Western stars and “Hong Kong”

Sometimes the wealth of Rod Taylor material I want to share makes it hard to know where to begin. Just to start chipping away at the stack, I thought I’d post something simple: A single photograph.

One parade and a Mai Tai later, the story (as always) led in unexpected directions.

Rod Taylor
From left: Paul Brinegar (Rawhide), Sheb Woolley (Rawhide), Rod Taylor (Hong Kong), John Smith (Laramie), Luana Patten (actress & John Smith’s wife), James Arness (Gunsmoke), Henry Calvin (Zorro), Roger Smith (77 Sunset Strip), Victoria Shaw (actress & Roger Smith’s wife), Eric Fleming (Rawhide), Clint Eastwood (Rawhide), Betty Lynn (Texas John Slaughter), Tom Tryon (Texas John Slaughter).

Last year, I bought the above photo in an eBay auction of items from the James Arness family collection. The description said it was a group of CBS Western stars from the 1960s. Yes, there are several CBS TV stars, notably James Arness of “Gunsmoke” fame and Clint Eastwood from “Rawhide.” But there are also Disney stars and … Rod Taylor, star of of the ABC show “Hong Kong.”

What was the story behind this photo?

A plunge into Newspapers.com turned up the answer: These stars and more were part of San Francisco’s third annual Pacific Festival, held Sept. 9-18, 1960.

Specifically, the celebrities were featured in the festival’s Youth Parade on Sept. 10, 1960. The parade took three hours, starting at 4 p.m. at the Ferry Building and rolling up Market Street to the Civic Center. About 200,000 spectators lined the parade route to watch the procession of stars, bands, floats, Samurai swordsmen, a Chinese dragon, military units and costumed representatives from 44 nations around the Pacific Ocean.

James Arness — Marshal Matt Dillon of “Gunsmoke” — was the parade’s grand marshal and rode the route on horseback, as did some of the other Western stars. Other parade marshals were carried along on floats.

At the time, the premiere of Rod’s first TV show was about two weeks away, so naturally he rode on a float befitting “Hong Kong.” In looking for someone to accompany him on the float, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce reached out to Mai Tai Sing, the civic-minded owner of a local establishment.

A native of the Bay Area, Mai Tai Sing had been educated in Hong Kong and then returned to California as a teenager. She toured the U.S. as a dancer before joining her brothers in opening the Ricksha bar in San Francisco’s Chinatown. The popular cocktail lounge had a piano bar and attracted many show business types, including Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., Judy Garland and the Beatles.

At the conclusion of the parade, upon Mai Tai Sing’s invitation, Rod Taylor became another famous name at the Ricksha.

Not long after Rod returned Los Angeles and “Hong Kong,” Jack Kruschen left the show. He played Tully, owner of Tully’s Bar, a rough-and-tumble watering hole that was a prime locale in the TV series. Obviously a change in venue was needed and the decision was made to make a plush Chinese restaurant — the Golden Dragon — a new permanent set for the show.

Now the restaurant needed a hostess. Rod knew a natural — the hostess from the Ricksha in San Francisco.

“We kept in touch after he returned to Los Angeles,” Mai Tai Sing said in a January 1961 interview with columnist Joan Crosby, “but I wasn’t prepared later when he telephoned me to ask if I’d like to be in the series.”

Mai Tai Sing and the Golden Dragon made their “Hong Kong” debut in the show’s 13th episode, airing Dec. 21, 1960.

Reflecting on the first few episodes, Mai Tai told a Miami Herald interviewer in January 1961, “I find myself getting keyed up on the set. Acting is all so new to me. At such times, however, Rod has been wonderful. He’s quieted me down and told me to act natural, just the way I do in my own club in San Francisco.”

The two shared a brief romance and “Hong Kong” was canceled after another 13 episodes. Both Rod Taylor and Mai Tai Sing proceeded to have long lives and successful careers. Sing died in 2018, and you can read more about her in an excellent obituary in the Los Angeles Times.

Back to the mystery picture that started this post…. Here’s the full line-up of stars who were rounded up for the third annual Pacific Festival Youth Parade in 1960:

  • James Arness of “Gunsmoke.”
  • Rod Taylor of “Hong Kong.”
  • Eric Fleming, Sheb Wooley, Clint Eastwood and Paul Brinegar of “Rawhide.”
  • John Smith and Robert Fuller of “Laramie.”
  • Tom Tryon and Betty Lynn of “Texas John Slaughter.”
  • Henry Calvin of “Zorro.”
  • Roger Smith of “77 Sunset Strip.”
  • Kathy Nolan of “The Real McCoys.”
  • Actresses Luana Patten and Victoria Shaw.
  • Michael Landon and Pernell Roberts of “Bonanza.”
  • John Russell and Peter Brown of “Lawman.”
  • Richard Simmons of “Sergeant Preston of the Yukon.”
  • Don Sherwood, a San Francisco disc jockey.
  • Bob March of “Captain Satellite” in Oakland, California.