Why 94-year-old ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’ star James Hong says he's not close to retiring

Brian Le, James Hong and Michelle Yeoh accept the Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture award for "Everything Everywhere All at Once" at the 29th Annual Screen Actors Guild Awards held at the Fairmont Century Plaza on February 26, 2023 in Los Angeles, California.
Michael Buckner | Variety | Getty Images

After roughly 70 years in the business, actor James Hong, 94, earned his first Screen Actors Guild Award Sunday alongside his "Everything Everywhere All at Once" co-stars, which made history for earning four major awards for the evening, including for outstanding performance by a cast.

Actors Michelle Yeoh, Ke Huy Quan and Stephanie Hsu used their acceptance speech to recognize Hong's legendary career, which spans roughly seven decades and 700 film, television and video game credits, including "Chinatown," "Blade Runner," "Kung Fu Panda," "Seinfeld" and many more.

Onstage, Hong reflected on the early days of his career, when he often played side characters to white leads in yellowface. Hong recalled that producers "said Asians were not good enough and they are not box office. But look at us now!"

After decades in the industry, Hong is getting greater public recognition for his work. Hong received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2022, making history as the oldest recipient to receive the honor. Daniel Dae Kim, Hong's co-star and friend, started a crowdfunding campaign in 2020 to raise the $55,000 needed for the star, which was met within four days.

Hong says he's a better actor today than ever. "I've devoted all this time to acting and here I am," he said in a recent interview with KTLA 5. "Everything's happening! I just can't believe that it took this long. This is the busiest year I've ever had."

Hong grew up in Minneapolis and got interested in acting when he was young, first inspired by Chinese opera performers who would visit his father's herb store. He began performing on stage in junior high and high school, and organized live shows to entertain troops when he was drafted for the Korean War.

He was working as a civil engineer when he got his break on "You Bet Your Life" in 1954 doing an impression of host Groucho Marx. Hong landed an agent and quit engineering for good.

The early part of his career consisted of small and limiting portrayals of Asians through stereotypical tropes.

"I did the best as an actor to overcome the cliché-ness because I had to in order to keep working," he said in a 2020 interview with CNN. "I took those roles and then I used what my teachers had taught me and put the real feelings, even if it's a villain … I try to find what makes the person really that person."

Over time, he's worked to call for better representation of Asian and Asian American characters onscreen, including by creating the East West Players, an Asian American theater group in L.A. that over 50-plus years has nurtured actors Randall Park, George Takei, John Cho and others.

Now, "Everything Everywhere All at Once" is a heavy favorite during awards season. The genre-bending multiverse-jumping movie is nominated for several Academy Awards, and Hong said that for the first time in his 70 years in the business, he'll be sitting on the first floor of the Oscars ceremony.

Hong doesn't plan to stop working anytime soon. His upcoming projects include reprising his role in "Kung Fu Panda 4," writing and acting in the adventure film "Patsy Lee & The Keepers of the 5 Kingdoms," and reuniting with "Everything Everywhere" co-star Michelle Yeoh in the Apple TV Plus series "American Born Chinese."

"I could just retire on my pension, my [Screen Actors Guild] pension, and go to Europe and tour, and India," Hong told CNN. "But something inside me, inside of James Hong, wants to keep on going and do more movies and progress … I'm going to do other movies until I can't walk anymore and can't talk anymore. Then, I'll take that tour."

Hong says he hopes to see movies and TV shows have better representation of Asian Americans in everyday roles "to see us playing roles like doctors and businessmen and politicians, like the reality of society," he told Variety in 2022.

"I've worked for all that for 70 years and it's just beginning as far as I'm concerned," he added. "Maybe another 10 years when I'm looking down at this world and I say, 'Yeah, progress.'"

Check out:

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Harry Shum Jr. has the answer for fixing Hollywood's diversity problem
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