'Five-O' in his past, eight-O in his future

Kam Fong moved past a tragic life and is filled with laughter

Honolulu Star-Bulletin
March 14, 1998

Kam Fong sings to waitresses at his hangout, Zippy's in Hawaii Kai. He tells stories as an art form, joking and laughing often. He insists that smoking a cigar daily, playing golf weekly and making love to his wife are the secrets to his longevity.

Fong, who played Chin Ho Kelly on "Hawaii Five-O," is about to turn 80 in May. If living well is the best revenge, then Fong has succeeded in a life filled with tragedy.

He rose from a poor, broken home, to lose his wife and two children in a military accident. He tried to blow his brains out, but his mother stopped him. He joined the police force hoping to die. After 18 years as an officer, he landed his detective role on "Hawaii Five-O."

The show's director learned later how much character lay behind the face he picked out of a "cattle call" to play Chin Ho.

"The irony of living a long life," Fong said, sighing, "is that you outlive your friends. I think Jack was my age."

Jack Lord, the show's star, was 78 when he died Jan. 21.

After his death, Fong, James MacArthur and other cast members gravitated to the phone and talked about the end of an era.

"It's unreal that Jack's gone," said MacArthur, who played detective Danny "Danno" Williams. "The finality of his death marks the parameters of our own lives."

Lord built a shield of unsociability about him, Fong said. "But he was a softy with a marshmallow heart. He loved kids. He had a baby son, and lost him. I think it always affected him."

At the request of his fans, Fong as begun writing an autobiography with his son, Dennis Chun, who also appeared on a few "Hawaii Five-O" episodes.

"I think I'm truly blessed," said Fong, who spends his retirement at his Koko Head home. On the show, Fong represented the real flavor of Hawaii -- the way people feel, think and react. "My gosh, he had been a policeman," said MacArthur, now living in Palm Desert, Calif. The two have been close friends for 30 years and visit each other several times a year.

"Fong's a man of great character," MacArthur said. "He's a very strong person. You can always count on him. I hope he feels the same about me."

In syndication today, "Hawaii Five-O" continues to cultivate a legion of fans, has spawned several Web sites and fan ship cruises and remains the top-rated daytime show in Australia.

"It amazes me," Fong said. "It doesn't seem real. The show is still running and popular now. People still recognize me. I'm grateful."

As for himself, Fong rarely watches the show. He said he prefers to live in the present.

He was named Kam Tong Chun, which means golden temple. His first teacher misunderstood the name and taught him to write Kam Fong Chun. Because of the confusion in later years, he legalized it to Fong. Then CBS asked him to shorten it to Kam Fong for the television show.

Fong's father and grandfather opened a candy factory in Honolulu, but family life shattered after his father had an affair. His parents divorced and his grandfather kicked his father out of the business, casting the family into poverty. His father took the two eldest children to raise, and his mother took the remaining five, including 7-year-old Fong.

"It was a very hard life," Fong said. "To this day, I never have breakfast or lunch, even on Sundays. My wife gets angry with me. It's a fallback to when I was a youngster around the early 1930s. We had nothing to eat but soda crackers, water and sugar."

His mother raised ducks and brewed whiskey. The vice squad raided their house but couldn't catch her, Fong said. "Many times I had to hide a hundred bottles of whiskey, and I often forgot where I hid them."

Earning $13.50 a week as a boilermaker in his early 20s at Pearl Harbor, Fong had to report to work just after the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack. He remained at the harbor for three days without food and water in the dark aftermath.

"I stood over the belly-up USS Ogalala, the only ship with a Hawaiian captain, and I cried," Fong said. "I looked across the bay and saw the USS Arizona burning and I cried."

Decades later while the "Hawaii Five-O" crew filmed a scene at Diamond Head Cemetery, MacArthur recalled noticing Fong's head bent down and gazing at a tombstone.

"I asked him what he was looking at," MacArthur said.

Fong answered, 'My family."

"That's how I found out he lost his first family," MacArthur said. "I couldn't believe it."

Fong's first wife, Esther, kissed him on the cheek the morning of June 8, 1944, waking him, from a nap. It was a Sunday, and his 5-year-old daughter, "my darling Marilyn," and 2-year-old son, Donald, were dressed and ready to go into town. His wife wore a pink suit. "Look, Daddy has lipstick on," Esther joked to the kids, wiping her lipstick off Fong's cheek.

"I went to the back bedroom to change my pants, and suddenly the house was in flames," Fong said. "I went back to the living room and saw my wife slumped over and my children buried." Two American bomber planes had collided and crashed into his house and others, I killing 12 people, including his wife and children.

Fong tried to drink himself to death. His despondency culminated one night when he placed a revolver to his temple in the back room of his mother's house. "To this day, I don't know where she came from, but she found me. Suddenly my mother screamed, 'Son, you must never do that.' I felt so bad," Fong said. "I put the gun away."

He looked for a life-threatening job instead and joined the Honolulu Police Department.

He married Gladys Lindo five years later and had four children, Dennis, Brenda, Valerie and Dixon. He became involved in community theater, something he had loved to do since high school.

After his police career, he became a disc jockey and sold real estate. Fong's real estate partner, Ana Lang, made the appointment for him to audition for the television series without him knowing it and nudged him into going to it. The audition was a cattle call, said former cast member Gilbert "Zulu" Kauhi, who played Kono. "When producer Lenny Freeman found out Kam was a police officer all those years, he was a natural," he said.

"I had a lot of respect for Kam. He's quite a guy," Kauhi said. "Listen, if you had a family wiped out in an instant, life is not as funny."

Fong said he does not fear death.

He wants to be buried with one cigar, a package of cigarettes and a small bottle of whiskey. He tells his kids, "For God's sake don't forget to put in the matches or lighter!" and laughs.