In early 1930s, crime stories featuring Oriental themes or characters were very popular. In 1934, author Hugh Wiley created his contribution to the subgenre--James Lee Wong. Debuting in 1934 in a story entitled "Medium Well Done" in "Colliers" magazine, James Lee Wong was an educated, articulate Chinese-American sleuth whose expertise at solving crimes brings him into contact with the most brutal of murders, and a world of opium dens, Tong gangs, and other people and places the Chinatown underworld.
The James Lee Wong stories, later collected in a book titled "Murder by the Dozen", were very popular, and in 1938 Monogram Pictures licensed the film rights to the character. The "Poverty Row" production company scored a huge coup when it signed Boris Karloff to play James Lee Wong.
Monogram went onto make six "Mr. Wong" features, each with a running-time of just shy of 70 minutes. Karloff
played the character in five of the six movies in the series--"Mr. Wong, Detective" (1938) through "The Fatal
Hour" (1940). The films were sufficiently popular that when so that when Karloff left the series in 1940, Monogram
tried to continue it by casting Keye Luke, the actor who had formerly played Charlie Chan's number one son in the Fox films, to portray a younger Mr. Wong, referred to as Jimmy Wong, in "Phantom of Chinatown" (1941).
1. Mr. Wong, Detective (1938) - Boris Karloff:
When a chemical manufacturer is killed after asking detective James Wong (Boris Karloff) to help him, Wong investigates this and two subsequent murders. He uncovers a international spy ring hoping to steal the formula for a poison gas being developed by the first victim's company.
2. The Mystery of Mr. Wong (1939) – Boris Karloff:
The second in the series of Mr. Wong features starring Boris Karloff finds wealthy gem-collector Brandon Edwards gaining possession of the largest star sapphire in the world, the 'Eye of the Daughter of the Moon', after it has been stolen in China. Edwards, at a party in his home, confides to Mr. Wong that his life is in danger. During a game of Charades, Edwards is mysteriously shot dead and the gem disappears. Unknown to Wong, the jewel is in the possession of Edwards' maid, Drina, who intends to return it to China, but she is murdered also, and the gem is taken again. After one more murder -- the suspect list is dwindling -- Wong exposes the killer, turns him over to Police Inspector Street, and Wong departs to return the gem to China.
3. Mr. Wong in Chinatown (1939) – Boris Karloff:
A pretty Chinese woman, seeking help from San Francisco detective James Lee Wong, is killed by a poisoned dart in his front hall, having time only to scrawl "Captain J" on a sheet of paper. She proves to be Princess Lin Hwa, on a secret military mission for Chinese forces fighting the Japanese invasion. Mr. Wong (Boris Karloff) finds two captains with the intial J in the case, neither being quite what he seems; there's fog on the waterfront and someone still has that poison-dart gun.
4. Mr. Wong in Doomed to Die (1940) – Boris Karloff:
Shipping magnate Cyrus Wentworth, downcast over a disaster to his ocean liner 'Wentworth Castle' (carrying, oddly enough, an illicit shipment of Chinese bonds) is shot in his office...at the very moment of kicking out his daughter's fiancé Dick Fleming. Of course, Captain Street arrests Dick, but reporter Bobbie Logan, the attractive thorn in Street's side, is so convinced he's wrong that she enlists the help of detective James Lee Wong (Boris Karloff) to find the real killer.
5. Mr. Wong in Fatal Hour (1940) – Boris Karloff:
When Captain Street's best friend Dan O'Grady is murdered, Street enlists the help of Chinese detective James Lee Wong (Boris Karloff). Mr. Wong uncovers a smuggling ring on the waterfront of San Francisco and unmasks the killer, though not until several more murders occur.
6. Mr. Wong in Phantom of Chinatown (1940) – Keye Luke:
Detective James Lee Wong (Keye Luke) is on the scene as archeologist Dr. John Benton, recently returned from an expedition in China where a valuable ancient scroll was recovered, is murdered while giving a lecture on the expedition.