver heroin to a dealer in Hong Kong, but his intent is to turn it over to the British colonial authorities, represented by Inspector Neil Campbell (Lloyd Bochner), in exchange for money and two visas to another country (not the U.S.). The contacts in Hong Kong (played by James Yagi and Val Avery) who were supposed to get the heroin from Keefer are outraged at the betrayal and try to track down Keefer. When Mai Loo finds out about the heroin, she’s outraged at Keefer’s dishonesty with her and begins to rethink their relationship. Evans (Rod Taylor) gets involved when Keefer seeks him out to act as the go-between with Inspector Campbell.
Eventually, the bad guys learn of Mai Loo’s relationship with Keefer and kidnap her until Keefer can deliver the heroin. When Keefer learns of this, he even ponders leaving the country without her, figuring they’ll let her go in a few days when they learn Keefer is gone. Evans’ look of disgust at this new betrayal sums up his reaction and he offers to take Keefer’s place in the exchange, since the dealers have had no encounter with Keefer up to that time. He almost pulls it off, but then a wrinkle is added when one of the henchmen recognizes Evans from an earlier encounter. There’s a big fistfight at the end.
Mai Loo is basically just a pawn here, shuttled around between different men, but she develops a clear and immediate rapport with Evans, who recognizes the sorry situation she’s landed in and what a scoundrel her boyfriend is. If anyone can help her, he can. While the plot avoids establishing any romantic interest between the two characters, it’s clear that there is chemistry between them and that Evans would be a better match for her than Keefer. At the end, at the airport, she finally stands up for herself and tells Keefer she isn’t going with him. “Because of him?,” he asks, indicating Evans. “No,” she answers, “Because of you.”
The episode was directed by Ida Lupino, an actress who’d been a major star at Warner Bros. in the 1940s in such films as HIGH SIERRA and THE MAN I LOVE and directed several feature films and many TV episodes in the 1950s and ‘’60s, the only woman directing in Hollywood during this period. She shows a great deal of respect for all the actors, including the other Asian actors in the episode, Yuki Shimoda, James Yagi, Peter Chong and Gerald Jann. Ms. Lu gets a lot of wonderful closeups, as do all the actors with significant speaking parts. Lupino knows how to frame the actors in such a way as to reflect the emotions and tensions circulating among them in a scene. The action is well staged and the episode makes good use of studio sets and stock footage of Hong Kong. It’s extremely well-written and deserves repeat viewings. I saw this episode on YouTube, but it has since been taken down.
“Coronado 9” (1960-61) was a one-season crime/adventure show starring Rod Cameron as Dan Adams, a San Diego-based private investigator who gets hired for jobs all over the world. I bought the box set from Amazon (for a low price) for the sole reason that Lisa Lu was in two episodes. Well, now I’ve seen them. They’re not lost treasures of her career, but they each have something to recommend them.
In “Four and Twenty Buddhas” (originally aired November 1, 1960, 22 days before the “Hong Kong” episode aired), Ms. Lu plays Mei Ling, a Chinese beauty pageant contestant who is forced to try to sell the family treasure of the title to an art dealer to get money for her expenses in traveling to San Diego for the pageant. When a pair of bogus “customs inspectors” take the case with the carved Buddhas from her, she goes into hiding and a family friend, W.G. Wong (Noel Toy), hires Adams to find her. Adams learns that she’s working as a dancer at a nightclub run by the sleazy Mason (Bernie Fein) and manages to find her (a little too easily) and try to get her treasure back. He gets beaten up by the customs inspectors but bounces back to set a trap for the art dealer who’s behind the swindle.
Mei Ling is a victim here, buffeted about by the whims and greed of others and she has to put up with some rather explicit sexual harassment by Mason, who paws her on camera in a way that made me wonder if a white actress would have been subjected to the same treatment. It was a bit disturbing to see Ms. Lu treated that way, given how well she’s treated, even by the bad guys, in most of the TV episodes I’ve seen her in. At least Adams barges in to break up the harassment in a timely manner. But we never do get to see her dance.
The most significant element in this episode, though, from a standpoint of Asian characters in American TV shows, is the presence of the character of W.G. Wong, an independent Chinese-American businesswoman who runs the New Asia Produce Co., a vegetable wholesale operation, and is the one who hires Adams in the first place and summons him to her office overlooking a vegetable shipping depot. How often did Chinese-Americans in 1960 get to see Chinese-American characters on television in positions of such status? She was played by Noel Toy, seen here in scenes from the episode:
Noel Toy was in the aforementioned film, SOLDIER OF FORTUNE, and I singled her out in my blog entry on that film. She had quite a fascinating history herself and here’s what I wrote about her then:
Luan is played by the Chinese-American Noel Toy (1918-2003), who had quite an interesting history of her own. She had been a dancer at the famed Forbidden City nightclub in San Francisco’s Chinatown and had performed a notorious fan dance, in which feathered fans covered parts of her anatomy as she danced nude on stage. She eventually performed at other venues including the Latin Quarter in Manhattan and went on to marry a white American serviceman not long after the end of the War in 1945. That serviceman was an actor named Carleton Young who was a member of John Ford’s stock company and is most famous for playing the newspaper editor who delivers the famous line to James Stewart at the end of THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE (1962): “This is the west, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Ms. Toy was most active as an actress in 1955-56, mostly on television, and only intermittently after that in the subsequent four decades, including a recurring role in four episodes of “M*A*S*H” in the 1970s. I’ve seen a couple of her other credits but this film was the first time I’d noticed her.
Noel Toy in SOLDIER OF FORTUNE (1955):
The second episode of “Coronado 9” that Ms. Lu appeared in was called “Singapore Girl” (originally aired May 15, 1961) and takes place in Singapore (all shot on a Hollywood set). Lu plays Kim Luchan, a go-between working for the owner of a treasured copy of the Koran who’s trying to find a buyer for it. Adams has been hired by a dealer in the U.S. to go to Singapore to buy the manuscript but is stopped by British Intelligence officers who want to prevent the sale. Various bad guys come into play and eventually the owner of the copy and Kim are both murdered. Lu’s character is just a pawn and a victim here, so there really isn’t much to report on this episode.
However, there’s another Chinese-American actor in the cast, Beal Wong, who plays the owner of Wong’s Pizzeria in Singapore, a spot where Adams goes to try and extract information about Kim’s whereabouts from Wong, who’s designed as a comic supporting character.
Wong was a veteran actor in Hollywood whose credits begin in 1933. He was also the subject of a segment in the PBS documentary “Hollywood Chinese,” which identifies Wong as someone who started his own production company back in the 1930s to make Chinese-language films for the Chinese audience in America. He didn’t get very far, but there’s a whole history there that remains to be uncovered.
Finally, I found another interesting TV western episode with Ms. Lu on YouTube. The series was called “Buckskin” and the episode is “China Boy” (originally aired Sept. 18, 1958). In the episode, James Hong and Ms. Lu played a married couple who come to a growing western town to establish a laundry business. When their white competitor loses customers to them, he uses dirty tactics to turn the town against the Chinese laundry. At some point, Hong’s character is so enraged that he picks up a gun and threatens violence himself. It was a rare expression of the rage of an oppressed minority getting an airing on network television in the 1950s. Ms. Lu played the more resigned of the two, accepting their fate and wanting to move on. Eventually, the more liberal sheriff and newspaper editor combine forces to clear the Chinese couple and set a framework for peaceful coexistence. This is all from memory, since I first discovered and watched the episode last year, but I was unable to find it when I looked again. (The downside of relying on the web rather than physical media.)
The four episodes I highlighted above the “Buckskin” paragraph all ran within a seven-month period in 1960-61. Ms. Lu’s “Bonanza” episode, “Day of the Dragon,” ran a little later, on Dec. 3, 1961.
In any event, I wish Ms. Lu a happy 88th birthday and I look forward to discovering more of her TV appearances.
While I’m at it, my longtime college friend Theresa Brown celebrated her birthday yesterday by starting a new film blog. Won’t you all please visit it and check out her lists of favorite films of the 1940s?
P.S. The “Bat Masterson” episode described above, “Terror on the Trinity,” will air on the Encore Western Channel on Thurs. January 22 at 3:17 PM EST.