This is Kato, as played by Chinese American actor and martial arts expert Bruce Lee in the 1966-67 television series, The Green Hornet. The series featured the adventures of Britt Reid—rich newspaper publisher by the day, masked crime-fighter by night—assisted by Kato, his valet and driver.
It was Lee’s introduction to American audiences, though he had been a child actor in the Hong Kong film industry. Lee declined the “sloppy punching” that the script called for; Lee used his martial arts training instead. The results were electric. As noted in a 2020 AHC blog post regarding The Green Hornet, “Younger viewers were astonished by what they saw. Bruce Lee’s Kato became the series’ real star, and he was soon making personal appearances across the country.”
Kato was, in fact, Filipino. At least for a few years.
The Green Hornet began as a radio program in 1936, made into two movies in the 1940s, and would run on and off until around 1952. “The Adventures of the Green Hornet” is a story complete, each broadcast depicting the life of a young newspaper publisher who is devoting his life to the breaking up of ‘rackets’ and underworld doings,” a 1936 press release said. It was patterned after The Lone Ranger, which had also been produced by the same station in Detroit, according to Catholic University media studies professor Alexander Russo. “The two programs shared a basic template,” Russo wrote, “a courageous white hero, a faithful sidekick of a different race, a classical music theme in the public domain to avoid royalty payments, and a deeply corrupt setting.”
Kato was first introduced as Japanese. “The Green Hornet (Britt Reid) is assisted by his faithful Japanese valet, Kato,” the Battle Creek Enquirer in Michigan announced in 1936. Echoing popular stereotypes of “Japanese loyalty and industriousness”, Russo said, Kato’s Japanese identity was vital to his role as valet. A few years later, however, there were references to Kato’s Filipino ancestry. “In my native Philippines, we have a saying, ‘It is easier to drown in a little wave than a big one,” Kato said in a June 1941 episode (as quoted by Russo). “Ably assisted by his Filipino servant, Kato, the Green Hornet fares forth again tonight to wreak more havoc among denizens of the underworld,” the Capital Times wrote in 1942. “Only Kato, his Filipino valet, knows [Reid] in his after-dark role,” the Shreveport Times wrote in 1947. Oddly, Kato was also, at least for a time, Korean. “Reid’s accomplice on his midnight forays is his Korean valet and chauffeur, Kato, the only person who knows his dual life,” the Pensacola News Journal wrote in 1939.
Reid/The Green Hornet might have had a dual life; Kato had several ethnic identities.
What might explain Kato’s switch in ethnicity? One version claims that this happened during the Second World War, as Japan became a US enemy. “In the early days of radio Kato was identified as a Japanese but during the war he suddenly shifted nationalities and emerged as a Filipino,” according to the Rapid City Journal. Some thought it happened immediately after Pearl Harbor, in December 1941 (“quickest change of nationality in the history of broadcasting,” George McEvoy said, writing for The Palm Beach Post).
But the dates of the articles cited above indicate that the shift took place much earlier, though the reasons were largely the same. Russo suggests that deteriorating public opinion of Japan beginning in the late 1930s might have prompted the change. In particular, the Japanese attack on China in 1937—84 years ago last July—and the atrocities that followed were condemned widely. Popular support for China soared in the US as support for Japan crashed. But because Kato’s Asian identity was essential to the program, this created a problem for the show’s producers. Filipino Kato was the solution (and, it seems, at least briefly, Korean Kato). “The Green Hornet was able to use a reconfigured Orientalism to respond to the military threat posed by Japan and internal fears about distinguishing ally from enemy,” Russo wrote.
More than a pop culture icon then, Kato has arguably been a barometer for US-Asian relations and popular American attitudes towards Asia, including stereotypes and prejudice.
(Interestingly, Kato was played by a relatively unknown Hong Kong Chinese American actor in 1966 and Lee’s films in the 1970s were not seen in mainland China until much later. “Films like Enter the Dragon and Fists of Fury were banned by Mao as spiritual pollution and rightist sentimentality,” according to Clifford Coonan in the Irish Times. In contrast, in the recent 2011 film remake of The Green Hornet, at a time when Japan is a strong US ally, Kato was played by Jay Chou, a Taiwanese singer who has sold some 30 million records, according to his Wikipedia page, and is popular in mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. “The Green Hornet represents the intersection of race, citizenship, and the public sphere,” Russo wrote. To this we might now add—global commerce. But we leave this for another post.)
In 1966, Lee was asked about Kato’s ethnic identity. “Speaking for myself, I am Chinese,” he answered, according to The New York Times. “Would some knowing Oriental protest since Kato was after all a Japanese name?”
“I am a karate expert, black belt class,” Lee said. “Anyone object, I put them on their back.”
To learn more about The Green Hornet television series, see the William Dozier papers at University of Wyoming’s American Heritage Center.
(1) A Filipino American supposedly introduced Bruce Lee to nunchucks (shown in the first photo). https://iexaminer.org/uncovering-bruce-lees-public-school-years/
(2) Bruce Lee has become, in a sense, an Asian American–not just Chinese American–role model (“He was an ethnically Asian male role model in a Western society where so few existed, before or since,” Kevin Wong recently wrote.)
And though, as Russo explained, a “universal Oriental” wasn’t a solution to The Green Hornet producers’ Asian dilemma in the late 1930s, one might argue that what eventually became Bruce Lee in popular imagination might be close–though so much more independent and defiant than the producers ever imagined, upstaging even The Green Hornet himself, the white hero.
Reflections for another post.
Post contributed by Erwin R. Tiongson, co-founder of The Philippines on the Potomac Project (POPDC) (https://popdc.wordpress.com/). The text for this post originally appeared on POPDC’s Facebook page. It is included in AHC’s Discover History blog with permission.
Clifford Coonan, 2008, “New generation of kung fu crazy Chinese discovering Bruce Lee,” The Irish Times, October 16. https://www.irishtimes.com/news/new-generation-of-kung-fu-crazy-chinese-discovering-bruce-lee-1.896517
Alexander Russo, 2002, “A Dark(ened) Figure on the Airwaves: Race, Nation, and the Green Hornet,” in Michele Hilmes and Jason Loviglio, eds., Radio Reader: Essays in the Cultural History of Radio (New York: Routledge), pp. 257-276.
Various newspaper articles as indicated.