Being the daughter of a world-famous comedian and movie star is not always easy. Add in identity issues of a mixed-race home, and you have an outright challenge on your hands. Just ask Rae Dawn Chong.
“One of the frustrations of being Tommy Chong’s daughter is that my grandfather was embarrassed of being Chinese,” reveals Chong, whose father is best known as one half of cannibis community superheroes Cheech & Chong. “I think my grandfather had great racial shame, which was hard on us growing up.”
Chong’s father is half Chinese, half Scotch-Irish. Her mother is black and Cherokee Indian.
“You get used to being on the outside looking in,” Chong recalls. “You are either/or. You’re not Chinese –– you’re not full-blooded Chinese. There’s a little bit of shame to it.”
Chong’s paternal grandfather left a very poor, broken home in China to live with an aunt in Vancouver during the ‘30s and ‘40s. Then, Chinese-Canadian immigrants were mostly sequestered in a small area in downtown Vancouver and he grew to feel a shame from his heritage.
“It was overcrowded, horrible and difficult,” Chong says. The experience left her grandfather “very broken, heartbroken.”
“I think he aspired to be gaijin, to be white,” Chong says. “He was definitely the opposite of Shanghainese. He wasn’t proud to be Chinese-Canadian at all.”
As a result, he married a white Scotch-Irish woman and did his best to “Westernize.” Though his family lived in Chinatown for a portion of Rae Dawn’s childhood, her grandfather shared little of the Chinese culture with them. Though he spoke fluent Cantonese, he refused to teach any of his children or grandchildren.
“We grew up desperate to know anything about our Chinese culture,” Chong relates. Eventually, she met extended family who were very proud to be Chinese-Canadian. Later in life, even her grandfather saw the error of his ways and embraced his heritage.
One bit that did not escape from her was the use of chopsticks, the first utensil she learned to eat with. She recalls Grandma Chong as often cooking excellent Chinese food for her grandfather.
But race and ethnicity were only two of the prisms that shaped Chong’s life views. She also lived a life of celebrity.
“It was filled with adventure. It had tragedy and lots of humor,” Chong says. “I wanted him to be more of a dad and less of an icon.”
Her father married multiple times, often seemed distant, and was, of course, heavily involved in the drug culture. All in all, many times it made him less than accessible.
“It’s been lovely on a lot of levels, and painful and just super, super hard on others,” Chong admits.
Still, having a parent in the entertainment industry opened doors for Chong and her sister. Soon, she rose to national fame in her own right with roles in films like Commando opposite Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and Quest for Fire.
This year also marks the 20-year anniversary of the Steven Spielberg epic, The Color Purple. Though she was “lucky to get swept up in that wave,” she says her experience with the film was “a mixed bag.”
“The big, big scene we auditioned for, the one that might have been considered maybe an Oscar scene, got cut,” she says. As a result, the film had little impact on her career.
Most recently, Chong filmed Deadly Skies, a made-for-television disaster movie also starring Antonio Sabato, Jr. Chong plays the lead, a scientist trying to save the earth using a super secret military laser to shoot down a giant asteroid about to collide with Earth. It will air on cable television later this summer. Chong says she had a really good time making the film.
“I carried this thing like it is Shakespeare,” she says. Though it’s only a disaster flick and not an awards-contender, Chong says, “I worked my butt off, and I’m proud of it.”
Chong is also proud of her 23-year-old son, a senior at Brown University. She says her father was an example of what not to do as a parent.
“I was given the gift and honor to have my baby and be given the responsibility of raising him,” Chong says. “I knew my son was going to be priority, more than anything. If it meant a job or an opportunity versus taking care of my kid, being with him or being his mother, I always picked my son first.”
“I’ve never been one to think of my body of work as anything more than 90 minutes of popcorn,” Chong says of her acting career. “That may be one of the reasons they’ve never done one of those ‘Intimate Portraits’ about me. Not that I don’t think my work is good, but just because I don’t do it for that reason.”
Rae Dawn Chong
Born: February 28, 1961
Birthplace: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Family: Daughter of Tommy Chong of Cheech & Chong and Maxine Sneed, son Morgan and divorced to actor C. Thomas Howell
Ethnicity: Chinese, Scotch-Irish, black and Cherokee Indian
Interesting: Was going to play Willis’s girlfriend on Different Strokes, but producers thought she wasn’t ethnic looking enough and cast Janet Jackson instead.
Acting/Film History: Deadly Skies (2005), Constellation (2005), Wild Card (2003), The Cursed Part 3 (2000) – Director/Writer/Producer, The Visit (Valentine’s Day) (1998), Highball (1997), The Alibi (1997), Mask of Death (1996), Crying Freeman (1995), Hideaway (1995), Boulevard (1994), Time Runner (1993), When the Party’s Over (1992), The Borrower (1991), Denial (1990), Far Out Man (1990), Tales from the Darkside: The Movie (1990), Rude Awakening (1989), The Principal (1987), The Squeeze (1987), Soul Man (1986), American Flyers (1985), City Limits (1985), Commando (1985), The Color Purple (1985), Beat Street (1984), Cheech & Chong’s The Corsican Brothers (1984), Choose Me (1984), Fear City (1984), Quest for Fire (1981)
Born: May 24, 1938
Birthplace: Edmonton Alberta, Canada
Family: Two children with first wife Maxine, Rae Dawn and Robbie, three children with second wife Shelby, Precious, Paris, and Gilbraun
Ethnicity: Chinese and Scotch-Irish
Interesting: Originally considered for the part of Shenzi alongside Cheech Marin in The Lion King (1994), but directors could not get a hold of him, so the part went to Whoopi Goldberg.
Acting/Film History: Secret Agent 420 (2005), Best Buds (2003) – Director/Writer/Producer, That ‘70s Show (1998), The Wash (2001), Half Baked (1998), McHale’s Navy (1997), Senior Trip (1995), FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992), Life After Sex (1992), The Sprint of ’76 (1990), Far Out Man (1990) – Director, Tripwire (1990), After Hours (1985), Get Out of My Room (1985), Cheech & Chong’s The Corsican Brothers (1984) – Writer, Yellowbeard (1983), Things Are Tough All Over (1982), Nice Dreams (1981), Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie (1980), Up in Smoke (1978) – Writer
Born: May 28, 1965
Birthplace: Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada
Family: Half-sister of Rae Dawn Chong
Ethnicity: Chinese, Scotch-Irish, black American
Interesting: An international cover girl who joined the Click Modeling Agency at age 19.
Acting/Film History: Red Shoe Diaries 12: Girl on a Bike (2000), The Outer Limits (1999), Poltergeist: The Legacy (1995), Fatally Yours (1995), Murder One (1995), Jimmy Hollywood (1994), Far Out Man (1990), The Cosby Show (1988), Securite Publique (1987), Cheech & Chong’s The Corsican Brothers (1984), You Bet Your Life (1992)
Born: July 8, 1967
Birthplace: Seattle, Washington
Family: Brother of Rae Dawn Chong and adopted son of Tommy Chong
Ethnicity: Chinese and black American
Interesting: Refused to do The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolution due to salary disputes –– the studio offered him $250,000, but he demanded $500,000.
Acting/Film History: The Crow: Wicked Prayer (2005), The Matrix (1999), High Freakquency (1998), Pure Danger (1996), Panther (1995), Vanishing Son IV (1994), Vanishing Son II (1994), Vanishing Son (1994), American Heart (1992), Flight of Black Angel (1991), Street Justice (1991), The Knife and Gun Club (1990), Evil Alter (1989), The Facts of Life (1982), Blood Beach (1981), Little House on the Prairie (1978)
— Victor Wong