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.

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.

Things are a little murky about this character, and his 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."

In the second story, "Thirty Thousand Dollar Bomb," Wong is described as six foot, 165 pounds, a Yale graduate.

And so on. He takes his orders from the Treasury Chief in Washington DC, has several well-trained subordinates at his immediate disposal, a knowledge of chemistry (just like Sherlock Holmes), and solves myriad cases, from opium import into San Francisco (he has an apartment in Chinatown; all his neighbors in the building are agents under his command).

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 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.

TRIVIA

  • I just have to mention a film called The Mysterious Mr. Wong. In it, Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff's main rival on the horror circuit, plays a ruthless Chinese villain named, of all things, Mr. Wong. He goes on a killing spree in New York City's Chinatown in order to collect the legendary "twelve coins of Confucius." They don't even bother to try to disguise Lugosi's thick Hungarian accent. It was directed by William Nigh, who three years later directed Karloff in the Mr. Wong detective films.
    And it gets even more ironic. The film was subsequently remade in 1948 as a Charlie Chan film, Docks of New Orleans. Go figure...

SHORT STORIES

  • "Medium Well Done" (March 10, 1934, )Collier's
  • "In Chinatown" (June 30 1934, Collier's; aka "Conversation in Chinatown")
  • "The Thirty Thousand Dollar Bomb" (July 28, 1934, Collier's)
  • "Ten Bells" (August 4, 1934, Collier's)
  • "Long Chance" (December 15, 1934, Collier's; aka "Parnell Has Disappeared")
  • "A Ray Of Light" (May 25, 1935, Collier's; aka "The Missing Diamond")
  • "Too Much Ice" (June 29, 1935,Collier's)
  • "Jaybird's Chance" (July 20, 1935, Collier's)
  • "Scorned Woman" (September 14, 1935, Collier's)
  • "Three Words" (November 2, 1935, Collier's)
  • "No Witnesses" (February 15, 1936, Collier's)
  • "Seven Of Spades" (September 5, 1936, Collier's)
  • "Hangman's Knot" (February 13, 1937, Collier's)
  • "No Smoking" (November 6, 1937, Collier's)
  • "The Eye of Heaven" (January 8, 1938, Collier's)
  • "The Bell From China" (March 26, 1938, Collier's)
  • "The Feast Of Kali" (June 25, 1938, Collier's)
  • "The Heart of Kwan Yin" (February 17, 1940, Collier's)
  • "Footwork" (March 2, 1940, Collier's)
  • "The Room of Death" (April 13, 1940, Collier's; aka "The Cigarette of Death")
  • "The Fourth Messenger" (May 1940, Blue Book)
  • "Cold Blood" (June 1940, Blue Book)
  • "The Jade Dagger " (September 1941, Blue Book)

COLLECTIONS

FILMS

  • MR. WONG, DETECTIVE ..Buy this video ..Buy the whole series on DVD
    (1938, Monogram)
    69 minutes, black & white
    Based on characters created by Hugh Wiley
    Directed by William Nigh
    Produced by Scott R. Dunlap
    Starring Boris Karloff as MR. WONG
    and Grant Withers as Captain Street
    Also starring Maxine Jennings, Evelyn Brent, William Gould, Lucien Prival

  • THE MYSTERY OF MR. WONG ..Buy this video ..Buy the whole series on DVD
    (1939, Monogram)
    68 minutes, black & white
    Based on characters created by Hugh Wiley
    Directed by William Nigh
    Produced by Scott R. Dunlap
    Starring Boris Karloff as MR. WONG
    and Grant Withers as Captain Street
    Also starring Marjorie Reynolds, Craig Reynolds, Ivan Lebedeff, Lotus Long

  • MR. WONG IN CHINATOWN ..Buy this video ..Buy the whole series on DVD
    (1939, Monogram)
    70 minutes, black & white
    Based on characters created by Hugh Wiley
    Directed by William Nigh
    Produced by Scott R. Dunlap
    Starring Boris Karloff as JAMES LEE WONG
    and Grant Withers as Captain Street
    Also starring Marjorie Reynolds, Lotus Long

  • THE FATAL HOUR ..Buy the whole series on DVD
    (1940, Monogram)
    68 minutes, black & white
    Based on characters created by Hugh Wiley
    Directed by William Nigh
    Starring Boris Karloff as JAMES LEE WONG
    and Grant Withers as Captain Street
    Also starring Marjorie Reynolds

  • DOOMED TO DIE ..Buy this video ..Buy the whole series on DVD
    (1940, Monogram)
    68 minutes, black & white
    Based on characters created by Hugh Wiley
    Directed by William Nigh
    Starring Boris Karloff as JAMES LEE WONG
    and Grant Withers as Captain Street
    Also starring Marjorie Reynolds, Melvin Lang, Grant Withers, William Sterling

  • PHANTOM OF CHINATOWN ..Buy this video ..Buy the whole series on DVD
    (1940, Monogram)
    62 minutes, black & white
    Based on characters created by Hugh Wiley
    Story by Ralph Bettinson
    Screenplay by George Waggner
    Directed by Phil Rosen
    Produced by Paul Malvern
    Starring Keye Luke as "JIMMY" WONG"
    and Grant Withers as Captain Street
    Also starring Lotus Long, Grant Withers, Paul McVey, Charles F. Miller, Virginia Carpenter, John Holland, John Dilson, Huntley Gordon

DVD COLLECTION

This 2-disc set 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."

COMICS

  • POPULAR COMICS
    (Dell, 1936-48)

Mr. Wong appears in issues #39, 41, 44 and 46.

Joint report respectfully submitted by operatives Arthur Lortie and Kevin Burton Smith.


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