As with "Kung Fu," the star of the syndicated series "Vanishing Son" is an Asian who uses martial arts to battle his way out of trouble while on the run from law enforcement agents. Unlike "Kung Fu," "Vanishing Son" actually stars someone of Asian heritage.
Russell Wong plays Jian-Wa, a passionate human-rights activist forced to flee with his brother (played by Chi Muoi Lo) from the iron-fisted communist powers in China. In the United States, he pursues the American dream but his brother is killed and he is framed for the murder of two federal agents. The search to clear himself and evade his pursuers is the thread that loosely binds the episodes.
Not only is "Vanishing Son" perhaps only the second dramatic TV series to feature an Asian lead (Pat Morita played a cop in ABC's "Ohara" in 1987-88), but it also relies on a rather large dose of hunk factor . That's a major leap for television's Asian American men, who heretofore have been relegated to supporting roles.
"Jian-Wa's got a lot of energy and sex appeal. He's a passionate guy. It would be unrealistic not to show it," Wong says matter-of-factly.
"Vanishing Son's" stereotype-busting earned Wong a Media Achievement Award last December from Media Action Network for Asian Americans, a watchdog organization.
"The great thing about Russell's role is that he's this sexy male lead, a hero who can stand up for himself," said Guy Aoki, president and co-founder of Media Action. "He's the person you can root for. That would have been revolutionary in itself, but in every episode he also has a relationship with a woman, whether she's Asian or not.
"It's sad, but it's revolutionary if you have an Asian male paired romantically with anyone," Aoki said. The formula we've seen from Hollywood is that you have the star--a white guy--going into an Asian community. He's better at martial arts than everyone else and winds up beating them all up, he rescues the Asian woman from the Asian men--who treat her badly--and walks off into the sunset."
Wong, 31, takes his position seriously. "Being a representative of the Asian community,' he says, "I'm mindful of the dialogue and care what kind of image is put out there--the quality and the integrity."
He's even worked to tone down some of the more gratuitous disrobing.
"You know, a lot of times they want me to take my shirt off to show my chest, especially when I'm doing meditation scenes. I tell them, 'If that's all the show's going to be about, we don't have a show. Let's just focus on what the meditation's about and why the character's making certain choices. What he believes in.' And if the scenes carry through, then you know you've got something of substance."
To prepare for his "Vanishing Son" role, which began with four TV movies last season, Wong clipped articles and photos about the 1989 Tian An Men Square pro-democracy movement. Listening to a tape of Richie Havens' "Remember Tian An Men Square," he would stare at the collage he had assembled.
"I would try to put myself there and think about what my character would do," he said. "I tried to enter the role completely."
That kind of work ethic, Wong said, comes from his father, a retired Chinese American restaurant operator in Albany, N.Y. Though his assertive father is "jazzed" now, Wong said, he wasn't always so sanguine about his son's aspirations.
"My dad's the typical Chinese. He would say, 'You can't put a roof over your head with that kind of work.' He didn't really discourage us, but reminded you of the need for being practical."
His "artistic side, the metaphysical side" is from his Dutch mother. "She's a singer and painter, very artistic. So I was very influenced by her."
A self-described "action" lover who had "a lot of energy," Wong put in long hours during high school pursuing theater and football. He has also dabbled in various martial arts. While attending Santa Monica City College, a classmate suggested he study mime. The die was cast.
"I took ballet, jazz and voice lessons. And martial arts didn't hurt either," he said. "You have to be a Renaissance person to be in this business. I think a lot of people don't realize that to be a professional and an artist, training never stops. You never stop learning or you get stagnant."
He landed work in "Tai-Pan" and a Chinese martial arts film. Roles in "New Jack City," "China Girl," "21 Jump Street" and "Eat a Bowl of Tea" followed. But his favorite was as the abusive, philandering husband in "The Joy Luck Club."
The chance to portray a heroic Asian American is a delicious turnaround for Wong, who felt the childhood sting of racial slurs.
"There's a lot of shame associated with it," Wong says. "You're taught to be a secondary citizen. And then you start to think like a secondary citizen and you start to believe you are less than what you really are.
"I lived like that until I realized the truth. That's what motivates me to bring out my best. I want to say, 'A Chinese American can be just as good an actor as a Tom Cruise.' "
* "Vanishing Son" airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. on KTLA-TV Channel 5.