INTO THE NEXT STAGE: Why the Original ‘Hawaii Five-0’ Was Better at Reflecting the 50th State Than the Current Series

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By GUY AOKI
(First published in The Rafu Shimpo on Jan. 12, 2012.)

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Aloha from Hawaii, where I’m still on my annual vacation home. Every night, one of the local channels ran episodes of the original “Hawaii Five-0,” so I taped as many as I could to compare the ethnic casting on that show to see if it really did reflect the local people of Hawaii as I’d remembered it. I was surprised by how much.

The episodes I’m analyzing come from the 1974-75 season, its seventh (the program ran from 1968 to 1980, the longest-running cop drama until “Law and Order”).

In a previous column, I’d noted that at CAPE’s 20th anniversary dinner, Daniel Dae Kim (who plays Chin Ho on the rebooted series) boasted that the new show used 6 to 10 locals on every episode. So I had to smile when, upon viewing the first show I taped from 1974, there were 11 or 12 locals credited.

It was the infamous episode where someone was threatening to cause eruptions on the Big Island if he didn’t get money (to pay off his debts). The Five-0 team went to Waimea and the only two police officers we saw — a captain and a sergeant — were both Asian. Heck, they could’ve been actual police officers because they were rather dry. But have you ever spoken to a real cop? Yeah, often dry.

In other episodes, you couldn’t get away from seeing local, Asian/Pacific Islander-looking folks from the mail carrier to the secretary to the prosecutor to the man falsely accused of murdering a white man (Leslie Nielsen, the victim’s dad, wants to hang him).

Although, from memory, I’d assumed Steve McGarrett (Jack Lord) dominated most of the series with Danny Williams (James MacArthur), Chin Ho Kelly (Kam Fong), Ben Kokua (Al Harrington) and the others merely saying “phone call for you Steve,” by the seventh season, the episodes usually opened with the others investigating the crime scenes and McGarrett showing up later after most of the facts had been collected. We also saw recurring cops like Frank Kamana (Doug Mossman), Duke (Herman Wedemeyer, who was later promoted to series regular), Nick (Danny Kamekona, later of “Karate Kid II”), and forensics specialist Che Fong (Harry Endo).

In the last episode that ran, “Small Witness, Large Crime,” a homeless boy witnesses a sharpshooter executing a man (Chinese) on a boat and has to evade capture. When McGarrett and Williams question the boy, Moki (Joshua N. Farin), he won’t speak at all, seemingly mute. So for his own protection, they keep him in custody because he stole chocolate milk and donuts from a local woman (Hawaiian).

Title card from the original “Hawaii Five-0.”

Francis Chai (France Nuyen), a public defender, is outraged that the tough cop would do this to a young child, so she complains to Judge Keana, who sets him free. McGarrett angrily tells Chai what she’s just done — that the killer now has access to the witness to his crime. So Chai goes out looking for Moki. The killer finds both of them and begins shooting as Five-0 arrives just in time to save them.

Throughout this episode, you feel for the young boy (his dad was sent to prison on the mainland and his mom died of an overdose) as well as the welfare of Chai. The guest cast: 4 white mainlanders vs. 9 locals.

Contrast this with the current “Five-0.” On the most recent episode, high school kids (all white) are having a party on the beach at night. They go to the home of one of their friends (also white), who is discovered dead. So we care about the white victim and her white family.

Five-0 interviews one of the victim’s friends. She and her dad are clearly Asian, yet their last name is Sargeant! Meaning even the local characters have white names, which would lead me to believe they assumed the actors hired would be white. In fact, the only Asian person on this episode who actually had an Asian name was Brian Yang, who recurs as forensics expert Charlie Fong.

The principal of the school is also white. Number of white guest stars: 12. Number of APIs: 6.

Throughout its one-and-a-half years, most of the victims or those Five-0 must protect are white, so that’s who the audience cares about — white people. Most Asians are either used as suspects or the henchmen of Wo Fat (Mark Dacascos). The only local person we see on a regular basis is Taylor Wiley, the obese shrimp truck informant. Kelly Hu had a recurring part in the first season, but in the season finale, she was blown up in an SUV. Jason Scott Lee, an actor who literally still glows on screen, was cast as a traitorous cop killer.

In one of the ‘74 episodes, an Asian leader and his entourage is coming to Hawaii and the team must protect him and his son. Wo Fat (Khigh Dhiegh), McGarrett’s arch-nemesis, makes his return. So you’d think with so many Asian faces, the producers might’ve worried about there being “Asian overload.” Well, you couldn’t tell from who they picked to appear on screen.

The schoolteacher was Asian, as were almost all of her kids and all of Wo Fat’s contacts — a local photographer, a man at a bicycle shop — are also Asian. At the climactic scene at a circus, all of the cops looking out for the would-be assassin are Asian. Final tally — White guest stars: 7. APIs: 12.

Compare that with the current season, where the guest stars are mostly white, many of them cops from the mainland who stick around and help the team solve cases (Terry O’Quinn, Greg Grunberg, Lauren German, Tom Sizemore, etc). Last I checked, the 50th state was only 30 percent white, the rest being mostly of Asian/Pacific Islander ancestry. Based on this new version, you’d think it was the other way around. The problem is that most of the bit parts go to the locals and most of the roles with meat in them go to those from the mainland. It wouldn’t be that bad if the producers used non-local Asian Americans…

Keep in mind that when the original series started in 1968, it was the first to be filmed entirely in Hawaii. Previous “Hawaii” shows like “Hawaiian Eye” were filmed on studio lots in Hollywood or Burbank. The producers had a difficult time getting local actors with TV experience mostly because they hadn’t had the opportunity to develop their craft on such shows.

But Jack Lord, who loved Hawaii and its people and said he’d die there (he did), told the producers to use Hawaii’s people. A source tells me that the producers would go to every play to seek out fresh talent. When Lord met someone he liked at a public event he attended, he’d tell them to come by the set because he wanted to have them written into the show. Many of the people they used weren’t actors at all.

How could the producers tell they’d have what it took to act naturally? If they had a strong personality, if they had confidence, if they were used to being in front of people. Maybe that’s why Al Harrington got to join the cast in 1972 after Zulu (the original Kono) was fired: He was a high school history teacher! Two weeks of acting lessons and he was on his way!

Harry Endo was a bank executive who’d done television commercials for a Hawaii bank. Moe Keale, who played Truck in the final season of the original series, was an electrician who worked on the set. Lord encouraged him to try out for the show. Keale kept turning him down… three times! Finally, he gave in, and the rest is history.

Each morning, Lord would read the morning paper. If he saw something pertinent to Hawaii, he’d tell his personal assistant, “put this in the script.” Meaning, give this to the writers so they can incorporate it into a future episode.

Lord was far from a perfect human being. His ego was legendary (he worried about actors appearing taller than he, he went into town in full make-up wearing his trademark white hat; if you didn’t approach him, he’d bump into you so you’d notice him!). But he kept true diversity in mind long before Asian American activists began having diversity meetings with the networks. And for that, he has my thanks.

Given the depth of talent we have in the Asian American acting world now — both in Hawaii and on the mainland — how can this current show go backwards in its depiction of Hawaii over 40 years later? With its ratings continuing to fall, it may get a third season, but it will be lucky to get a fourth. The original got 12. It must’ve done something right.

Coming Attractions Department: I can finally talk about this as it was finally officially announced: George Takei will be part of the cast of the upcoming “Celebrity Apprentice” beginning Feb. 12. This installment will feature more guests than ever before — 18 _ including Tia Carrere, Adam Carolla (ugh!), and Debbie Gibson (hey, I interviewed her in 1987 shortly after she turned 17!).

I didn’t get a chance to give Takei advice when I saw him at the CAPE dinner a couple months ago. From what I’ve observed over the years, older celebrities have a difficult time with the younger ones because they’re more set in their ways and expect a certain level of respect. The main thing is to roll with the punches, be open to the ideas of others, and prove yourself an effective worker who’s essential to whatever team you’re on.

All the money each celebrity makes go to a pet charity, and Takei’s chosen the Japanese American National Museum!

Also looking forward to the April 13 release of “Bullet to the Head” as it stars Sylvester Stallone as a hit man who works with a good cop played by Sung Kang (“Better Luck Tomorrow,” “Fast Five”). Jason Momoa (“Conan the Barbarian,” “Baywatch: Hawaii”) plays one of the villains.

Bachi ga Ataru! Department: “Akira,” the anime-based project that Warner Brothers is trying to turn into a live-action film starring mostly white actors, is stalled once again because of script problems (they’re gonna give it two weeks). Production has been shut down in Vancouver.

Till next time, keep your eyes and ears open.

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Guy Aoki, co-founder of the Media Action Network for Asian Americans, writes from Glendale. He can be reached at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.

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6 Comments

  1. What you say about NEW Five-O versus old Five-O is correct. This new Five-O wannabe doesn’t have any of the virtues the originals had.

    McGarrett would have come unglued if his team showed up dressed as they do on the new program. McGarrett would never have children that were openly sexually promiscuous either.
    This Alex would be sleeping in a suit.

    They don’t play stand-up top notch people with high morals and standards, which by the way is part of the OATH you take as a POLICE-Person. If you are found to be failing in that area, then action is taken.

    Real Steve McGarrett was not a dog. This one is very much a dog.

  2. I gave up on the series when they blew up Kelly Hu. They could have had anyone be blown up, why throw her away? She is the most famous Hawaiian I know and smoking hot to boot!

  3. I grew up with the original series and loved it and hope to get out to Hawaii before I croak 😉 Anyway, I like the original series as I think it’s just better written!

  4. By all accounts Hawaii Five-O personifies the typical action/crime scene genre with a frenetic interlude of tropical scenery. It is not the best show on television; I doubt that it will ever be. Even I will admit distain towards inept story lines and marginal acting skills, but nevertheless I religiously watch each and every episode, including reruns. Guy, this is where you are truly missing the point.

    For example, during an episode from the initial season, my wife and I made a startling, as well as epiphanic observation. Has there ever been a moment on television when Asian –American actors not only undertook the lead parts but were the sole characters on screen? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I doubt this has ever occurred on a network program, devoid the mockery of stereotypes. Yet, throughout the airing of H5-O it has been commonly routine.
    Instead of attacking the show and revealing flaws, you and your organization (MANAA) should be aggressively advocating its success. This is your chance as community leaders to lend approval to this program. Not because of its artistic excellence or accuracy, but rather the subsequent impact on media and entertainment as a whole. As the AA community strives for inclusion into the Hollywood elite then it must engage in small incremental steps. Granted, during the past few decades progress has been dilatory at best, but this rebooted version of H5-O presents a golden opportunity for Asian-American actors to flourish and be recognized. Hopefully, this success will lead to other mainstream projects for all.

    Surprisingly, in my conversations with various minorities working in the industry, either as actors or behind the scenes, many of them do not watch the show; which reflects the uninspired ratings. I explain that their ignorance will eventually bite them in the tail. If every Asian-American adult tuned in on a regular basis, with the intent to increase ratings, then network executives would face a difficult task of cancelling H5-O. But with apathy permeating from the community at large this will be an easy decision for them.

    This is why I believe Hawaii Five-O must succeed. Not only does H5-O benefit the downtrodden local economy but the auxiliary benefit is self-evident; Asian-American actors portraying strong characters in major entertainment projects. Isn’t this what MANAA advocates?

    If this show fails to make syndication you can bet the dictators of media will be less inclined giving Asians actors starring roles on any production. Most certainly we’ll be reverting back to the old 70s caricatures of nerds, prostitutes and gangsters. But look on the bright side, it would give MANAA justification to exist.

    Come on folks, let’s not cut off our collective nose to spite the face.

  5. Absolutely, Tom. Positivity is the key. All Guy Aoki ever seems to do is whine and moan about little things like they’re these huge injustices. Now he’s taken to recording all the new and old Hawaii Five-0 shows so he can count white vs non-white guest stars and extras. Talk about tunnel vision. Talk about petty. There are other things to take into account, Guy. I also find the assumption that all whites are mainlanders and all Asians “locals” more than a little racist. (What box do you put black people in when you do you count, Guy? Or are they just discarded?). When I was in Hawaii there were natives (anyone born on the islands), locals (those who made the state their own), and tourists. All races could be found in all categories. Anyway, back to what Tom was saying—there’s a lot of whites all over TV. Even the new Hawaii Five-0 serves more than not to correct the imbalance. Most people get that. It’s amazing what you manage to miss with your personal quibbles. And speaking of those, earth to Guy, you’ve done enough columns on Hawaii Five-0?

  6. I remember clearly the old, white racist saying “Kam Fong as Chin Ho, what’s the difference?”

    I think it’s almost as racist to call all whites “mainlanders” and all asians “natives”. When did Hawaii become an Asian country? Asians are mainlanders too, from mainland ASIA. ONLY Hawaiians are natives, and they are not ASIAN at all.

    That aside, whites have been living natively in Hawaii since the 1800’s… so at least, they’re locals, even if you don’t consider them natives, though I think they are. I’m born and raised in California… am I not a native Californian?

    I agree though that the original is more representative. It was amazing at that time that two of the four main characters were not white! And one was actually Hawaiian!

    BUT, and this is a BIG BUT- It did one of the most outrageously racist (and common) things… casting non-Asian actors as Asians, with full “slant-eye” makeup. “Yellow-face” Ouch.

    All this is beside the point. The point is, the audience of the new 5-0 is predominantly white, and most people (of any race) like to see familiar faces.

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