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Two future stars enhance tale of Chinese immigrant and white miner in California
"The Book" is one of a handful of "Death Valley Days" episodes to focus on the experiences of Asians in the old west. Here we see a Chinese immigrant named Wong Lee, newly arrived in the mining town of Calico, California, who is bullied upon his arrival by a henchman working for the town boss but then aided by a white man, Patrick Hogan, looking for work in the town. When Hogan is declared persona non grata for standing up to the henchman, he has no choice but to accept Wong's offer to stay with him in a little shack outside of town. It's not clear what Wong's aims are, but he has brought an array of pots and pans with him, so he might be looking for work as a cook. In fact, in one scene, he makes Chinese food for Hogan, prompting the aspiring miner to declare it the best thing he's ever eaten. Wong has an ancient book of wisdom, entirely in Chinese and held by his family for a thousand years, that he was willing to die for, a stance which led to his confrontation in the opening scene when the henchman was ready to shoot Wong for defending the book. Hogan can't believe such a book is worth dying for, but Wong eventually shares some numerological tidbits from it that lead to a plan to see if the book can predict gambling results at the local saloon. (The book is never identified by name, although I'm guessing it's the Book of I Ching.) Hogan's resultant good fortune at the roulette table incurs the wrath of Dawson, the town boss and saloon owner, leading to an unhappy finale.
It's a simple tale, but notable for the fact that George Takei plays Wong Lee, a year before he joined the "Star Trek" cast in the role of Sulu, and Tom Skerritt plays Hogan, years before a string of high-profile movie roles (M*A*S*H, ALIEN, TOP GUN) and TV stardom in "Picket Fences" (1992-96). Both actors are, as of this writing, happily still with us and still active 50-odd years after this episode. The actors give sensitive performances and make their odd couple, based on a true story, quite believable. Takei gives the vulnerable Wong, an easy target in this rough mining town, a quiet dignity and sense of history and millennia-old culture that the white townsmen find difficult to comprehend. Hogan at least, in his own small way, makes the effort to do so, although his greed gets the better of him. Also in the cast is perennial western villain Tris Coffin, who plays Dawson.
I saw this episode on the Encore Western Channel, which runs two episodes of "Death Valley Days" every afternoon as part of its TV western lineup.
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