Victor Sen Yung was a prolific and versatile actor who appeared in over 100 films and TV shows, most notably as Jimmy Chan in the Charlie Chan series and Hop Sing in Bonanza. He was also a talented potter and ran a small mail-order business selling his own creations. However, his life came to an abrupt and tragic end in 1980, when he died of natural gas poisoning in his North Hollywood home. How did this happen and what were the circumstances surrounding his death? Here is what we know.
A Promising Career Cut Short
Victor Sen Yung was born in San Francisco, California, on October 18, 1915, to Chinese immigrants. His mother died during the flu epidemic of 1919, and his father placed him and his sister in a children’s shelter while he returned to China to find another wife. He came back in 1922 with his new wife and reunited with his children. Victor graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with a degree in economics and moved to Hollywood to pursue further studies at UCLA and USC.
He got his first break in 1938, when he was cast as Jimmy Chan, the “number two son” of the famous Chinese detective Charlie Chan, played by Sidney Toler. He replaced Keye Luke, who had played the “number one son” Lee Chan opposite Warner Oland, the original Charlie Chan who had died that year. Victor played Jimmy Chan in 11 films between 1938 and 1942, portraying him as a bumbling but well-meaning assistant to his father.
During World War II, he joined the U.S. Army Air Forces as a captain of intelligence and served in the Pacific theater. He also appeared in some war films, often playing Japanese villains or spies. After the war, he resumed his role as Jimmy Chan in two more films with Toler, who died in 1947. He then became “Tommy Chan, number three son”, and starred in five more Charlie Chan films with Roland Winters, another white actor who took over the role.
Victor also appeared in other films of various genres, such as The Letter (1940) with Bette Davis, Across the Pacific (1942) with Humphrey Bogart, The Left Hand of God (1955) with Humphrey Bogart and Gene Tierney, Flower Drum Song (1961) with Nancy Kwan and James Shigeta, and The Man with Bogart’s Face (1980) with Robert Sacchi. He also had guest roles in many TV shows, such as Perry Mason, The Twilight Zone, Hawaii Five-O, Kung Fu, and MAS*H.
However, his most famous TV role was that of Hop Sing, the cook of the Cartwright family in the western series Bonanza. He played Hop Sing from 1959 to 1973, appearing in more than 100 episodes. He portrayed Hop Sing as a loyal, humorous, and resourceful character who often helped the Cartwrights out of trouble. He also occasionally showed his martial arts skills and spoke some Chinese phrases.
A Mysterious Death
Victor Sen Yung died on October 31 or November 1, 1980, at the age of 65. His body was discovered on November 9 by a friend who went to check on him after not hearing from him for several days. The cause of death was determined to be natural gas poisoning from a gas leak in his home.
According to Wikipedia, Victor was creating clayware and curing them with an oven when he died. He ran a small mail-order business selling his pottery under the name Sen Yung’s Artistic Pottery. He had learned pottery from his father, who was a master potter in China. Victor was also interested in animal husbandry and had a collection of exotic birds.
The circumstances surrounding his death are unclear and somewhat suspicious. According to Hyperallergic, Victor’s death was ruled accidental by the coroner’s office, but some sources claim that it was a homicide or suicide. Some speculate that he was murdered by someone who wanted to rob him or silence him for some reason. Others suggest that he killed himself because he was depressed or lonely. However, there is no conclusive evidence to support either theory.
Victor Sen Yung was buried at Greenlawn Memorial Park in Colma, California. He left behind a legacy of memorable performances and artistic creations that have entertained and inspired generations of fans. He was one of the pioneers of Asian American representation in Hollywood and a versatile actor who could play comedy, drama, action, and romance. He was also a talented potter and a devoted animal lover. He will always be remembered as Jimmy Chan, Hop Sing, and Victor Sen Yung.