Asians in TV Westerns: “The Virginian: Hour of the Tiger”

17 Dec

I recently stumbled across an episode about Chinese laborers in “The Virginian,” a long-running NBC western series that ran in a 90-minute time slot from 1962 to 1971 and is now running every weekday evening on the Starz Encore Western Channel. This particular episode was called “The Hour of the Tiger” (Season 3 / #16, airdate  December 30, 1964) and it turned out to be a suitable entry for my ongoing series on “Asians in TV Westerns.” Its chaste relationship between the title hero and a cultured Asian woman echoes those in other westerns I’ve written about here, including Laramie: “Dragon at the Door,” and two with Lisa Lu: Cheyenne: “A Pocketful of Stars” and Bonanza: “Day of the Dragon.” In all of these, the hero and the Asian character (Japanese in “Laramie” and Chinese in “Cheyenne and “Bonanza”) discuss their cultural differences at length, with the American suggesting that she doesn’t have to follow tradition, but can follow her heart and take advantage of the freedom possible in America. The Virginian episode shares a plot element with two of the others, in that the woman is promised to another man. In each case, respect is shown by the hero toward the other culture. He’s never condescending or critical, but simply offers the option of another way. (These episodes were made at a time when cold war tensions prompted frequent expressions of American values in popular culture to contrast the lack of basic rights in the Soviet Union and Communist China. Conversely, these episodes can also be seen as a way of inserting messages into network entertainment about racial prejudice and the civil rights battles of the time when TV executives were still timid about treating the topic directly. )

In the episode, Judge Garth (Lee J. Cobb), a ranch owner in Medicine Bow, Wyoming, needs a team of workers to dig a tunnel through solid rock in order to get his cattle free from an area where they’ve gotten stuck. He hires an Irish foreman named Big Jim Lafferty (Leo Gordon), who brings with him a crew of about two dozen Chinese workers. The Virginian (James Drury), one of Garth’s employees, notices a very petite worker and offers his help. When this particular worker is injured in a tunnel collapse, Drury enters the tunnel and rescues “him,” but is injured himself and the two have to recuperate at Judge Garth’s house. Only after the doctor examines the unconscious worker, does everyone learn what viewers have suspected all along—that the worker is a woman. She is named Kum Ho (Cely Carillo) and has come to America with a man she refers to as Uncle Chang (Kam Tong) to make money for a purpose disclosed later.

As Kum Ho and the Virginian recuperate from their wounds, they get to know each other and even spend a day in town, including the sharing of a spaghetti lunch at the hotel restaurant. He teaches her how to eat this “American dish” by using a spoon to twirl spaghetti around a fork and we see them eat in a delightful series of alternating close-ups. (The script misses a bet, however, by not having Kum Ho point out that this was originally a Chinese dish that was appropriated by Italy before finding its way to America.)

During her recuperation, Kum Ho gets friendly with Judge Garth’s daughter, Betsy (Roberta Shore), who is eager to learn about “all things Chinese.” Using silk purchased in town, Kum Ho makes lovely dresses for both of them to celebrate the traditional Chinese Harvest Festival. Kum Ho sings in Mandarin and accompanies herself on a stringed instrument and then passes the instrument for Betsy to strum a tune that Kum Ho has taught her so that she can do her dance. The Virginian makes up a highly pleased audience of one. Kum Ho has even made moon cakes for the occasion.

Kum Ho also writes a poem of love, in Chinese calligraphy, and shares it with Betsy but not with the Virginian, in whose presence she later burns it.

It becomes obvious that Kum Ho is in love with the Virginian. He’s drawn to her but never exactly states his own feelings, communicating very subtly that he accepts her love. The complication is that she’s due to marry her “uncle,” Chang, who is not a blood relative at all, but the last surviving male member of the House of Chang, a family that had taken Kum Ho in when her parents died. Chang, a scholar in China, could not afford to both take care of his elderly parents and marry Kum Ho, so he contrived to disguise Kum Ho as a male and sign up the two of them for work in America. Pictured here is Kam Tong as Uncle Chang, indulging in his own celebration of the Harvest Festival at a makeshift shrine in the tunnel he and his men are digging.

Kum Ho worries about Chang’s fate if she ultimately rejects him. Making matters worse, a rival rancher (Tom Tully) sends a crew of thugs to intimidate the Chinese and one of them (Robert J. Wilke) cuts off Chang’s pigtail, thus disgracing him and making him useless as a worker.

Kum Ho even attempts suicide, but the Virginian stops her (echoing a similar scene in “A Pocketful of Stars”). Eventually, with the Virginian’s guidance, she realizes that her cultural and moral obligations have greater priority and she commits herself to Chang in a very touching ending.

What makes this Virginian episode such a standout is the attention paid to Kum Ho and her awareness of her situation and all of its implications. In a series of tender scenes between her and the Virginian, she articulates all the issues facing her. (And he listens attentively.) She’s not as deferential as some of the other Asian women in TV westerns that I’ve written about and she’s often framed in a way that foregrounds her, with the Virginian in the background or behind her. The character has a consistent voice and provides the emotional core of the story. Even when she’s singing and dancing in the Garths’ parlor, she’s expressing herself freely, celebrating her own culture and sharing it with her American hosts. She also gets to wear a variety of different costumes, both Chinese and American. And she gets a lot of close-ups, too.

Of course, the script by Harry Kleiner gives her the kind of flowery, overly poetic dialogue that Lisa Lu found so amusing in her “Bonanza” episode and led her to conclude that it reflected the way Hollywood writers “imagined” Chinese talking. And one can argue that each of these episodes offers a rather shallow, oversimplified view of Chinese or Japanese culture, but no one took the networks to task at the time, so there was no incentive to hire Asian technical advisors to improve it. I imagine that interested parties felt that organized protests would have discouraged the networks from doing any shows with Asian themes, thus further diminishing the supply of jobs for Asian performers back then. Have things changed for Asians on TV since then? Perhaps someone who has watched contemporary shows with Asian characters can offer a comment.

Carillo’s character dominates the episode despite the presence in the cast of such veteran western heavies as Tom Tully, Robert J. Wilke and Leo Gordon. (Gordon, seen in the third picture below, with Lee J. Cobb as Judge Garth, plays a good guy for once, despite his gruff manner, and even barks orders in Mandarin to the crew.)

I had never heard of Cely Carillo before seeing this episode. (Her last name is sometimes spelled Carrillo. I’m not sure which is the correct spelling.) IMDB says she was born in Los Angeles in 1934, but has little additional information other than a list of her seven TV credits (five of which were dramatic guest-star roles) and one film role. No death date is given. However, I googled her and found an article from Esquire published earlier this year, which confirms my guess that she was Filipino but seems to imply that she was born and raised in the Philippines and began her musical career there, before coming to the U.S. to accept a scholarship at the Juilliard School of Music in New York.

She stayed on after graduating and, after a few TV appearances and recordings, wound up as part of the ensemble in the Broadway production of “Flower Drum Song,” eventually serving as understudy for both of the show’s female leads, Miyoshi Umeki and Pat Suzuki. In 1960, when Umeki left the cast, Carillo took over the role of Mei Li, becoming the first Filipino to play the lead role in a musical on Broadway. When Lea Salonga, another Filipino musical star, played the role in a Broadway revival in 2002, Carillo was there to meet her. The article tells us that Carillo passed away in March 2017. Her daughter, Cynthia Onrubia, is a dancer and choreographer for Broadway musicals and was in the original Broadway cast of “A Chorus Line.”

Here’s a link to the article:

I’d love to see Carillo’s other acting work, including one film, RAMPAGE (1963), in which her co-star was Robert Mitchum, and her four other TV guest roles, in “New York Confidential,” “Target: The Corruptors!,” “The United States Steel Hour,” and “Coronet Blue.” RAMPAGE, “Coronet Blue” and “The Virginian” are all available on DVD, but I don’t know where one can find the other three shows. Her episode of “Target: The Corruptors!” from 1962, “Chase the Dragon,” was also written by Harry Kleiner, the author of this Virginian episode.


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