American actor of Chinese descent Victor Sen Yung, born Sen Yew Cheung, but also known as Sen Yung, Sen Young, Victor Sen Young and Victor Young, died at home around October 31th, 1980 of accidental gas poisoning while creating clayware for his mail-order pottery business. His body was found November 9th, so the date of death had to be estimated.
He was born on October 18th, 1915 in San Francisco’s Chinatown to Sen Gum Yung and his first wife, both immigrants from China. After his mother died during the Spanish Flu of 1918-20, which killed at least 50 million people, his father placed Victor and his younger sister, Rosemary, in a children’s shelter.
Yung then went back to his homeland to seek another spouse, returning in 1922 with his new wife, Lovi Shee, to once again form a household with his two children, who began to learn Chinese with their stepmother.
Sen Yung found employment as a houseboy in 1926 and managed to earn enough money to enter the University of California at Berkeley, receiving a degree in animal husbandry.
The graduate started working as a salesman for a chemical firm and was “discovered” by accident in 1938: while on the 20th Century-Fox studio lot trying to sell one of his company’s flame retardant compounds, a technician suggested that he check out casting for the remodeled Charlie Chan series about a fictional Honolulu police detective. Until 1949, Sen Yung played son Jimmy Chan in 18 of these films.
In 1940, he portrayed lawyer clerk Ong Chi Seng alongside Bette Davis (1908-1989) in the crime drama The Letter directed by William Wyler (1902-1981).
During World War II, Sen Yung was cast in propaganda movies such as Across the Pacific by John Huston (1906-1987) and Vincent Sherman (1906-2006) as the treacherous Japanese-American Joe Totsuiko together with Humphrey Bogart (1899-1957) and Mary Astor (1906-1987).
His career was interrupted in 1943 for US Air Force duty as intelligence officer at the First Motion Picture Unit (FMPU). Yung’s military service included work in training films and a role in Winged Victory.
This play by Moss Hart (1904-1961), made into a film by George Cukor (1899-1983) in 1944, served as a morale booster and fundraiser for the Army Emergency Relief Fund.
Playing affable or earnest Asian characters, Sen Yung continued to work in motion pictures such as Forbidden, set in Macau, Target Hong Kong or Trader Tom of the Seven Seas.
He portrayed the compassionate Chinese restaurant owner Quong Kee in a 1957 episode of the anthology series Death Valley Days, first hosted by Stanley Andrews (1891-1969) and then future US President Ronald Reagan (1911- 2004).
In Bachelor Father, an early sitcom with John Forsythe (1918-2010), Noreen Corcoran (1943-2016) and Sammee Tong (1901-1964), Sen Yung from 1957 to 1962 had a recurring role as the scheming Uncle Charlie.
Though Sen Yung will always be best remembered as Hop Sing, the cook on the long-running Western television series Bonanza with Lorne Greene (1915-1987), Pernell Roberts (1928-2010), Dan Blocker (1928-1972) and Michael Landon (1936-1991). Appearing in 107 of its 431 episodes between 1959 and 1973, he generated massive fandom.
In the early 1970s, Sen Yung starred in seven episodes of Kung Fu, an American martial arts drama with David Carradine (1936-2009) as a Shaolin monk. His final movie role was Mr. Wing in the 1980 comedy The Man with Bogart’s Face.
On July 5th, 1972 Yung took Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 710, which was hijacked by two Bulgarians. In the gunfire that ensued when the FBI stormed the plane, he received a gun shot in the lower back.
An accomplished chef, Sen Yung appeared on many cooking programs. In 1974, he authored The Great Wok Cookbook, which is still available, and advertised it with a very stereotypical photo of Hop Sing. He knew that there would be no better publicity for him!
P.D.: Each year, the Chinese Alumni Association of the University of California awards a memorial scholarship in his honor.