James Lee Wong
Created by Hugh Wiley (1884-1968)
San Francisco's "famous Chinese sleuth," JAMES LEE WONG, better known as MR. WONG, appeared in at least a dozen stories, full of white slavery and opium dens in the late thirties in Collier's, which were later collected in Murder By the Dozen.
In many ways, Wong is simply your typical, vaguely aristocratic sleuth of the era: tall (six feet), lean (165 pounds) and well-educated (a Yale graduate). Even his ethnicity is downplayed a little, being descibed as posessing "the face of a foreign devil-- a Yankee."
The stories are typical of the era: pulpy slices of police brutality, sexist treatment of women, lots of opium and grisly murders. But they're also quite entertaining, just a tiny notch below the Mr. Moto or Charlie Chan stories -- even if things are a little hazy about Mr. Wong's actual occupation.
In at least one story, the character is simply referred to as James Lee, and he is listed as such on the US Treasury Departmnent's payroll in the others, only utilizing the Wong surname when dealing with his family. In only one story -- where he was contacted by a Wong family member to solve a murder -- does he approximate the efforts of a private eye. But the blurb on the back of the collection certainly plays up that angle:
"The case had started with a corpse in a dark alley -- and a missing $200,000 which Fang Yut, a wealthy importer, had used to smuggle opium into the States. The worried lords of Frisco's Chinatown called Detective James Lee to clean up the scandal. Lee soon found himself thrown into a whirlpool of violence which was to culminate in the strange death of Fang Yut and the brutal kidnapoping of a white girl."
In his first appearance, "Medium Well Done," James Lee actually plays only a minor role. The real hero is a Chinese cook with a meat cleaver who beheads the murderer as he tries to escape. "To his countrymen James Lee Wong was a member of the Wong family ... but to the public at large and on the federal payrolls, [he] was more simply James Lee."
But by the second story, "Thirty Thousand Dollar Bomb," Wong is clearly the star of the series. He mostly takes his orders from the Treasury Chief in Washington DC, has several well-trained subordinates at his immediate disposal (most of his neighbors in this Chinatown building are agents under his command), a knowledge of chemistry (just like Sherlock Holmes), and solves myriad cases, from opium smuggling to counterfeiting rings.
The stories were popular enough to be brought to the silver screen, in an attempt by Monogram to cash in on the Charlie Chan/Mr. Moto craze, with Wong being played by Boris Karloff and later Keye Luke. And it's in the films that James definitely makes the switch from treasury agent to private eye.
Sure, they're still standard B fare, but the earlier films, produced by Scott Dunlap, are often quite entertaining (albeit sometimes unintentionally) and Karloff brought a sense of quiet dignity to the role. Adding comic relief in several of the films were Grant Whithers as long-suffering police foil Captain Street and Marjorie Reynolds as Bobby Logan, a pesky reporter who continually tried to outwit Wong. Do they make sense? Not a hell of a lot.
The last film, Phantom of Chinatown, starring Keye Luke, who actually was Chinese-American, was something of a Hollywood first. Prior to then, Asian leads were invariably played by Caucasians.
And the films in turn were evidently popular enough to spawn several comic book stories in Dell's Popular Comics in the early forties.
Hugh Wiley was a rather prolific writer for such slicks as Colliers and The Saturday Evening Post. As well as penning the James Lee Wong stories, he also wrote about recurring characters Kwan Yin and at least five novels written in "negro dialect" featuring the adventures of black American Vitus Marsden. Vitus is definitely NOT a detective (he's a lumberjack, I think), but Wiley's other series character, Kwan Yin, may be.
This 2-disc set from 2008 contains all 6 films in the series: "Mr. Wong, Detective," "The Mystery of Mr. Wong," "Mr. Wong in Chinatown," "The Fatal Hour," "Doomed to Die" and "Phantom of Chinatown."
Mr. Wong appeared as a back-up feature in several consecutive issues of the anthology series, serializing the first two films. In fact, the stories were billed as "Presented by Monogram Pictures" and "Starring Boris Karloff."
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