Wednesday, June 10, 2009

For Your Consideration: Sen Yung

Sen Yung
October 18, 1915 - November 9, 1980

Again in Caftan Woman's world we look at an actor and performance sadly overlooked by the Academy in the Classic Hollywood of Yore.

San Francisco born Sen Yung and his sister spent most of their early years in a children's shelter following the death of their mother from the influenza outbreak of 1919. His father left the children to return to China to reverse the family's fortunes and they were not reunited until sometime in the mid-1920s. Times remained hard and the youngster went to work as a houseboy at age 11. Determined and resourceful, Sen Yung worked his way through the University of California (Berkeley) majoring in Animal Husbandry and receiving a Degree in Economics.

While working as a salesman for a chemical company a stop at 20th Century Fox led to a visit to casting where the hunt was on for actors for the revamped Charlie Chan series following the death of Warner Oland and loss of Keye Luke. With only extra work in his background (Mr. Moto Takes a Chance and The Good Earth), Sen Yung was most happily cast with the new Chan, Sidney Toler. He proved adept at the comic enthusiasm which was Jimmy Chan's trademark and had a nice chemistry with star Toler. It is a pleasure watching him in the role today.

Sen Yung, Bette Davis, James Stephenson
Worlds collide

The Academy should have been taking note of the 24-year-old actor's work in William Wyler's adaption of W. Somerset Maugham's The Letter in 1940. As Ong Chi Seng, the law clerk with an agenda, Sen Yung steals scenes and gives the audience something to think about. While the British go about pretending the world is theirs, the unctuous young man reminds them that there is another world around them, one they cannot control. There is not a trace of the ebullient would-be detective in this fine characterization. It is a highlight in a film full of wonderful atmosphere and performances.

During WW2 Sen Yung was in the Air Force Motion Picture Unit and performed in Winged Victory. He received Officer's Training and became a Captain in Intelligence. It was around this time that he was often billed as Victor Sen Yung. His co-star and friend Layne Tom, Jr. (Charlie Chan in Honolulu) refers to him as "Vic" on a delightful interview included in the Fox Charlie Chan DVD set.

Fewer roles became available for this versatile, appealing performer that had the prestige of The Letter, Across the Pacific or Moontide. It saddens me to mark his appearance as uncredited waiters in films such as The Sniper in 1952 and The Blue Gardenia 1954. However, in 1950 he has two strong roles in Michael Curtiz's The Breaking Point as a smuggler of souls, and as a nightclub entertainer in Woman on the Run co-written and directed by Norman Foster (Charlie Chan at Treasure Island, Charlie Chan in Panama and Charlie Chan in Reno).

In 1959 a television role would assure Sen Yung's place in popular culture as assuredly as the Chan features when he began the recurring (over 100 episodes) role of Hop Sing, the cook and "mother" to the Cartwrights on Bonanza. Fans recall with pleasure the episodes where Hop Sing is prominently featured such as San Francisco, The Fear Merchants or A Lonely Man.

The man of many interests was also an accomplished Cantonese chef and wrote a best selling cookbook in 1974 dedicated to his father, Sen Gam Yung. Sen Yung left behind a son and two grandchildren when he died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning in 1980. The eulogy at his funeral service was given by his Bonanza co-star Pernell Roberts. He is remembered and discovered fondly by fans to this day, and the Chinese Alumni Association of the University of California have established a memorial scholarship in his name.


  1. WOW! The things I didn't know about Jimmy Chan. Thanks for the info and the insight.

  2. Why did this make me cry? Thanks again, CW. Stock in Kleenex?



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