Original Offenders: Keye Luke

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Like many of my generation, the first time I remember seeing Chinese American actor Keye Luke was in the 1984 film Gremlins. He played the mysterious Mr. Wing—the elderly man who sells Hoyt Axton the Mogwai named Gizmo and warns him of the three important rules to obey in taking care of this new “pet.”

The role was your standard “exotic Oriental” and by this time, Luke could do these parts in his sleep, but he brought a sense of playfulness as well as a gravitas to a character that would have been more one-dimensional in other hands.

Original Offenders: Nobu McCarthy

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Nobu McCarthy passed away on this day in 2002 at the age of 67 of an aortal aneurysm. She was a Japanese American actress whose career was launched in 1958 when she played opposite Jerry Lewis in The Geisha Boy. She went on to appear in film and TV projects like the western Walk Like A Dragon (alongside another pioneer, James Shigeta), the acclaimed TV movie Farewell to Manzanar (Hollywood’s first attempt to document the internment of Japanese Americans in WWII) and the adaptation of Philip Kan Gotanda’s The Wash, which earned her an Independent Spirit Award Nomination in 1989.

But of course the movie that I, and many of my generation, will always remember her for is The Karate Kid II where she played Pat Morita’s old flame.

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I had the good fortune of meeting Nobu a few years before her death when I was invited to join a fundraising committee for East West Players, the oldest Asian American theater company, by one of the theater’s founders, Beulah Quo, and actor George Takei. Beulah (who sadly passed away shortly after Nobu) and George were the chairs of the committee, which was tasked with raising money for East West Player’s move from their 99-seat Silver Lake location to their much larger facility in Little Tokyo that serves as their home today.

Original Offenders: Misao Okawa

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Misao Okawa aka the oldest known person in the world turns 116 years old tomorrow and if that alone doesn’t qualify her to join the ranks of our OG Offenders, I don’t know what does.

Okawa was born in 1898 in Osaka. That was the year New York City was divided into five boroughs, the Spanish-American war raged (and ended in December), Chekov’s classic play The Seagull opened at the Moscow Art Theater and German writer Bertolt Brecht was born. In other words, that is old.

Original Offender: David Tran, Inventor of Sriracha

The LA Times has a great profile on David Tran, a Vietnamese refugee who epitomizes the American dream and became a multi-millionaire, thanks to his need to fill the void of a good hot sauce to add to his food in his new adopted U.S. homeland after escaping Vietnam on a Taiwanese freighter after the fall of Saigon. Setting up a company called Huy Fong Foods, named after said Taiwanese freighter, his homemade concoction took off in San Gabriel Valley (east LA) and he would make deliveries to supermarkets and restaurants.

Original Offenders: Larry Shinoda

What do the 1963 Corvette Stingray, Mako Shark I and II, the Boss 302 and 429 Mustangs, Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Corvair Super Spyder and even the Goodyear Blimp have in common? They were all the creations of Japanese American automobile designer Lawrence (Larry) Shinoda.

Born in 1930 in Los Angeles, Shinoda was interned with his family at Manzanar during World War II. Later, he built hot rods and became involved in the then-burgeoning drag race culture in Southern California. In 1955, he won the first National Hot Rod Association Nationals.

Thus, began a life-long affair with cars and positions at Ford, Packard and GM—ultimately leading to his work on concept cars that would give birth to the 1963 Corvette Sting Ray, which would secure Shinoda’s reputation as one of the most innovative automobile designers in the business.

Original Offenders: Dr. David Ho

Today marks the 59th birthday of Dr. David Ho, the Taiwanese American AIDS researcher who pioneered the use of protease inhibitors in HIV-infected patients and other treatments against AIDS, prompting Time Magazine to name him “The Man of the Year” in 1996 and “The Man who Could Beat AIDS” in 2010.

The Taiwanese-born Ho immigrated to Los Angeles at age 12 and grew up to pursue a career in medicine; choosing to study infectious diseases at the UCLA School of Medicine in the late 1970s/early 1980s. It was during this time, while a resident at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles, that he noticed the first reported cases of what would soon come to be known as AIDS in mostly young gay men.

Happy Birthday, Freddie!

Yesterday was Freddie Mercury’s birthday. Offender Phil previously wrote about the first British Asian rockstar and his influence on the global rock scene in general. Google honored the great icon with their “Google doodle” on their homepage. Check it out, it’s amazing. Happy Birthday, Freddie!  [youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xe0gIFxYhrk[/youtube]

Original Offenders: Burlesque Hall of Famer–Barbara Yung

When we think of famous burlesque dancers, names like Gypsy Rose Lee, Dita Von Teese and Josephine Baker may come to mind, but rarely are Asians mentioned. But you can now add Chinese American Barbara Yung to that list. The still alive and kicking 92-year-old Yung was inducted into the Burlesque Hall of Fame last month and received the 2011 Legend of Burlesque Award (click here for an overview of the history of women in color in Burlesque).

Yung had a long career as a burlesque dancer from the early 1940s to the mid-1970s. She got her start as a dancer in San Francisco on the “Chop Suey Circuit” and by 1949 was headlining the “Chinese Girls-a-Peekin’” Revue at Fong Wan’s Club in Oakland and the “China Darlings of 1950” Revue at Fong’s Club Shanghai in San Francisco. By 1952, she was starring in the “Chinatown After Midnight” show at the historic El Rey in Oakland. Yung went on to perform at clubs and cabarets all across the United States from Hawaii to New Orleans at such legendary venues as the Kubla Khan and the Sky Room.

Original Offenders: Afong Moy, the First Chinese Woman in America

The world is so small these days that it’s hard to imagine being the first of your people to visit a foreign country that you’ve had no real contact with or know nothing about. But back in 1834, the idea of an Asian woman coming to America would have been akin to someone today visiting a newly discovered alien civilization on another planet. Yet, that’s what it must have felt like for Afong Moy whom history has recorded as the first Chinese (and most likely first “Oriental”) woman to set foot on U.S. soil. But the circumstances under which Moy became a pioneer was not the most pleasant one.

In 1832, American traders Nathaniel and Frederick Carne made their first trip to China. Up to that point, they had made their fortune importing items from France but realized there was an untapped market in the Orient they could exploit. Their search led them to China where they started to import fancy, but affordable Chinese goods that the growing American middle-class population could afford.

The Carne brothers were also showmen, always searching for ways to better market their business to the public. And they hit upon the ultimate marketing ploy when they decided to go one step farther and import a real live Chinese woman to America for the first time.

Original Offenders: Eddie Fung

A few years ago, Judy Yung, who was my Asian American studies professor back in college, was in Los Angeles to give a talk at the Chinese American Museum. I had been Judy’s teaching assistant for her Asian American Experience class and she had been my faculty advisor when I had taught my own course in Asian American literature at UC Santa Cruz and we’ve kept in touch since I graduated. It was at that event when she introduced me to her “new” husband, Eddie Fung.

Eddie training to be a soldier at Camp Bowie, Texas.

Although Eddie was in his 80s when I met him, there was nothing frail or elderly about him. Judy introduced him to the audience during her talk and I remember he jumped up and moved around and spoke with the energy of a man a third his age about the new book he and Judy had collaborated on that told the story of his life entitled The Adventures of Eddie Fung: Chinatown Kid, Texas Cowboy, Prisoner of War. And among his many amazing accomplishments, he had the distinction of being the only Chinese American soldier (and one of only two Asian Americans) captured by the Japanese during World War II where he was put to work building the Burma-Siam Railroad made famous in the 1957 film The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Original Offenders: Christine Sterling

Los Angeles’ Chinatown is still one of the most vibrant ethnic communities in the country and holds the title as the first Chinese enclave in the United States “owned” by Chinese Americans. But the Chinatown that we know today may not have existed if it hadn’t been for a woman named Christine Sterling.

Sterling (1881-1963) was a Los Angeles socialite (a.k.a. wealthy white woman with time on her hands) who had a passion for local history. She once remarked: “Los Angeles will be forever marked a transient, Orphan city if she allows her roots to rot in a soil of impoverished neglect.”