Renaissance man Ben Fong-Torres muses about reunions, memories, and congratulates the Community Youth Center in SF Chinatown. The CYC has a brand new home, and unveils a plaque honoring Barry Fong-Torres - his late brother.
ALL YOU CAN REMEMBER: For a 50th year reunion of a junior high school class, it was a low-key affair. Actually, it was not a full-blown reunion of the class of 59 at Westlake Junior High, three-year home away from home for the kids of Oakland Chinatown. Organized by Lucky Owyang, it gathered just a couple dozen alumni, mostly Asian American. It did not take place in a hotel banquet room or an outdoor picnic. We met at Fortuna Buffet, an all-you-can-eat emporium in Chinatown, where seniors (thats us!) could load up to our heart conditions desire for $7.99.
That is my kind of reunion!
Anyway, we had a blast especially once we figured out who we all were. (There were no name tags; no program; just show up and hang out.) This was on the eve of that Telling Your Story series I was kicking off at The Redwoods (see my previous dispatch) in Marin County, so I was already open to nostalgia. Sure enough, a woman sat down next to me and proceeded to tell me that at Westlake (where I was student body president) and Oakland High (where I became Commissioner of Assemblies and produced the almost-weekly programs), I was looked up to.
This was not an easy feat, as I was just about the shortest kid in school. But, she pressed on, You were on the student council, and you were up on that stage in front of the whole school. All us Chinese Americans thought that was special, and we were proud of you.
Funny thing; I never knew that. For one thing, every day, after school, I had to flee and catch the bus to Hayward, 14 miles away, to work at the family restaurant. For another, when I was in school, the remarks I got in the hallways were more Hey, youre funny or Hey, tell me a joke than Hey, we respect you!
AC's Renaissance Man Ben Fong-Torres is invited to share highlights of his life and times to a packed audience in Mill Valley.
The idea blossomed about a year ago: It would be called Telling Your Story, and I would involve people known for their ability to tell stories to advise others on how to relate their own stories in the form of an oral history, a written memoirs, or a multi-media presentation, aimed at family and friends or the public at large.
I heard the idea from Alan Unger, a friend who was working with The Redwoods, the rather hip and radical retirement community in Mill Valley, in Marin County (natch). He thought it would be cool if Amy Tan and I could kick off the series early in 2009. I told him we were both good choices but not together. If Amy were involved, I said, it would have to be the Amy Tan show, and I would be happy to serve as interviewer.
No, he said. We want you to tell your story, too. And, knowing that I was more available than Amy (who, at that time, was mounting the opera version of her novel, The Bonesetters Daughter), he convinced me to do the premiere program, in September. This was back in January, and it was a stretch to respond, Oh, September 17th. Darn! I just happen to be busy.
And so it was that, for the first time in my 40-year career (if we peg its beginning at May, 1969, when I joined Rolling Stone as a writer and editor), I sat down for an onstage interview about me. The interrogator was a long-time friend, Kathi Goldmark, who is a musician, novelist and Renaissance woman who also produces the radio show, West Coast Live.
Early on, I told Alan Unger that, with the rapid changes in technology, the possibilities for telling one's own story had changed dramatically. A person was no longer confined to diaries or journals, or talking into a tape recorder. You Tube! Facebook! Picasa! OneTrueMedia! Flip camcorders! Instant movies and photo albums off a Mac!
It is a multimedia...
A Super Day in Hollywood, Impersonating an Impersonator
Showbiz, like life, is unfair.
This rather obvious fact was brought home as I made my way around a studio in Hollywood one recent day, getting made up as an "Asian Elvis Impersonator" for a new series on Spike TV, and then wander - ing around, in big wig, Elvis shades, a caped red, bejeweled jump - suit, and high-heeled silver boots.
Makeup artists, crew members, fellow cast members would ask, "Where do you do your Elvis act?"
Nowhere. I don't have an Elvis act. I'm not an impersonator.
"How long have you been singing?"
I'm not a professional singer.
"Have you acted long?"
I'm not an actor. A couple of bits here and there, but, no...
And yet, here I am on a show starring "Super Dave," the faux daredevil superstar (created and portrayed by Bob Einstein). Others on this particular episode include Larry David, creator of Seinfeld and star of my favorite show, Curb Your Enthusiasm ; Bob Saget, Carrot Top, Jimmy Kimmel, and a bevy of beautiful girls in scanty bikinis (as if there are any other kind).
How dare me? In this business called show, where hundreds of actors line up to audition for any one tiny bit of work, here I am, wobbling around, set to portray the King of Rock and Roll. And I did nothing to get the part.
Just a couple of days before-on a Saturday morning-I got an e-mail. It was from Julie, a casting director, asking if I might be available Tuesday to play an Asian Elvis impersonator. I thought I was being punked, and told her so. She called to assure me that she was serious, that an actual AEI had fallen sick. (This I did not believe. If I were an Elvis copycat, nothing -- nothing -- would keep me from getting onto a TV show.)
Being an expert at not getting work, I told Julie that I was not an Elvis impersonator; I just liked singing his songs. But she'd seen a video of me singing "Treat Me Nice," originally...
Our Renaissance Guy gets to know the story of a REAL jack of all trades: Jack Soo.
After the premiere screen- ing of You Don't Know Jack: The Jack Soo Story , at the S.F. International Asian American Film Festival at the Sundance Kabuki theater, Dianne, my wife, turned to me as the applause wafted up to the stage, where the director and producer, Jeff Adachi , stood smiling. Until we saw this documentary of Jack Soo , we really didn't know Jack. But Dianne knows me, and she said, "Wow. You two had a LOT in common!"
And, of course, she was right. Soo, best known for his work in The Flower Drum Song , both in the film and on Broadway, and in the '70s sitcom, Barney Miller (he was the deadpan smart-alecky detective sergeant, Nick Yemane), was born in 1917, almost 30 years before I was, and was a Japanese American. Those are some big diffs. Two others: he was interned, along with thousands of fellow Japanese Americans, during World War II. And he became a star as an actor and all-around entertainer.
Still, watching this fascinating, well-researched, well-told biography -- a must-see for anyone interested in Asian American history and pop culture -- I was struck by more than a few harmonic notes:
For starters, we both were raised in Oakland, both went to Westlake Jr. High, and both wound up with unique names. Soo was originally Goro Suzuki; became Carl Suzuki, and then, after the war, when he began working nightclubs in the Midwest, changed his name to Jack Soo. In that climate, a Chinese-sounding surname ruffled fewer feathers.
We both loved baseball; Jack actually played on Oakland Tech's varsity team; I got only as far as a summer league at Lincoln Elementary before being drafted by my parents for restaurant work.
Both of us enjoyed writing -- Soo was an English major; I studied journalism and broadcasting (Jack, too, did a little radio, after the war) -- and never got acquainted with stage fright. In high school, I...
Our very own Renaissance man Ben Fong-Torres was the co-host of the Emmy award-winning telecast of the Southwest Airlines Chinese New Year Parade the largest parade of its kind in North America.
When he is off-camera, Ben is very busy working on his new books soon to be released.
The guy does take a break every now and then - you might be lucky to spot him in a jam session on the second Tuesday of each month at a local hang-out in San Francisco.
In the following feature, Mitzi Mock writes of her close encounters at the All-Star Jam session.
This time out, I'm giving my space over to Mitzi Mock , a student journalist at San Francisco City College. She showed up at the monthly All-Star Jam that I visit, at El Rio in the Mission District, and wrote it up as an assignment for class. I thought she did an excellent job capturing the quirky scene, that she came up with an excellent lead paragraph -- a skill that's vital for news writers -- and did a good reporting job, talking not only to band members, but also to patrons of El Rio. I told her she deserved an "A" (which she got from her professor) and a larger audience (which her teacher could not give her). So I'm proud to present...Mitzi Mock.One Man's Train Wreck
Ben Fong-Torres is scanning the room for women. He'll take one or two. Three would be ideal. He wants them all at once.
But only for about two minutes.
"Do you know the chorus to 'He's So Fine?'" he asks, whispering to a woman who just belted out "Tax Man." "I just need someone for the part that goes 'Doo-lang, doo-lang, doo-lang.'" He hums a few notes of the 60s girl group classic. Dressed in a black sheen jacket, his hair gelled back, the former Rolling Stone writer and editor adds, "I usually try to do some Elvis, but not tonight."
On the second Tuesday of every month, Fong-Torres and the other fans of Los Train Wreck excuse themselves from their...