This is Bruce Locke. You may remember him from such films as Black Rain, The Shadow and especially Robocop 3, in which he played a trio of robot ninja assassins. Or maybe you were a fan of Mortal Kombat: Conquest, the live-action TV series based on the notorious arcade game, in which he played the evil sorcerer Shang Tsung, or any of his dozens of other television appearances.
Or maybe you remember him from high school. Locke, 48, is a fourth-generation Oregonian, a Cleveland High School grad whose family moved to Portland in the 1890s, a time when fear of Chinese immigrants in the Northwest was so rampant that the National Guard built a fortress—the First Regiment Armory Annex—to train troops in preparation for a possible Chinese uprising.
Now that building is known as the Gerding Theater at the Armory, where Locke is starring in a production of Snow Falling on Cedars, adapted from David Guterson's novel about the murder trial of a Japanese-American in the wake of World War II. We sat down with Locke to talk about history, family and prejudice.
WW: Tell me about your great-grandparents.
Bruce Locke: My great-grandparents were born here in Portland [and] in Spokane. We've been here since before 1900. We farmed barley. One of them actually owned a nightclub in Spokane that gave Bing Crosby his very first professional job, and he talks about our family's nightclub in his autobiography. And then on another side they actually ran one of the gambling parlors in Chinatown. Our family is pretty entrenched. My great-grandmother was one of the first property owners here in Oregon when it was illegal for Chinese to own property here. I think she bought it right around the Depression when no one had money. I think people were so short on money that they didn't really care who bought it.
Are there any stories of the discrimination that your family faced in Oregon?
There's so many I'm not sure where to start. My grandfather was one of the first Chinese to graduate with a college degree in accounting, and he couldn't find a job. He offered to work for an accounting firm for six months for free to prove he could do what a white man could do, and they said no. That made him pretty bitter. My parents, when my older brother was born, the hospital [wouldn't bill my parents]—my dad had to pay cash. My parents had a hard time finding an apartment. Even when we moved to the neighborhood we're in now—Eastmoreland—we were the first nonwhite family. Our neighbor passed a petition around to see if she could prevent us from moving into the neighborhood. That was when I was 5.
What does the Armory represent to you?
The first couple days of rehearsal, Chris Coleman, our director, was telling us about the history of the Armory, that it was built to protect the whites against a possible Chinese uprising. Apparently Portland had one of the largest populations of Chinese here in the Northwest, and we were of course subject to the exclusionary laws, which were anti-Chinese in nature. Our family had been here for a while by that time. I find it ironic that this building was built to protect against the Chinese, including my family. And now, 120 years later, I'm here doing a play about discrimination. And the people inside the Armory are the most gracious people you'll ever meet.
Does the show illuminate your family's experience for you in any way?
Although I'm Chinese-American, I grew up with a lot of the Japanese-Americans that lived this story. My friends' parents and grandparents were the ones at the camps. My family is intermarried with Japanese-Americans. So I have relatives, through marriage, that had this experience. This is not a new subject to me. I didn't find any factual information illuminating. I think the emotional information I found more illuminating. What we're doing is, we're reliving these terrible experiences, and every time you do something like that, and you work with wonderful actors, visceral emotions come up, that give you an idea of "If I had lived through this, what would I have felt?" Those images are really strong and very real.
Did you experience discrimination while growing up in Portland?
Not really. I think that, growing up, kids would look for ways to get under the skin of other kids, and I think that's normal. But as far as real discrimination, not really. I think I was aware of racism when I got into the entertainment industry. I think that is one of the last bastions of racism in our country—the entertainment industry. That has been a real eye-opener.... I've traveled to almost every state in metropolitan areas and rural areas, and almost everywhere I go people peg me as an American. They go, "You're probably from the West Coast." And if everyone knows when I walk into the room that that Chinese guy is probably American, why is it that Hollywood doesn't allow me to play an American? I have, but the majority of my roles I'm playing a fellow that is from another country, and I'm putting on an accent.
Do you find live theater to be more or less racist than working in television?
Less racist. In theater they're less apt to see color. And it's refreshing. They want to see somebody that can do the job, that has the talent, and that's what we all hope for when we go to work.
opens at 7:30 pm Friday, Jan. 15, at the Gerding Theater, 128 NW 11th Ave., 445-3700. It continues at 7:30 pm Tuesdays-Saturdays, 2 pm Sundays and noon Thursdays, alternating 2 pm Saturday and 7:30 pm Sunday matinees through Feb. 7. Tickets $30.50-$65, $15 under 18. $20 rush tickets available.