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Kelvin Han Yee

This A-Profiler we bring you Kelvin Han Yee, perhaps one of the most recognizable Asian American faces in Hollywood, who is currently in the Warner Brothers movie "Lucky You" as Chico Bahn. He has been seen in movies, television, and theatre. Find out how this sharp-witted actor started off by getting kicked out of high school, becoming a bouncer in the San Francisco Tenderloin, and re-making himself as an actor by moving from the SF Bay Area to Hollywood.

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What is your ethnicity?
Youíre starting out this ďprofileĒ with the ďethnicĒ question? So...does that mean that this is ďracial profilingĒ? I donít know if I support that but I am Chinese American. Made in America. I am ethnically Chinese. Han people of south China. The culture of my forefathers is Cantonese. County of Toisan. A place up country called Hoiping. My great grandfather sojourned to Gum Sahn (the Gold Mountain) to drive spikes and lay the ties that bound together the great American railroad. Strong coolie stock born in the year of the Bull Ox.

You've been one of the most recognizable Asian American faces in acting over the years.
Ya, I just have a recognizable face. In California guys think Iím a cop that arrested them once. My face is memorable. My face is...scary. You never forget a face like mine. Itís haunting.

How did you get started in acting?
At first I didnít think it was a real possibility as a career or life choice. I came from a typical Asian American family that emphasized education and careers like Doctor, Engineer, Doctor, Dentist. Pharmacist, Doctor. My mom would say, "Don't be actor. Actor is bum. You be Doctor, Engineer, Doctor, Dentist. Pharmacist, Doctor." But I was not a typical Asian American kid. Not good at math. But, beginning with my high school Drama teacher, throughout my life people would tell me I had talent. I actually got kicked out of high school and started working in dives and after hours clubs in San Franciscoís notorious Tenderloin strip as a bouncer. But at the same time I was doing improv comedy in some of the same clubs with The National Theater of the Deranged and taking these street characters onto the stage with me. I was the brash but talented ďkidĒ hanging around San Franciscoís Asian American Theater Company in itís golden age with Philip Kan Gotanda, David Henry Hwang, Lane Nishikawa, Marc Hayashi, Dennis Dun, Amy Hill, these people were all mentors to me. They all still remember me as that punk but now I am older that they were back then. I have earned my years the hard way.

Kelvin Han YeeWhen did the acting bug hit you and you knew this was something you wanted to pursue as a career?
It's funny you refer to it as a "bug" implying a diseased or viral compulsion for attention. That may actually be an accurate diagnosis for that initial impulse to perform in front of people or to share so much of yourself with an audience. But as one matures as an artist and as a human being one must find the bigger "it" A greater more universal reason to create and communicate.

As I said, I was discouraged from this sort of thing by my parents and by my culture but in 1985 I landed the role of a lifetime. I starred in the first American feature film shot in the Peoples Republic of China, A Great Wall (MGM). The movie was a great success playing for an unheard of 9 months in some theaters. But it was a milestone for Asian Americans for it's heart warming depiction of a realistic Chinese American family who goes back to China for a summer vacation and discovers just how American they really are. Even to this day over 20 years later I still get stopped on the street by people who recognize me and tell me that I was the first asian guy they ever saw making out with a white girl on screen. I played Paul Fang an all American football jock. I think a lot of guys could relate to him but had never seen themselves portrayed on screen. Making that film in the P.R.C. was like an episode of Survivor. Remember we were the first American feature to shoot in The Peoples Republic of China. Huge crowds followed us. We were followed by guys in dark glasses.

When I came home after this amazing adventure and I just went back to working in the Tenderloin. For a time I worked for Reuben Sturman the legendary West Coast boss (if you've never heard of him you don't want to know). But then Ed Hastings the artistic director of the American Conservatory Theater literally saved me from a life as a mob thug by inviting me into one of the worlds foremost theater institutions. For six seasons I was making a decent living as a company member and I learned as I went along. I was in the company so I got payed to play Shakespeare, Dickens, Chekov, O'Neil and learn from what was then the best acting company in the country. I cut my teeth in regional theaters like, A.C.T., Berkeley Repertory, Huntington Theater, San Jose Stage, L.A.T.C., San Francisco Mime Troupe, Thick Description. I was the first Asian American actor to work at The Oregon Shakespeare Festival (Ashland) in itís 65 year history.

Through out the years, you've maintained tight connections to the Asian American community, in particular the AA theater community. How important is it to you to maintain that connection?
When I remade myself 5 years ago leaving San Francisco and starting over as a Hollywood actor the first thing I sought out was the Asian American artistic community. So I did The Wind Cries Mary at East-West Players. In the past I had originated roles in Philip Kan Gotandaís plays Yankee Dawg You Die!, Fish Head Soup and in his film Life Tastes Good so I have a history with this guy.

It was very meaningful for met to do a Gotanda play in L.A. I also did Solve for X at Lodestone which I consider Americaís most cutting edge Asian American theater. I had directed another Judy SooHoo piece, Texas in San Francisco as well. So she is like family too. Itís important to have a community to nurture and support you. We must nurture and support our fellow Asian American Artists. I still like to call other Asian guys "brother" and I still refer to Asian woman as sister (or auntie) just like we did back in the day. You feeling me brother?

Are there roles you've passed up because you didn't feel they portrayed Asian Americans accurately?
Ok, Iím going to get real here. It is unrealistic to think that actors always have a choice to simply refuse to take a role because itís not with their framework of accurate. Depending on what level youíre at in our career or your status on that particular set a refusal to work can be career ending.

But that being said, you still have to go home and look yourself in the mirror. You have to sleep with yourself. I guess it's all ho you were raised. i was taught by my parents and by my artistic mentors that everything I did in my life reflected on my forefathers and on my people. I was taught to have a responsibility for my own actions and to stand up for the all dignity of people. I don't know. How were you raised? I remember how I got my feelings hurt by kids at school because there was some portrayal of some goofy Asian guy on T.V. the night before.

In general I think most people arenít trying to create offensive product. But I am constantly surprised by the industries ignorance. And most of the time itís a very subtle thing. So you have to be vigilant. But most of the time an actor has very little power to affect the final picture. Post production can change your whole performance.

Make a diff when you can but don't hate on an actor because he did something that he may not have had a lot of control over. Nurture and support Asian American artists. As an Asian American person you have a culture. Look for those people who are expressing it.

I originated the role of Bradley Yamashita in Yankee Dawg You Die by Philip Kan Gotanda. Itís a play about how Asians have been portrayed in movies. Give it a read. It was written like 20 years ago but itís all still completely relevant.

Kelvin Han Yee in Lucky YouYour latest role is playing Chico Bahn in the Warner Brothers movie Lucky You. Can you tell us more about the story and the role you play?
Aw, role of a lifetime! Chico Banh is the World Series Of Poker Championship bracelet flashing metaphor for the American dream in Curtis Hansons Lucky You (Warner Brothers) starring Eric Bana, Drew Barrymore, Robert Duvall, Jean Smart and Debra Messing. I based the character on the real life poker pros Johnny Chan, Chau Giang and Men ďthe MasterĒ Nguyen. Chico Banh came to this country as a Vietnam war refugee and came up working the shrimp boats off the gulf coast of Texas with Mexicans so he speaks Spanish better than he speaks English. Foe him the green felt of the Poker table is a green battlefield. But it is a even battlefield. When Chico loses, he loses gracefully like a gentleman. I wanted to play him that way because itís what the Vegas dealers all say about Asian gamblers. They know how to lose. They lose with dignity.

What else can we expect to see you in the near future?
Life Tastes Good has just been release by Cinema Epoch and is available on DVD. I play Detective Max Kim.

I am always doing theater. I recently went Colorado and did a reading at the Denver Center for Stories on Stage. That should be online soon.

I am sure you will see me on T.V. somewhere.

Going to your early days, I remember your public service announcements from the early 80's with Dennis Dun. Do you look back on those early years with fondness?
Yes I remember my work with Dennis Dun before he went to become one of Americaís most successful Asian actors quite fondly. They way we created these short comedic skits for use as Public Service Announcements was that Dennis would come over to my place and we would cook ourselves a huge meal. We would do it together chopping, preparing, a little of this a little of that and we would be talking smack and doing all these characters and voices a while we were cooking. The chi is flowing right? So we would be writing all of this down and spilling soy sauce all over the comedy and getting the comedy all up in the stir fry and by the end of the thing weíre sitting down having this incredible meal and we had these funny skits. Somehow it was all one thing the cooking and the comedy. it was the most magical way to create.

Do you still keep in touch with Dennis?
I do see Dennis Dun from time to time. We always tell each other that we should get together and write like that again. But we never do.

Compare notes on the paths in acting you've both taken?
Our paths are incomparable. He has had huge careers as a television and film star. Last time I saw him he looked fabulous.

If it wasn't for acting, where do you think you would be now and what do you think you would be doing?
If it wasnít for acting Iíd be doing a 25 to L stint...like a man...picture me rolliní.

Naw, seriously I think I would fight crime. Not like a cop. A crime fighter. Like a caped crusader. I like Spandex.

No, really, I would be a rock star. I only know 3 chords but itís all I need. I shred those 3.

When you have spare time away from acting, what keeps you busy?
I have no spare time away from acting. Acting is a fulltime gig dude. Acting is a lifestyle. I am acting right now.

I cook improvisational, Asian / California / Urban, post modern fusion.

I have been a mentor to incarcerated youth through an organization called Each One Reach One.

Each One Reach One diverts incarcerated youth from a life in prison to become productive community members through mentor-based performing arts and academic tutoring programs. EORO provides young people with the opportunities and tools to express themselves creatively, and, just as importantly, in ways that do not bring harm to themselves or others.

Check it out. http://www.each1reach1.org/

I taught Juvenile delinquents how to write plays. It was the most rewarding thing I have done. I think I understand where a lot of "at risk" youth are coming from. I feel like I still am one.

And I like to answer questionnaires.

What advice do you have for aspiring actors and actresses out there?
Don't be actor. Actor is bum. Be a Doctor, Engineer, Doctor, Dentist. Pharmacist or Doctor.

But if you have no choice...if you have the BUG...oh, alright then... then you should get as much training as you can. Work hard. Develop a thick skin. Find and create community around you that nurtures and supports you. Donít give up. Believe that you can be whatever you envision. Don't give up. Live your destiny. Give something to humanity. Leave this world better than how you found it.

...And say hello to me when you see me at some audition. Because ainít giving up either.

Kelvin Han Yee

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This issue of A-Profiler is brought to you by Nelson Wong. Special thanks to Kelvin Han Yee.

Photos used with permission.
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