St. Louis, MO – In the city’s Central West End quiet but intense battle’s rage, black pieces against white pieces…or white pieces against black pieces; depending on which end of the board an observer stands. These are the casual strategic skirmishes that happen day in and day out at the Saint Louis Chess Club which recently hosted the U.S. Chess Championship for the eighth year. Yet for the game itself, the event is a product of a much larger cultural change as to where many consider its home, all thanks to Rex Sinquefield.
The Saint Louis Chess Club: The Road to the Chess World Apex
The Gateway to the West didn’t become a chess haven overnight. The city’s unique chess culture was set in to motion by a single dynamic individual, Rex Sinquefield, financial entrepreneur and St. Louis native.
Always with an interest in chess growing up, Sinquefield, who developed the S & P Index Funds, has invested a considerable amount of his personal fortune into making the game available to others.
Sinquefield founded the Chess Club and Scholastic Center of St. Louis in 2007. He also provided initial funds for the World Chess Hall of Fame to relocate from Miami, Florida, to St. Louis. It is now housed in the same building as the St. Louis Chess Club, and sports the world’s largest chess piece, a Queen, measuring 14′ and 7″.
Outside, chess’s influence is felt abound. Local diners are as likely to show chess competitions on the TV as the storied St. Louis Cardinals, which for St. Louis is no small token gesture.
Additionally scholarships are sponsored at three local universities, including the Susan Polgar Institute for Chess Excellence (SPICE) program at Webster University.
Susan Polgar, named for the first woman to attain chess Grandmaster standing, who also founded the institute herself. Area schools have started countless after school chess programs. Further Rex and his wife, Jeanne, founded a chess merit badge for The Boy Scouts of America.
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By honoring chess’s history whilst nurturing future generations of players, St. Louis seems poised to keep the U.S. Congressional title of, “chess capital” awarded in 2014.
For what began as a chess dream of a single St. Louis native has now been embraced by the Midwestern metropolis itself, and no less by the elite of the game.
For many years it was thought chess’s only home was the eastern bank of the Hudson River. It is clear that the game’s home is firmly entrenched on the west bank of the Mississippi, at the Saint Louis Chess Club.
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“Name Explain”: How YouTube’s Patrick Foote Made Etymology Cool Again
Its no small accomplishment opening up interest in etymology and linguistics outside of the select cadre who call it their profession, nor is it the only thing that Mr. Foote has gotten right.
This past March, TGNR’s Managing Editor Paul K. DiCostanzo interviewed creator and host of the channel Name Explain, YouTube’s Patrick Foote. Name Explain is a channel dedicated to unraveling the etymological and linguistic origins of many notable places, people or subjects that define the world. Through his channel Mr. Foote has popularized linguistics and etymology – traditionally viewed as dry and pedantic subjects by many – to a large and constantly growing audience. How does he keep viewers clicking “subscribe?” Simple: Name Explain makes these subjects accessible in a way few others have seldom accomplished. Patrick chatted with Paul about the origins of Name Explain, his background, and the challenges of building a new channel from its very foundations.
What is in a name? That is a rhetorical question that has been posed throughout the history of the English speaking peoples – perhaps most notably in Shakespeare. Patrick Foote, creator and host of YouTube’s Name Explain, is answering that very question. Human beings think and understand the world in language. However, the significance behind the words and names human use to comprehend this world are often far more interesting than the average word monkey gives credit. Cue Patrick Foote, as this is precisely where Name Explain takes center stage.
YouTube’s Patrick Foote – A Name Explained
Patrick Foote’s passion for linguistics and etymology is a more recent discovery. The 23 year-old from southwest England first encountered this fascination when choosing an additional subject for his UK A-Level exams. The choice was a serendipitous personal revelation that revolutionized his entire life.
After briefly attending university for linguistics, Foote found the experience unfulfilling and moved on. What might have appeared like an ending at the time was actually a beginning.
Like many young Millennials, Patrick had prior YouTube experience in his adolescence. As such, the platform served as the ideal forum for his major foray into original creation – answering the question, “Where is Old Zealand?”
The video was precipitated by a family trip to the continent. While riding in the car, Patrick saw a sign for the Dutch province of Zeeland. That moment became a catalyst for Foote, an experience that yielded a chain reaction, which ultimately lead to his 2+ year YouTube project.
Professional vs. Autodidact Specialist
In speaking with TGNR‘s Paul K. DiCostanzo, Patrick Foote emphasized that he is not a professional linguist. However, with the modern democratization of media, Foote is reaching a considerable audience on a subject few others in history have been able to popularize. Like most successful YouTube creators, Patrick offers answers to unique questions; specifically he answers questions people didn’t realize they wanted answered. That being said, Name Explain is tackling this erstwhile dry subject in a singular style.
By combining original animation drawn on Foote’s iPad, with his own narration, Foote uses a well-honed voice and look to tell the history of each selected “name”. In a blend of well researched information, dry wit, and the authority only a British accent could assume, Name Explain has evolved into its own unique experience – staking a worthy claim to the growing genre of “edutainment.”
The World of Edutainment
In the YouTube universe, the genre of “edutainment” is experiencing exponential growth. There is considerable demand not only for new, high quality original content but there is also a blended insatiable desire for knowledge in a very digestible form. Channels such as The Great War, or AlternateHistoryHub are prime examples of those who have pioneered this approach on YouTube. When it comes to the vast sphere of linguistics and etymology, Patrick Foote is among those pioneers staking claim. In doing so, Foote is highly insightful in how he has made it so.
“If one person likes something, a million can also like it. If one person finds something funny, there is a continent of others who will also laugh.” – Patrick Foote’s advice to new or aspiring YouTube creators
It is no secret that creating original content for mass consumption is a complex process. Both in effort and the emotionally complex quagmire of putting oneself out there – it can be daunting. When asked what his mindset is when creating ones own content, Patrick Foote operates by the maxim that, “If one person likes something, a million can also like it. If one person finds something funny, there is a continent of others who will also laugh.” A simple and direct approach that is far from simplistic. Yet in a modern context, one requires more than excellent content and a fan base to continue making new content.
Like many fellow YouTube creators, Name Explain supplements its channel revenue through the crowd funding platform Patreon. Patreon operates on the basis of monthly donations from a creators fan base. With numerous possible monetary denomination options for supporters, creators reciprocate to their benefactors based on the amount they give. For example, Name Explain patrons that donate $5 a month, Patrick creates a unique drawing in the channels animated motif specifically of that patron. For $10, he will send a Name Explain postcard to any address in the world.
Within this arrangement, Patreon serves both the aim of generating revenue to support ongoing work, as well as being a medium that builds community between creators and fans. The interactions between creators and their contributors over time has constructed an intimate sinew that not only generates revenue, but also builds an unprecedented bridge between creators and fans in highly celebrated fashion.
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Becoming a Professional
Despite Patrick Foote’s assertion that he is not a professional linguist, he is indeed becoming a professional. As recently announced on Name Explain, Foote is transitioning to making his YouTube production a full time profession:
Patrick Foote is one of many who through their initial creative efforts has found his vocational calling. Such an opportunity is a very unique opportunity created by modern mass media, and is a new hallmark of possibility previously unknown. It is a tremendous journey into the unknown like any other major change in profession. Name Explain has anted up and is going all in.
When it comes to answering questions people didn’t realize they wanted the answer to, Foote is demonstrating undeniable skill. When it comes to answering the most important question all creators ask, “What if I do something different?” Foote’s response is clear. It is a question all of his 100,000+ subscribers are very pleased how Patrick Foote has answered.
Enjoy the video below “Why Do Austria & Australia Have Such Similar Names?” and checkout Name Explain for yourself!
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Meet New Duke: Brian Q. Torff on Everything Ellington
Meet Brian Q. Torff, professional Jazz Bassist, Professor of Music and Jazz at Fairfield University, author of the book In Love With Voices: A Jazz Memoir, creator of such acclaimed albums as Life In East Bumblepuck and Workin’ On A Baseline, as well as a longtime ambassador of Jazz. Mr. Torff met with TGNR’s Paul K. DiCostanzo to discuss as Director, his ongoing musical ensemble, New Duke. Their composition is a project bringing the work of Duke Ellington to the 21st century, and doing so by using Ellington’s championed approach of constant experimentation with new compositions of Ellington’s legendary music.
Mr. Torff discusses the legend Duke Ellington himself, as well as the soul of Jazz in the 21st century. New Duke is performing at Fairfield University televised for CBS on 12/24/2017, at 11:35pm EST.
TGNR: I am here with Brian Torff, Professor of Music and Jazz at Fairfield University, and longtime jazz musician, and we’re discussing his project “New Duke,” and the monumental figure in jazz, Duke Ellington. Thank you for being here, and thank you for meeting me, Brian.
Brian Torff: My pleasure.
TGNR: Now when you go into the figure Duke Ellington, there are any number of ways you can go. First I want to ask, why now?
BT: In 2011 at Fairfield University my colleague Dr. Laura Nash got a grant from the National Endowment of the Humanities. That was to put on a two-week workshop on the life of Duke Ellington, for teachers who qualify for this, K-12. So we got all kinds of teachers involved. English, math, science, music, and they came to Fairfield University. We lectured, gave talks and tours on the life of Ellington; because there are so many facets of Ellington’s life as you know, that it can apply to a lot of different disciplines. And I said, well we’ve got to have some music, but you can’t duplicate Duke Ellington. Its just one of those things you just can’t do.
So I said, why don’t we do this: let’s put a band together, a smaller group, most of them core faculty at Fairfield, and let’s do Ellington’s music, but in a new way. Because its exactly what Ellington would be doing if he was still alive. He didn’t have one arrangement of “Take The A-Train,” he had seven. Y’know what I mean? He was constantly changing up things. She liked the idea, and I put the band together, and I love to compose, and arrange music. So it was a joy for me, and they’re great players, and it was a good experience. That was level one of this.
Then some time passed and we did it again in 2014, I was starting at that point to write and going back to my original roots that I grew up with in Chicago of Blues and Rock. I basically grew up on three main elements: The Beatles, James Brown, and Blood Sweat And Tears.
TGNR: That’s a heck of a combination.
BT: Those were my influences, and so I thought I don’t understand why in Jazz, which I love and have been playing for over 40 years, why we must have this kind of elitist attitude that basically says, “If you grew up on that music, that’s fine, but leave it alone. Leave it in the past.” Y’know, so I thought, I don’t want to leave it in the past, I want to draw on what I grew up with. So I then started to change the arrangements for New Duke to instead of just doing updated Ellington, to now do mashups-Ellington. So therefore, I would take a Ellington piece like “Rock Skippin at the Blue Note” but I would put “I Feel Free” by Cream in front of it and “Happy” by Pharrell Williams at the end of it.
Now this is sacrilege for many people in Jazz. For me, its absolutely natural from what I grew up with. I grew up with a fusion, a hyphen between every style of music that you can imagine; to me, that’s always the joy of music. So, ‘why now?’ because I am at a point in my career where I play a lot of mainstream wonderful jazz, whether it be with the Django Rheinhart group, or George Shearing, or Eroll Garner, Mary-Lou Williams, and I’m proud of all of it. But its time for me to put a stamp on a different direction that is not only mine… but a holistic idea about what I think Jazz is, which is an umbrella term. It’s something that brings in Rock and Hip-Hop, and Funk, and all these kind of things.
When we do a concert on the basis of updated Ellington-mashups, with new music that I write, which very much comes out of that for a lack of a better term, “Jazz-Rock” fushion-ish period of the late 60’s, early 70’s. But it is a new lyrical context. In other words, it’s not a tribute band, it’s not nostalgia. It’s writing about lyric content of whats going on today, but using that as a form.
“Playing Duke’s Music is for a Jazz player an historical homage one must pay.” – John Fumasoli of New Duke & The Jones Factor
TGNR: Let’s venture from the present to the past, because the approach you’re describing evokes a very specific time in history, specifically Prohibition. When Prohibition was passed, the Speakeasy was born and Jazz was its kissing cousin. The approach you’re describing is how Jazz went from a novelty to an art form, and Ellington had everything to do with that. If you could channel him personally, what do you think his marching orders to you would be now?
BT: Be yourself. Be authentic. Thats what Duke represented. He embraced all kinds of music from around the world, but in his band he was very insistent on doing original arrangements. Even when he did someone else’s material, he never bought a stock arrangement in his life. It was always coming from his band, or Billy Strahorn, or somebody’s camp, and I think he would basically say, “go forward, and do the music you believe in that way you feel it.” Thats all we can do.
TGNR: Duke Ellington was such an interesting figure, especially in his time. When Edward Kennedy Ellington was born into a middle-class African-American family in Washington D.C., his mother in particular took a unique approach to him in that time, which was to say, “you’re special.” I believe it was a combination of his father and some close friends that turned his name from Edward to Duke. He built himself an empire, an incredible legacy out of nothing. What about this man’s life in particular: his incredible charisma, amazing determination, somebody who in every way embodied the American dream, what in particular do you personally want the Millennial generation to take from his life, and how he chose to live?
BT: There is so much there, that’s a wonderful question Paul. I think there is so much to learn from Ellington’s life – as there is from any great artist, whether it’s Picasso… whoever it happens to be. But I think the main thing is that when I teach Duke Ellington, and I have to admit I learned a lot more about Duke Ellington as teacher then I did a young musician because I knew his work, I knew his compositions, but I didn’t know very much about the man. So my learning about Duke Ellington came later on.
Later on he says, “You basically live in search of the melody.” I thought, that’s it! That is it! You live in search of the melody! You never stop searching for it. So where Ellington could be resting on his laurels, traipsing around as a star, he’s sitting at the piano working. I find that so inspiring. I try to live by that ideal.
There’s a wonderful moment, in a movie called, On The Road With Duke Ellington. It basically just follows him from getting an honorary doctorate at Yale to traipsing around the country. And there is a marvelous scene in it where the concert’s over with, there’s just stage lights on, the stage hands are just carrying down everything, and Ellington is sitting there at the piano, and he’s playing and working on his next composition. And they can hardly tear him away from the piano. He then is shown getting on the bus to get to the next engagement. Later on he says, “You basically live in search of the melody.” I thought, that’s it! That is it! You live in search of the melody! You never stop searching for it. So where Ellington could be resting on his laurels, traipsing around as a star, he’s sitting at the piano working. I find that so inspiring. I try to live by that ideal.
TGNR: There was a very interesting story about Duke Ellington, from when he had only recently come to Manhattan, and he was with a “Cutting Contest” pianist, one that took a shine to him. They both would take a lot of Taxi rides getting to and fro around the city, and one time they were riding through Central Park, and Ellington asked his companion for advice about what to do because he wasn’t satisfied with what he already accomplished. He had done a fair amount at that point, ending up a member of a notable band, and even landed a spot at a popular club in Times Square. This fellow said that he thought he should go to a conservatory to hone his sound, but Duke didn’t feel he had time for it. To which his mentor basically said: think of the logical option, dismiss it, and do it your own way. How does that apply to Brian Torff, the man sitting before me today?
BT: I believe it was Will Marion Cook who said that. I am basically trying to do something that doesn’t fit. I am putting together a horn band, that has really been out of vogue for a really long time, and put it in a contemporary context, using arrangements that are very much hand-crafted, they’re not of the present era – we’re not making it like we’re making a pop record. These are real musicians, playing real instruments, interacting. That went out of style a long time ago. So what I am basically doing is saying I realize this is probably not a tactful commercial venture, but I’ve never had one. I’ve never been involved in that. So my feeling is that it’s honest, and it’s me, and it’s truthful, and I will see it through to wherever it can lead me. But it’s not contrived. Its not looking at what Miley says, or what the latest Hip-Hop feud is about, that’s another world. I get my inspiration from Ellington, Dylan, people I feel have substance to their work, because even though I will never be as famous as any of those people, I would rather be known as someone who had a body of work with a certain amount of integrity and honesty.
TGNR: Ellington has nearly 1,000 compositions/pieces credited to him in his career. You could quite literally have a set list where you never use the same music twice. As the director, why do you choose the pieces you choose?
BT: That’s a great question. I am looking to do a number of things, and it depends on our audience too because they all differ. For example, when we do a concert like one we have coming up next week, it’s called Music For Youth. It’s for music students playing in the area, and what we will do at that concert is we will play some of the updated arrangements of Duke Ellington, explain why Ellington’s important, connect him to other forms of music and make a connection to forms of music like Rock and Roll, and Hip Hip. Then we’ll do some mash-ups, where we will show that Ellington’s music is not an old history lesson and dust it off. It applies to other things that you hear today. Then we will say, now we will do some original music and we’ll take this further in our own way. So that’s how we choose set lists.
Who’s our audience? What are we trying to accomplish? If you are dealing with someone who is high-school age, they don’t know that much about Duke Ellington. They don’t even know that much about music of the 60’s and 70’s. We say, let’s play some music you may have heard before. Maybe you’ve heard some Stevie Wonder, let’s play some of that, let’s see if it can be part of a larger thing. So that’s what we’re really trying to do. We’re trying to communicate and bring the audience into what we’re doing. It’s not standing apart in an elitist sort of way and saying, “well, this is it, and if you’re hip enough and you dig it, great. If you don’t, that’s okay too.”
TGNR: You’re abolishing the country club mentality.
BT: Absolutely! Absolutely. Unfortunately, and it’s interesting you use that term, modern jazz became almost as elitist as the very thing it disdained. It disdained the country club, it disdained racism, all this kind of stuff. It, for the most part, was African-Americans and Jews playing this style music, yet then became the hipper-than-thou art form. It still created great music, but at a certain severing of that connection between the audience, dance floor and what they were doing. I didn’t grow up with that. I grew up with music that was wonderful, and highly complex, but accessible. So I think I am still trying to bridge those gaps.
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Keye Luke: An American Son
Following an in-depth look at American actor/playwright, the late Sam Shephard; Cadrecinematique examines another American film icon, Keye Luke.
Keye Luke and Philip Ahn, two of early Hollywood’s biggest Asian American movie stars, wound down their careers portraying Zen masters on the popular TV series “Kung Fu”. Almost fifty years had passed since anti-miscegenation laws had prohibited Asian actors from playing romantic leading roles opposite white women, and Luke and Ahn were once again playing Asian stereotypes in support of a white actor in yellowface. As playwright Frank Chin asks, “From Fu Manchu to ‘Kung Fu’ – Is that progress?”
However, unlike Frank Chin, Keye Luke was genuinely satisfied with his Hollywood career and what he viewed as the transitioning representation of Asian Americans in Hollywood films. Interviewed by the New York Times in 1985 Luke stated that he was satisfied with the progress of Asian representations:
“The Chinese laundryman and the Japanese gardener may still be with us, but most Chinese and Japanese now find themselves in the mainstream of American life.”
Keye Luke was not the first Asian star in Hollywood. Sessue Hayakawa, a favorite actor of Cecil B. DeMille, roared to stardom in 1915. Hayakawa’s performances, like those of other Asian American actors of the early studio era, were valued for their intrinsic otherness. Hollywood played up the exoticism of American born Asian actors such as Anna May Wong who was cast as the proverbial ‘Dragon Lady’ in such films as Daughter of the Dragon (1931).
Keye Luke, although an actor of the same generation, never embraced these stereotypes. Throughout his studio era film career Luke always remained a distinctly American presence. In a career that spanned sixty years and over a hundred films, Keye Luke transitioned from playing brash young Americans to more traditional Hollywood representations of Chinese. This implies that identity is conceived through binary oppositions. One can only be Chinese or American. Keye Luke believed progress in the cinematic portrayal of Chinese and other ethnic groups would be incremental.
Towards the end of his life Keye Luke remarked that no role was ever more satisfying than his role in “Kung Fu”; he was finally able to share Chinese philosophy with the general American public. Keye Luke transcended the dichotomy of being trapped between two dissonant cultures. He remains the exuberant boy next door and the kindly paternal sage for a society in which identity is not solely conceived through race.
Keye Luke: An All-American Boy
Keye Luke was born in Guangzhou, China in 1904, but grew up in Seattle. Luke studied architecture at the University of Washington, dropping out in order to work, after the death of his father. A gifted artist, his first job was designing sheet music covers for a local Seattle music shop. He soon moved to Los Angeles and began working as a newspaper illustrator. His illustrations were highly praised. In a 1928 Los Angeles Times article written by art editor Arthur Miller; Lawrence Binyon, the director of prints and drawings for the British Museum, was quoted as saying,
“I expect that in vitality of line, Mr. Keye Luke altogether surpasses Beardsley… but I confess I fear for the future of this young artist if he remains in the West… I would like to see him back in China bringing new life and inspiration to Chinese art.”
Although critics hold Luke in high regard, few publishers had hired him as an illustrator for Western stories. Miller would ask a question of Luke’s art that holds true regarding his work in film,
“Can oriental and occidental art be blended successfully? It remains for Keye Luke, perhaps, to be the proving ground for or against this question.”
During Luke’s time in Los Angeles he also painted several murals in the Grauman’s Chinese Theater. In 1930, after returning to Seattle to paint murals for department stores, he was hired by Fox West Coast to draw artwork for their theater chain. Soon he was moved to the publicity department where he ironically drew illustrations for early Charlie Chan films. In 1931 he moved to RKO where he drew advertising art and billboards. At RKO he illustrated the press-book for King Kong.
In 1933, Lou Brock, an RKO producer, was packaging a sequel to the Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger vehicle Flying Down to Rio, and wanted Luke to play a love interest for Anna May Wong. Keye Luke remembers turning to Brock and saying, “Lou, I am an artist not an actor.” In a 1934 interview with the LA Times, Luke admits being immediately hooked on the idea of becoming an actor. He believed that his performances could have a positive effect on the Chinese American experience,
“This is something that I suppose -that I hope-I’ve always been headed for…I think I can accomplish much more as an actor than as an artist, because of the wider reach of the medium. I want to play good, representative types, so as to help clear up the debris of misunderstanding and misconception of the Chinese which Americans may have, and vice versa. And I want to be a real credit to the industry…”
Brock did cast Luke in a series of short subjects. Luke’s eloquent command of the English language led to being cast in The Painted Veil with Greta Garbo and his future Charlie Chan co-star Warner Oland. Luke recalls that doors suddenly started opening for him,
“The thing that helped me so much was that all my former advertising bosses and so on opened doors for me. And the newspaper columnists – like Hedda Hopper and Louella Parsons and Jimmy Starr – they gave me lots of publicity because I had done artwork for their columns.”
Number One Son
After filming The Painted Veil he was called by one of his former publicity bosses at Fox, who said,
“Come out here and we’ll see what we can do now that you’re a Cantonese ham.”
Luke headed down to the older Fox studio on Western Avenue, and was greeted by Jim Ryan, a casting director, who said,
“Keye, do you know we’re going to put a Number One Son in the Charlie Chan pictures and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t play it.”
This meeting was his big break. Fox signed him to a contract. Luke would work opposite Warner Orland in eight Charlie Chan films. Warner Oland’s worsening alcoholism and failing health prompted him to leave a ninth Charlie Chan collaboration which was re-written as a Mr. Moto film albeit with Keye Luke’s Lee Chan playing a large role.
Luke subsequently left the Charlie Chan series when the title role was recast. He respected Warner Oland, and over the course of their eight films together, the Swede had become his mentor. He jumped from Fox to Monogram where he starred in the low budget serials The Green Hornet and The Phantom of Chinatown.
A Chinese Andy Hardy
After those serials ended, Monogram cast him as a supporting character in a series of comedies built around their star Frankie Darro. The success of the Darro pictures prompted MGM to sign Luke and cast him as a young All-American intern in the Dr. Kildare films. His character, Dr. Lee Wong How, is a revival of Luke’s Son Number One star image – brash, enormously positive, and sweet. He also appeared as Dr. Lee in Andy Hardy’s Blonde Trouble, which is fitting because Lee Chan’s all American relationship with Charlie Chan parallels Andy’s relationship with his father, Judge Hardy.
The Dr. Kildare series ended in 1947 with Dark Delusion. Luke returned to Monogram and was cast once again as Lee Chan, playing opposite Roland Winters as Charlie Chan, who was six months younger than Luke. The film roles began to dry up for the youthful looking, but middle-aged actor. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Luke shifted to television work and voice acting; although, in 1958 he performed on Broadway in The Flower Drum Song to critical acclaim. Nonetheless, it was not until the 1970s that he experienced a career resurgence.
Keye Luke was cast as Master Po in “Kung Fu” which ran from 1972-1975. The show was extremely popular and his character was a pop-culture sensation. For the first time in his career, Keye Luke’s visage was adorning lunchboxes.
In 1984 Steven Spielberg and Joe Dante cast Luke as the wise Grandfather, Mr. Wing in Gremlins. His last role was as the sage herbalist in Woody Allen’s Alice. In effect, Son Number One became Charlie Chan. Keye Luke, who played highly energetic All American characters for the first half of his career, ended his career by playing a series of traditional (some would argue stereotypical) Chinese characters.
Just as these old men sought to teach Confucianism and natural order to their students, Keye Luke sought to share Eastern philosophy with mainstream America. In a 1985 interview with the New York Times, Luke contends that he was never happier than when performing these traditional roles,
“I was giving the actual sayings of great Chinese philosophers like Confucius for dialogue. It worked for me on every level.”
Within the Chinese-American community Keye Luke’s career is divisive. He is recognized as the Chinese-American actor best known to American audiences. As a contract actor in the studio era he played many different types of characters. Many Chinese-Americans lauded him as a man who broke through a racist system and demonstrated that Chinese-Americans were little different from any other Americans.
“I have played many…. characters in the mainstream. Because of my appearance, or because of my personality, or whatever it may be, I was always put into good Boy Scout roles — lawyers, doctors, business executives and tycoons, the nice Chinese guy down the block.”
However, some Asian-American scholars have demeaned him for appeasing institutional racism. Television scholar Darryl Hamamoto decries that:
“With few exceptions, Keye Luke’s outstanding career was predicated upon his ability to portray the stock array of Asian domestic servants, laundrymen, mystics, gangsters, and enemy soldiers.”
While it is true that Luke has played stock characters over the course of his long and varied career, the Chinese launderer in Manhandled and an evil communist soldier in The Bamboo Prison as examples, these excursions do little to diminish the distinctive American-ness of his star image for the first thirty years of his career. Hamamoto is correct to label Luke’s television output as more problematic. During the 1960s Luke was forced to play an array of stock Asian characters. These roles were all that were available to a middle-aged Chinese American actor at that point in Hollywood’s history.
Focusing on these roles is to ignore Luke’s achievements. For the majority of his career he played characters “lawyers, doctors, businessman,” that were strong role models for young Chinese Americans.
Allan Luke, Keye’s nephew and a theorist studying multi-literacy linguistics at Queensland University of Technology understands Hamamoto’s position but defends his uncle,
“…my Uncle was no dupe, no sellout, no Uncle Tom, no Banana… He was many things. He was a mirror. He was a prism. …And perhaps like so many migrants – he was an actor… he worked to survive in good faith, within and through a fundamentally racist medium.”
The Charlie Chan films are not inherently racist. Charlie Chan is a character of the highest ideals. He is intelligent, resourceful, respected, and modest. He is a family man and shares a strong bond with his eldest son. He is also played by a white man. This did not bother Keye Luke. He understood this type of casting was a commonplace at that time. To Keye Luke, what was important was the portrayal of the Chinese ethic.
In a 1985 interview with the New York Times, Luke was asked about his opinion on yellowface in classical Hollywood films. He replied,
“I didn’t see anything odd about it at the time and I still don’t. Acting is an art that transcends race and color. When I came to Hollywood there were only a few Chinese here and no other Orientals.”
A Real American Icon
The Son Number One character was first introduced in 1935’s Charlie Chan in Paris. Lee Chan does not appear until almost twenty minutes into the film. After investigating a crime scene, Charlie Chan returns to his room. The door, which he left he open, has been locked. He unlocks the door and hears a sound from the bathroom. He pulls out his gun, and in his stereotypical manner says, “Come out, please.” A man comes out, a towel covering his head. Keye Luke finishes drying his hair and pulls away the towel. He looks up at his father and smiles, and immediately begins speaking in an upbeat unaccented machine-gun Hechtian cadence,
“Hello pop! What’s the matter? Did I scare you?”
The character is unlike any other in Hollywood film of the time. He is Chinese sans otherness. As soon as he speaks, the surprised audience pictures a sort of Andy Hardy-esque teenager. The proverbial boy-next-door. Ethnicity is transcended.
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To Hear, One Has Only to Listen
At the end of his career Keye Luke began playing sage older men, similar to Charlie Chan. The two most famous of these traditional characters are Master Po from “Kung-Fu” and the Grandfather in Gremlins. Both characters allowed Luke to channel Eastern philosophy to the American masses. A famous scene in “Kung Fu” revolves around Caine (David Carradine) meeting the blind master for the first time. As they talk, Master Po asks Caine if he can hear the grasshopper at his feet. Caine responds, “Old man, how is it that you hear these things?” Luke responds, “Young man, how is it that you cannot?” Luke was satisfied that this type of dialogue conveyed aspects of Chinese philosophy.
Critics like Frank Chin disagree, “The more brilliantly meaningless the lines, the more wooden, stilted and archaic the English, the more Chinese they (Americans) think it is.” It is pointless to argue whether these lines themselves have meaning. On the screen, infused with Luke’s warmth and humanity, “To hear, one has only to listen,” can inform a generation, no matter if it was written by a Confucian master or a Hollywood hack.
Towards the end of his life, Keye Luke was awarded with a star on the Hollywood Walk of fame, directly across from Grauman’s Chinese theater, which he helped design more than sixty years earlier.
Keye Luke belonged to the first generation of Asian-American actors. However, he stood out. Within a racist industry, Luke created a purely American star-image.
Keye Luke should not be demeaned for the demands of the studio system. He should be remembered for opening the door for a generation of actors that will never have to endure classical stereotyping and institutional racism.
Write to David Sporn at email@example.com
 Frank Chin. “Kung Fu is Unfair to Chinese” The New York Times
 Arthur Miller. “ROMANCE WEAVES AURA AROUND WORK OF YOUNG CHINESE-AMERICAN ARTIST” Dec 16, 1928
 The Sequel to be called Ho for Shanghai never materialized. Brock was fired off the project after studio in-fighting.
 Ken Hanke. Charlie Chan at The Movies. History, Filmography, and Criticism
 Los Angeles Times July 22nd 1934
 The New York Times. Keye Luke, Actor, Is Dead at 86; ‘No. 1 Son’ and ‘Kung Fu’ Master
 Darryl Hamamoto. Monitored Peril
 Allan Luke. “Another Ethnic Autobiography”
 In 1972 Keye Luke voiced Charlie Chan in “The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan” an animated series by Hanna and Barbera. He fittingly became the first person of Chinese descent to portray the character.
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