Thursday, October 31, 2002

Kam Fong rose from
hard times to 'Five-0'

More obituaries

By Nadine Kam

In "Hawaii Five-0," Kam Fong played the stern-faced Chin Ho Kelly, who, along with the rest of the TV police force, always seemed to save the day.

Few knew the background to Fong's stoicism, but his face couldn't hide character built from having risen from a broken home and having seen his first family perish in a military accident. Despondent after the loss of his family, he joined the Honolulu Police Department hoping to die. Instead, after 18 years with HPD, he was discovered by television audiences around the world, eventually remarried and raised a second family, instilling in his children, according to his son Dennis Chun, "The message that life is not always easy, but don't give up. If you work hard, maybe your dreams will come true."

Kam Fong died Oct. 18 at age 84 after a battle with lung cancer. Private memorial services were held. Fong is also survived by son Dickson and daughters Brenda and Valerie Chun.

Chun believes his dad's dreams had come true.

"While he experienced many tragedies and disappointments, he was also touched with so much good. ... He never understood how a poor barefoot boy from Kalihi could grow up to walk the sound stages of Hollywood."

Eddie Sherman, MidWeek columnist, met Fong during his "Hawaii Five-0" days (it was the longest-running police show in television history, airing from 1968 to 1980 on CBS) and recalls him as "a very diligent person, a lovable professional" who worked hard, was always prepared and seemed to get along with everybody.

"On the set he could seem very stern and gruff, but off the set he was a very lovable guy who laughed a lot. ... I think he did more episodes than anybody else except Jack Lord," Sherman said yesterday.

Sherman noted that Fong was producer Leonard Freeman's first choice for the role of Chin Ho Kelly (named in honor of island financial legend Chinn Ho).

Freeman's widow, Rose Freeman, said she was heartbroken when she heard the news. "He was a dear, dear, dear man, and I adored him."

Kam Fong was born Kam Tong Chun, which means "golden temple," in 1918. His first teacher misunderstood the name and taught him to write Kam Fong Chun. He later legalized it to Fong. CBS, which aired "Hawaii Five-0," asked him to shorten it to Kam Fong.

As a child, his family lived on little more than soda crackers, sugar and water. In his early 20s he was working as a welder at Pearl Harbor, reporting to work even after the Dec. 7, 1941, Japanese attack, where he remained on the job for three days.

In the early morning hours of June 8, 1944, during World War II, two U.S. bombers collided and crashed into his house and others, killing 12 people, including his first wife, Esther, and their two children. He was also at home, but the plane just missed the bedroom he was in. The rest of the home was in flames.

He married Gladys Lindo five years later. She died in August.

Chun, an Oahu Circuit Court employee and part-time actor, said he learned a lot from watching his father. "He had a lot of trials. To overcome adversity and still be able to make something of yourself says a lot about a person, and my dad was a special man."

But his father wasn't all about work. "He was a lot of fun, a kolohe guy. Him, Jimmy (MacArthur, who played Danno) and Zulu stayed very close after the series went off the air.

"No one was safe around them. They'd play jokes on each other on the set. One time Jimmy jammed a car door on my dad so he couldn't get out for a big scene." A statement released by his family yesterday thanked "Hawaii Five-0" fans for "the love and aloha you showed to our father throughout the years. The thoughtfulness and kindness you displayed meant so much to him."

A few years ago, Chun starting working with his dad on an autobiography, but it was not completed when Fong fell ill. Chun has not ruled out finishing the book. "My dad had a life that should be remembered," he said, "Not just for 'Five-0.'"

Star-Bulletin reporter John Berger
contributed to this report.

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