Five-0 Redux: Honoring Kam Fong
BY WENDIE BURBRIDGE / Special to the Star-Advertiser
The late Kam Fong is best known for his portrayal as the steady and level headed Chin Ho Kelly on the classic version of “Hawaii Five-O,” but not many know the true story of his past, or that he was an actual member of the Honolulu Police Department.
On Saturday, May 18, Kam Fong was inducted into the HPD Hall of Fame, and more of his fascinating life story was revealed to the modern members of the real “Five-0.” The induction ceremony was coupled with the Honolulu Police Department’s annual Police Week Awards Banquet, where they not only honor their Hall of Fame nominee, but also pay tribute to all of their retiring officers and civilian personnel as well as to their “Roll of Honor” — officers who have lost their lives in the line of duty.
I was honored to have been invited to attend the awards banquet at the Pacific Beach Hotel as a guest of Kam Fong’s ʻohana by his eldest son, actor Dennis Chun, who as most of you know, portrays Sgt. Duke Lukela in the reboot of his father’s television legacy.
The first time I met Chun, he shared with me a saying of his father’s that I often repeat to myself: “dreams are important, but keep your feet on the ground.” If there ever was a person who understands that phrase, it was Kam Fong. Chun told some of that story — of how Kam Fong kept his feet on the ground, even when his life was dealt terrible hardships and tragedies — when Chun accepted the Hall of Fame award on behalf of his family, including brother Dickson Chun and sister Valerie Chun, who were also in attendance that night.
Chief of Police Louis M. Kealoha introduced Fong and read a short bio of his police career. Kealoha also shared his experience of attending the National Police Week ceremonies in Washington D.C. where President Obama spent time with the survivors of fallen officers who were in attendance. Kealoha attended the event with the families of officers Eric Fontes and Garret Davis, and who both lost their lives during routine traffic stops in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Kealoha said he was also given the honor of reading the names of Fontes, Davis, and Officer Chad Morimoto, who was killed in a motorcycle accident in July 2012, before their names were added to National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial.
Chun’s acceptance speech focused on his father as a man and officer more than the public persona he had as an actor.
Said Chun: “Many people ask me: How does it feel to try and fill your father’s shoes as an actor? And my answer is: That’s the easy part. The hard part is trying to fill his shoes as a man.”
Chun spoke frankly his father’s upbringing and how he helped his grandmother hide whiskey and evade police after she became a popular Chinatown bootlegger in order to feed her five children. Fong later became a boilermaker and was at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. He helped rescue sailors and Pearl Harbor personnel despite being discriminated against because of his Chinese heritage.
In 1944, Fong lost his first wife, Evelyn, as well as his two children, Marilyn and Donald, when a B-24 bomber crashed into his home, killing them in front of his eyes. After contemplating suicide, he picked himself back up two months after their deaths, joined the police force, and stayed until 1960. In 1968, he joined the cast of “Hawaii Five-O.”
Chun’s speech was touching as well as amazing, since many in the audience did not know the hardships Fong faced before he joined McGarrett’s team and helped turn the phrase “Five-O” into an almost universal nickname for police officers everywhere.
It was such a pleasure for me to meet Chun’s family and an honor to sit with them, as well as with Governor John Burns’s grandson, Brendan Burns, his wife Pat, and HPD Major Raymond Ancheta, who nominated Fong to the Hall of Fame.
Family friend, veteran broadcaster and host of “Emme’s Island Moments,” Emme Tomimbang, asked “Five-0″ executive producer Peter Lenkov to write a message in Fong’s honor. Lenkov’s message, which was read at the ceremony by Major Moana Heu, surprised the Chun ‘ohana.
“Tonight we honor a man who is so deserving to be inducted into the Honolulu Police Department’s Hall of Fame,” he wrote. “He was a member of the Honolulu Police Department for 16 years from 1946-1962 and later became known as Chin Ho Kelly from 1968 to 1978 in the classic series ‘Hawaii Five-O.’ No wonder Kam Fong played the role so well — it was part of his life’s work in Honolulu.
“Today a fine actor, Daniel Dae Kim, portrays the role Kam Fong originally played for a decade. While I did not know Kam Fong personally, I’ve had the privilege of working with his son Dennis Chun. Dennis, I know I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again: you are a class act. Always the consummate professional, you bring integrity and authenticity to our show every time you make an appearance on screen.
“What started out to be a one-episode role turned into a recurring character thanks to your incredible work. You have not only honored your father’s legacy — but also carved out a place of your own in ‘Five-0′ history.
“My friend, I’m so sorry I could not be with you and your family tonight to celebrate this great honor. I’m in Los Angeles writing the first few episodes of season four. And you should know, Duke has a lot to do in the premiere, so get some good rest this hiatus, enjoy the time off with the ʻohana, and I’ll see you in July.
“With love and great respect, your friend, Peter.”
Chun said he was “humbled and touched” by Lenkov’s message. I definitely was humbled to have witnessed Fong’s induction to the HPD Hall of Fame, as well as to learn more about his life as a father, husband, and police officer — a man whose feet were firmly on the ground while he made many of his own dreams come true.
Redux Side Note:
Last week I asked for suggestions for future “Five-0 Redux” blog posts, and I got some great recommendations.
Rick B. from Baltimore suggested more “behind the scenes” information — like how long a one-hour episode takes to film and what kind of hours the cast works on set. Jason (@sokenbicha) asked for more about Hawaiʻi actors and locations. Gwynne asked for an article about Mānoa, a beautiful residential area of Honolulu.
I shall endeavor to ask those kinds of questions for Rick, Jason, and Gwynne — and for all of you interested in that kind of information. Thanks for responding, and if you have anything you’d like to add, just email me at Five0Redux@gmail.com.
Wendie Burbridge is a published author, playwright and teacher who lives and works in Honolulu. Reach her via Facebook and follow her on Twitter.