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NO MORE MR. WHITE GUY
WHEN RUSSELL WONG WATCHED Charlie Chan movies as a kid, he was transfixed by the way the Confucius-quoting sleuth solved mysteries. What occurred to him only later was that white actors such as Sydney Toler, Warner Oland and J. Carrol Naish always played the detective. "When I watch the movies today," he says, "the feeling is, 'You've got to be joking.' But they're not joking. That's the way it was back then."
Today, the 33-year-old actor, whose father was born in China, calls it poetic justice that he will star in Miramax's tentatively titled The Locked Room, a movie that revives the Charlie Chan legend. Scheduled to begin shooting this summer, with Steven Soderbergh (sex, lies, and videotape) directing, the movie casts Wong (The Joy Luck Club) as Chan's son, a sophisticated modern-day detective. It promises to be a far cry from the Chan portrayed in over 40 movies by white actors with taped-back eyelids.
Still, the film has already generated controversy. "Reviving Charlie Chan resurrects a racist period cinematic history that is better left buried in the vaults," says Steve Chin, editor of Channel A, a Web site on Asian-American culture. Guy Aoki, of the Media Action Network for Asian-Americans, is also wary: "I have conflicting emotions because of the stereotypes, but then again, Russell Wong is in it."
Wong, reared in Albany, N.Y., by restaurant owner William Wong and Dutch-American artist Connie Van Yserloo, welcomes critics who "want to protect their image and integrity of being Asian-American." It's that same commitment, he says, "that fuels me to want to do a better job."