Victor Keung Wong, whose gentle demeanor and wispy white beard and mustache made him a popular character actor who was frequently cast as a grandfather or wise man in films such as “The Joy Luck Club,” “The Last Emperor” and “The Golden Child,” has died. He was 74.
Wong, who was born in San Francisco’s Chinatown, died in his sleep Sept. 12 at his farmhouse near Locke, Calif., where his father ran a school for Chinese children in the 1930s.
A fourth-generation Chinese American, Wong attended UC Berkeley, where he majored in political science and journalism and planned to become a foreign-service officer. But he switched to studying theology at the University of Chicago, and became a founding member of Chicago’s Second City improvisational comedy troupe. He later obtained a master’s degree from the Art Institute of San Francisco.
A sometime artist, amateur actor and store window-display manager, Wong was a member of San Francisco’s “beat” scene in the ‘50s and early ‘60s. Beat poet and City Lights Bookstore owner Lawrence Ferlinghetti hosted Wong’s first art exhibit, and Wong became friends with both Ferlinghetti and writer Jack Kerouac, who mentioned Wong in his book “Big Sun.”
As one of television’s first Chinese American reporters, Wong worked on the daily “Newsroom” program on San Francisco’s public television station, KQED, from 1968 to 1974.
He then refocused his attention on acting, working with the Asian American Theater Group in San Francisco before moving to New York City, where he appeared in the David Henry Hwang plays “Family Devotions” and “Sound and Beauty,” and did a stint on the daytime drama “Search for Tomorrow.”
In 1984, at age 57, he landed his first film role, in Wayne Wang’s “Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart.” That led to roles in 28 films, including “Shanghai Surprise,” starring Madonna; “Big Trouble in Little China,” with Kurt Russell; and Disney’s “3 Ninjas” series.
“He genuinely enjoyed it, coming so late in his career,” said Wong’s brother, Zeppelin Wong, a San Francisco attorney. “Actually, the best part of it is he acted himself [on screen].”
Victor Wong liked to say that Hollywood casting directors liked him because of his “lopsided” face, which was caused by Bell’s palsy, a facial nerve disorder that struck him in middle age.
“I never auditioned,” he once said. “My pictures were auditions.”
He retired in 1998 after two strokes.
He is survived by his wife, Dawn Rose; two daughters, Emily Wong of San Rafael and Heather Wong-Xoquic of Davis; a brother; three sisters; and five grandchildren.