December 15, 2015 — Year in Review (Part 2 — Shadow Play & Female Filmmakers in Vermont)

In July, after more than five years of work on the film, we officially wrapped principal photography on Finding KUKAN. Hooray! With the support of the National Endowment for the Arts we were finally able to collaborate with the creative geniuses behind ShadowLight Productions and Blind Design to produce and film the gorgeous shadow theater recreations for our film. The month we spent in a darkened studio warehouse space in Oakland was an experiential lesson for me in breaking through fear and frustration to create magic – the kind of magic that can only occur by working with others. You can view some behind the scenes photographs of our work process HERE, HERE, HERE and HERE.

Cast & Crew for FINDING KUKAN Shadow Scenes

Cast & Crew for FINDING KUKAN Shadow Scenes

 

The fall brought another major gift – being accepted as one of the four documentary fellows at the NALIP ARC Female Filmmaker Residency in North Troy, VT. Besides getting to see the fall colors and gorgeous VT landscape, I was able to workshop an early rough cut draft of Finding KUKAN with a group of super talented and supportive female filmmakers of diverse backgrounds. Their feedback and encouragement continues to inspire me to take this film to a new level.

2015 NALIP ARC Residency Participants

2015 NALIP ARC Residency Participants (photo by Adele Pham)

Thanks to the support of hundreds of people, we are on track to premiere Finding KUKAN in 2016 to celebrate two major anniversaries – the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the 75th anniversary of the Academy Award documentary category. Much work on the film still needs to be done: music composition, visual effects, sound design, color correcting, and licensing our archival elements. But we are taking a little holiday break to celebrate a very rewarding year and toast to the many adventures ahead.

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December 15, 2015 — Year in Review (Part 1 — Back to China & NEA Award)

I’m wrapping up 2015 by posting our mid-year newsletter first: I was thrilled to return to Chongqing this past April with FINDING KUKAN’s producer/editor Shirley Thompson and our translator/advisor Daxing Zhang to complete an historic transfer of KUKAN to China 74 years after it was first released in America.

Zhou Yong and Robin Lung

Zhou Yong and Robin Lung complete historic transfer of KUKAN to China.

After my July 2014 trip to Chongqing, Professor Zhou Yong, head of The Chongqing Research Center for the War of Resistance, immediately recognized the great historic value of KUKAN. He began working with us to acquire a copy of the film, and after 9 months of detailed email exchanges back and forth, we finally succeeded in reaching an agreement. The transfer helps bring a big part of missing history to China by making it possible for people all over China to watch KUKAN for the first time and to study it and write about it for many years to come. In Chongqing and Beijing, we watched KUKAN bring tears to people’s eyes as they viewed it. It was a moving testament to the power of film, and I have to thank our many supporters for that experience. Click HERE for more photos from our trip.

Shirley Thompson, Daxing Zhang, and Robin Lung

Shirley Thompson, Daxing Zhang, and Robin Lung

While in China we received news that the National Endowment for the Arts awarded FINDING KUKAN with a Media Arts grant. We are very proud to receive this honor which places us in the same group as hallowed institutions like Lincoln Center and The Met. The award meant that we could finally produce and film the historical montages we’ve been planning with our creative partners ShadowLight Productions and Chris Do of Blind design studio. Check Part 2 of our 2015 wrap up for a report on our July adventure into shadowland.

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December 2, 2014 — Year in Review (Part 3 – July FIRST TRIP TO CHINA!)

After four months, I’m still trying to digest all the new experiences and things I learned on my first trip to China in July – a study tour focused on World War II history. Currently the average high school world history class in the United States spends less than 15 minutes a year teaching about World War II in Asia. Back in my day, it was even less than that. So this trip was a real eye-opener even though I’d been studying up on the subject for the past few years. A fellowship from the New Jersey chapter of The Alliance for Learning and Preserving the History of World War II in Asia (ALPHA) and a generous donation from Douglas Ho and the Beatrice M.H. Young Foundation made my whole trip possible. I’m grateful to them and all my traveling companions who enhanced my experience.

2014 ALPHA Study Tour group on the Shanghai Bund (photo by Louis Au)

2014 ALPHA Study Tour group on the Shanghai Bund
(photo by Louis Au)

 

Toronto ALPHA organizes the study tour to help high school teachers create curriculum material currently missing from classrooms. Although we did pause for photo-ops and many great Chinese and Korean meals, much of the tour was spent in study and reflection on serious topics, and once-in-a-lifetime meetings with survivors of the war.

Shanghai was our first stop and a good preparation for what was to come, shattering many pre-conceived notions that I had about China and mainland Chinese people. First of all, I was not interrogated by immigration or strip searched by customs officials or “shanghai’ed” by the taxi driver.  In fact, as the taxi took me to our hotel from the Pudong Airport late Friday night, Shanghai seemed disappointingly western.  The miles of tall apartment buildings leading into the central part of the city reminded me of the suburbs surrounding NYC. The billboards advertised western luxury brand goods and featured Hollywood movie stars like George Clooney. As soon as we neared the center of the city we also hit NYC-style traffic.

Shanghai is a vibrant mixture of old and new, east and west

Shanghai is a vibrant mixture of old and new, east and west

 

Since I’m a lazy blogger with a poor memory, I refer you to fellow traveler Don Tow’s excellent wrap-up of our trip and my roommate Debra Maller’s day by day blog to get a better idea of all the sites we visited and people we spoke to.

My study tour roommate Debra Maller with our tour documenter Louis Au outside the Shanghai Jewish Refugee museum. Proud that the Chinese took in Jews during WWII when other countries turned them away.

My study tour roommate Debra Maller with our tour documenter Louis Au outside the Shanghai Jewish Refugee museum. Proud that the Chinese took in Jews during WWII when other countries turned them away.

 

For me, learning of the abuses of women during the war was particularly emotional. The reality of the situation hit home for me when we visited a former “comfort station” in Shanghai, the former residence of the Chen’s, a wealthy family who fled Shanghai when the Japanese military invaded the city in 1937.

 

Outside Shanghai "comfort woman" house with Betty Ma and tour organizer Judy Cho (photo by Louis Au)

Outside Shanghai “comfort woman” house with Betty Ma and tour organizer Judy Cho (photo by Louis Au)

 

The Japanese military took over the house to use as a brothel for their troops and forced women that they kidnapped to live there and provide sex to the men.  About 40 women were kept in the house during the war.  It was a powerful emotional experience to be in the actual location where these women were imprisoned and abused. The place felt haunted.  I could sense the helplessness of the women who were forced to service the men and the despair they must have lived with.

Courtyard of Shanghai "comfort women" house

Courtyard of Shanghai “comfort women” house

 

Second floor room of Shanghai "comfort women" house (photo by Louis Au)

Second floor room of Shanghai “comfort women” house (photo by Louis Au)

 

The fact is that sexual slavery and the abuse of women still goes on all over the world.  How can we stop it?  On the last leg of our trip I was heartened to meet the Korean grandmas in Seoul, surviving “comfort women” who had become activists to help other women suffering sexual abuse. Their ability to survive to find enjoyment and purpose in life made me realize that humanity is also capable of great good. Their activism and commitment to sharing very painful personal stories so others might not have to suffer was deeply inspirational.

 

Grandma Gil, one of the Korean "comfort women" we met at the War and Women's Human Rights Museum in Seoul

Grandma Gil, one of the Korean “comfort women” we met at the War and Women’s Human Rights Museum in Seoul

 

86 year old Grandma Gil continues to advocate for women in weekly demonstrations in Seoul.  She was forced into sexual slavery at 13 years old.

86 year old Grandma Gil continues to advocate for women in weekly demonstrations in Seoul. She was forced into sexual slavery at 13 years old.

 

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Don Tow, Robin Lung, and Judy Cho at memorial to Kim Hak-Soon, the first woman to publicly testify to being a sexual slave to the Japanese military during World War II

Don Tow, Robin Lung, and Judy Cho at memorial to Kim Hak-Soon, the first woman to publicly testify to being a sexual slave to the Japanese military during World War II

 

Many of the World War II atrocities we learned about on the tour are compilations of personal histories that have almost been lost and are only now being able to be told due to the diligent work of individual scholars or brave individuals who have gone public with their stories despite the public shame or government disapproval that has come with it.  As our learning sessions continued, I began to see that every country and every generation within each country has a different way of remembering history and using history to forge a path to the future. There are also forces in every country that cause large chunks of history to be suppressed or forgotten. America is no exception. How much of our own history has been lost or forgotten? And why?

Our group after touring the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall

Our group after touring the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall

 

The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall is built near the site of a mass grave of 10,000 victims and displays some of the remains excavated near the site. A gruesome reminder of the horrors of war.

The Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall is built near the site of a mass grave of 10,000 victims and displays some of the remains excavated near the site. A gruesome reminder of the horrors of war.

 

At the John Rabe House study tour leader FLora Chong and Judy Cho greet Nanjing Massacre survivor Ding Zheng Lan who was sheltered in the Safety Zone created by Rabe and several other westerners who remained in Nanjing during the massacre in 1937.

At the John Rabe House study tour leader FLora Chong and Judy Cho greet Nanjing Massacre survivor Ding Zheng Lan who was sheltered in the Safety Zone created by Rabe and several other westerners who remained in Nanjing during the massacre in 1937.

 

Nothing like restorative noodle soup after studying about wartime massacres. One of my favorite China meals was at the Nanjing airport.

Nothing like restorative noodle soup after studying about wartime massacres. One of my favorite China meals was at the Nanjing airport.

 

Why would you eat at the airport McDonalds when this is available?

Why would you eat at the airport McDonalds when this is available?

 

The highlight of my trip came after the official study tour was over and I traveled to Chongqing, the wartime capital of China where much of KUKAN was filmed. I was able to stand at the very place that Rey Scott filmed scenes of the bombing of Chongqing that made KUKAN famous.

View of Chongqing from the south bank of the Yangtze

View of Chongqing from the south bank of the Yangtze

 

I also screened KUKAN for a group of about 30 historians in Chongqing.They were clearly moved by the scenes of their city being decimated by the Japanese bombs. They had never heard of KUKAN before even though many of them had spent their academic careers studying the war. The film represented the most complete record of the bombing of Chongqing that they had ever seen and contained a treasure trove of images from all the locations in China where Rey Scott filmed.They applauded Li Ling-Ai and Rey Scott’s heroic effort in making the film and my effort to bring it to their attention. As a struggling filmmaker, knowing that a piece of work can have an impact beyond one’s lifetime helps keep me motivated when the chips are down.  I hope to have more news about a return trip to China soon.

Scholars in Chongqing view the 1941 KUKAN - screened in China for the first time.

Scholars in Chongqing view the 1941 KUKAN – screened in China for the first time.

 

Chongqing's central shopping square is anchored by the People's Liberation Monument, built in 1945 to commemorate the victory over the Japanese in WWII. It was renamed in 1950 to commemorate the Communist conquest of the area. Even monuments change to fit the popular mood of the times.

Chongqing’s central shopping square is anchored by the People’s Liberation Monument, built in 1945 to commemorate the victory over the Japanese in WWII. It was renamed in 1950 to commemorate the Communist conquest of the area. Even monuments change to fit the popular mood of the times.

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November 29, 2014 — Year in Review (Part 2 – New York in June)

New York in June could only be made possible by the hospitality of longtime friend Peer Just. A free place to stay in New York meant that I could funnel some of our funds towards filming two crucial interviews with Asian American scholar Judy Wu and the award-winning author Danke Li. Both provided important insights into Li Ling-Ai’s motivations and how World War II transformed the everyday lives of women in both the United States and China. Answering the last-minute call for camera help were our New York go-to DP Frank Ayala and another longtime friend Ruth Bonomo.

Leaving NYC home base for a day of production on Long Island -- first the subway, then the train, then the ferry.

Leaving NYC home base for a day of production on Long Island — first the subway, then the train, then the ferry.

 

Judy Wu, author of DR. MOM CHUNG, took time out from her Port Jefferson vacation to sit for a great interview. Ruth Bonomo pitched in as DP on short notice, providing wheels, camera and lights. Judy's family fed us a great spaghetti dinner beachside. Signing K for KUKAN!

Judy Wu, author of DR. MOM CHUNG, took time out from her Port Jefferson vacation to sit for a great interview. Ruth Bonomo pitched in as DP on short notice, providing wheels, camera and lights. Judy’s family fed us a great spaghetti dinner beachside. Signing K for KUKAN!

 

DP Frank Ayala with Danke Li, author of ECHOES OF CHONGQING, WOMEN IN WARTIME CHINA

DP Frank Ayala with Danke Li, author of ECHOES OF CHONGQING, WOMEN IN WARTIME CHINA

 

A visit to New York also meant I got to hang out with Calamity Chang, who has volunteered to record temporary voice over lines that allow us to edit our historical scenes. Calamity constantly inspires me by her willingness to embrace her performance instincts and bare it all in her wonderfully tongue-in-cheek burlesque shows. She also knows her Chinese history and promotes projects like ours that bring it to the forefront. Her musician/photographer husband Mike Webb put in hours of free time as our sound man while dog Chewie quietly put up with our intrusion. After a super long recording session on a sunny Sunday afternoon, we all needed a New York specialty cocktail.

 

Going over scripts with Calamity Chang.

Going over scripts with Calamity Chang.

 

Musician and Photographer Mike Webb pitches in as sound man to record our temporary voice over tracks.

Musician and Photographer Mike Webb pitches in as sound man to record our temporary voice over tracks.

 

Chewie after a long recording session

Chewie after a long recording session

 

One of the killer cocktails I had in NYC featuring cucumber and gin

One of the killer cocktails I had in NYC featuring cucumber and gin

 

Just being in NYC is a real shot in the arm for a filmmaker. Visual stimulation is everywhere and so are other artists whose very existence and work are like cheers from the sidelines.

 

Inspiration from Steven Salmieri and his wife Sydney Michelle

Inspiration from Steven Salmieri and his wife Sydney Michelle

 

Inspiration from artist, hat designer and jewelry maker Carol Markel

Inspiration from artist, hat designer and jewelry maker Carol Markel

 

Inspiration from my husband Paul Levitt who is designing a book with Dana Martin about his visit with Man Ray

Inspiration from my husband Paul Levitt who is designing a book with Dana Martin about his visit with Man Ray

 

More inspiration from a screening and Q&A with D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus

More inspiration from a screening and Q&A with D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus

 

Before my New York trip I got word that I received a fellowship to go to China to join a group of high school educators form Canada and New Jersey on a World War II centered study tour. It would be my first trip there, so China was on my mind.

 

Looking ahead to China in July at the Ai Wei Wei exhibit in Brooklyn

Looking ahead to China in July at the Ai Wei Wei exhibit in Brooklyn

 

Imagining China

Imagining China

 

China Kitsch

China Kitsch

 

Li Ling-Ai’s spirit is also close at hand when I am in NYC. Her great friend Larry Wilson offered to point out the third floor apartment where she spent most of her life on West 55th street. The breeze picked up and the trees outside the apartment did a dance as we looked up to the third floor.

 

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November 29, 2014 — Year in Review (Part 1- More Editing)

Wow, I can’t believe it’s been a whole year since my last blog. Let me assure you, we have been busy and the film is progressing in remarkable ways. It’s just that sometimes a Facebook post is easier to do than putting down a whole blog paragraph. Thinking back on the past year, I groan at the thought of all the grant applications I wrote, and the many tweaks we made to our work-in-progress video. But I also have a great sense of accomplishment knowing that the film has gotten stronger with every grant application. The year contained several highlights, including breakthrough edit sessions, a production trip to New York, my FIRST TRIP TO CHINA, and a wonderful work-in-progress workshop on the prestigious LBGT film festival cruise Pride of the Ocean.

Because of the generous donations of a lot of people, we managed to get into the edit room several times this year. Turning 100 hours of accumulated footage into a compelling story is a time-consuming and often tedious process, involving hours of transcribing interviews, logging b-roll footage, writing and re-writing narration lines, and hunting for obscure historical photos and film footage.

Robin records temporary narration in the sound-proof storage closet at Rubber Stamp Plantation in Honolulu

Robin records temporary narration in the sound-proof storage closet at Rubber Stamp Plantation in Honolulu

 

Luckily producer/editor Shirley Thompson has the real heart of gold she advertises and comes to work with a sharp storytelling scalpel. I took stock after our last edit session which ended the Friday before Thanksgiving — we are 1/3 of the way through our rough cut!! And the remaining 20 scenes are clearly mapped out and ready to be attacked as soon as more funding comes in.

 

Shirley Thompson and Robin Lung wrap up the last day of a 2-week edit session

Shirley Thompson and Robin Lung wrap up the last day of a 2-week edit session just in time for Thanksgiving. Counting our blessings for the many folks who’ve gotten us this far.

 

It’s a great landmark in the life of our film. We couldn’t have gotten this far without the support of over 300 individual donors and the encouragement of film fans from far and wide.

 

Three Act paper edit - Done! Thanks to the great writing software tool named Scrivener (no they did not pay me to say that)

Three Act paper edit – Done! Thanks to the great writing software tool named Scrivener (no they did not pay me to say that)

 

Help us get to the finish line in 2015 with a tax deductible donation by clicking on the red donate button to the right. Continue reviewing FINDING KUKAN’s year in the next few posts….

 

 

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October 8, 2013 — Oscar History Giveaways

I’m so thrilled to announce that with one week to go in our “10K in 10wks Keep This Film Alive” campaign, we’ve raised 85% of our goal — $8,515 raised with $1,485 to go. The funds will allow us to start editing a rough cut of the film on November 12! To celebrate, we are going to give away TWO FINDING KUKAN SOUVENIRS – a large canvas tote bag featuring an image of Li Ling-Ai (the un-credited producer of KUKAN); and a 18”X24” replica of the original KUKAN poster, suitable for framing.

 

FINDING KUKAN Souvenir Tote Bag

FINDING KUKAN Souvenir Canvas Tote Bag

 

18" X 24" KUKAN Souvenir Poster

18″ X 24″ KUKAN Souvenir Poster

 

 

To enter the drawing for these Oscar history collectibles simply “LIKE” our page on Facebook HERE.  If you are already a Facebook fan, you can enter by sharing any post on our Facebook Page that is titled “SHARE THIS”.  If you are not a Facebook person, you can enter the drawing by sharing this link in a blog post or email to a friend (make sure to copy info[at]findingkukan[dot]com).  We will pick the lucky two winners on November 12, our first day of editing.

This story is empowered by the people who share it.  My heartfelt thanks to all of you for helping to keep this story alive.  Aloha, Robin

p.s.  you can still make a tax deductible contribution to our 10k goal by clicking HERE.

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The Power of the Press, Part 2 — Roy Cummings

A blog in sup­port of FINDING KUKAN’s 10K in 10weeks “Keep This Film Alive Campaign”.

How was the pioneering female reporter May Day Lo connected to KUKAN’s co-producer Li Ling-Ai? Leads to that question had dried up for me a long time ago. Then last November Honolulu Star-Advertiser reporter Mike Gordon wrote a big feature article about FINDING KUKAN. I received a number of enthusiastic emails about the article and one strange phone call.

“I’m so mad!” Those were the first words Susan Cummings said to me. “I’m sure he knew her. If only he were still here, he could tell you.” She was referring to her husband who was no longer alive. To tell you the truth, I thought Susan might be a raving lunatic. But as we talked longer I realized that Susan’s late husband was Roy Cummings. He’d been a reporter at the Honolulu Advertiser in 1937, the same year KUKAN‘s director Rey Scott started working there. Like Rey Scott, he had roots in Missouri. Roy was also notable for trying to unionize the Advertiser at that time. Susan told me he was fired for doing so, was almost run over in a parking lot, and blackballed by the Honolulu Star-Bulletin too. It would take Roy Cummings another 12 years to establish the Hawaii Newspaper Guild in 1949. He seemed just like the kind of guy that Rey Scott would gravitate to.

Roy Cummings

Roy Cummings founded the Hawaii Newspaper Guild in 1949 (photo courtesy of Honolulu Star-Bulletin)

 

Coincidentally Roy’s first wife Margaret Kam had been a “person of interest” to me when I was trying to hunt down the real life inspirations for the detective Lily Wu. Because Margaret was a colorful character too – a Chinese actress and reporter in Hawaii who had the gumption to marry a white guy at a time when traditional Chinese families still frowned upon those things.

Margaret Kam (center) mans the all female copy desk at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin during WWII (courtesy Susan Cummings)

Margaret Kam (center) mans the all female copy desk at the Honolulu Star-Bulletin during WWII (courtesy Susan Cummings)

 

Once I made the connection, the conversation with Susan started sparking with names and situations from Roy Cummings’s past. I mentioned that I had been trying to find information on the Star Bulletin reporter May Day Lo, and Susan exclaimed, “May Day Lo was Roy’s first love!” It turns out that Roy and May Day went to journalism school together in Missouri. Roy fell in love with May Day and followed her out to Hawaii.

May Day Lo and Roy Cummings (center) gather with fellow University of Missouri journalism students in downtown Columbia

May Day Lo and Roy Cummings (center) gather with fellow University of Missouri journalism students in downtown Columbia

 

Now I was the one who was mad that Roy was no longer alive. I felt sure that he’d been acquainted with Li Ling-Ai and Rey Scott in one way or another. He probably could have provided some interesting stories about the two of them and the making of KUKAN. Susan graciously invited me over to her house in Lanikai to look at Roy’s photograph from the time period – the next best thing to meeting the man in person.

Susan Cummings with portrait

Susan Cummings with Wyeth portrait

 

Susan Cummings hunts for clues her husband's photo albums

Susan Cummings hunts for clues in her husband’s photo albums

Roy’s photos put more flesh and blood on what had previously been merely names on a page. They also gave me some insight into the lifestyle Rey Scott must have experienced when he first arrived here.

Aloha Tower in the mid 1930s (photo courtesy Susan Cummings)

Aloha Tower in the mid 1930s (photo courtesy Susan Cummings)

 

Roy Cummings's Waikiki Shack

Like Roy Cummings, Rey Scott holed up in Waikiki when he first got to Hawaii. Could his room have looked like this? (photo courtesy of Susan Cummings)

 

But the photos didn’t do much to fill in the gaps of the KUKAN story. In fact they brought up more questions than answers. Susan herself was mystified as to what happened between May Day Lo and Roy. Why had he married Margaret Kam instead of May Day? She’d never thought to ask Roy about it when he was alive. I wanted to know if anyone had saved May Day’s papers and if Ling-Ai’s letters or clues to KUKAN were amongst them.

Roy Cummings and May Day Lo in downtown Honolulu

Roy Cummings and May Day Lo in downtown Honolulu (photo courtesy Susan Cummings)

 

Egged on by mutual curiosity Susan and I exchanged a flurry of emails and research findings in the next few weeks. Susan proved to be a willing and able sleuth, and together we found out some very interesting things which I’ll share in future posts. For now I want to pay tribute to the “father of the Hawaii Newspaper Guild” and thank the ghost of Roy Cummings for putting Susan and I together. Of course the “power of the press” had a lot to do with it too.

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(As of 9/24/13 we have raised $7,165 and have $2,835 more to raise by 10/15/13)

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The Power of the Press: Part 1– May Day Lo

A blog in support of FINDING KUKAN’s 10K in 10weeks “Keep This Film Alive Campaign”.

In the Lily Wu detective novels by Juanita Sheridan one of the colorful sidekicks is a female reporter named Steve (Stephanie Dugan) who funnels information to her two amateur detective friends Lily and Janice. Since many of her fictional characters are based on real life people, I wondered if Sheridan based Steve on some of the ballsy female reporters who were breaking into newsrooms in the 1930s. So my ears pricked when I heard that Li Ling-Ai had a journalist friend in the 30s and 40s named May Day Lo. Yes, that is her real name, and no she was not even born in May.

May Day Lo at the University of Missouri (photo courtesy Susan Cummings)

May Day Lo at the University of Missouri (photo courtesy Susan Cummings)

 

In the mid 1930s May Day Lo made history by being one of the first Asian American women hired to report for a major daily newspaper. The progressive Honolulu Star-Bulletin hired Lo and Ah Jook Ku after they graduated from the University of Missouri Journalism School. May Day Lo also broke ground at Journalism School by being the first “exchange student” accepted there (remember, Hawaii was still a territory and not officially part of the United States).

May Day Lo Exchange Student at University of Missouri

How does a girl from Hilo get to Missouri in 1933?

 

Notably, in 2010 when the Asian American Journalists Association put together a list of pioneering Asian journalists, a majority of them were from Hawaii. AAJA historian Chris Chow commented, “Hawaii was more open to multiculturalism. There was recognition that this is an important market and you’d better well serve them (Asian-Americans) if you want to make any money.”

Back in the 30’s, the Star Bulletin seemed to cover stories about local Asians more comprehensively than the rival Honolulu Advertiser.  And May Day Lo’s byline was on several early articles written about Li Ling-Ai, including the one that probably prompted Advertiser reporter Rey Scott to call Li Ling-Ai into his office for an interview on that fateful night in 1937 when plans for making KUKAN were first hatched.

 

Li Ling-Ai appears on the front page of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 1937

Reporter May Day Lo gives front page coverage to fellow Chinese American pioneer — Li Ling-Ai (aka Gladys Li)

 

I love knowing that a petite Chinese woman who was raised by a reverend in Hilo was the first exchange student at the prestigious University of Missouri School of Journalism and that the power of her pen brought attention to another pioneering Chinese young woman in a way that changed her life forever. I wanted to find out more about May Day Lo, especially when I found an intriguing letter from her to Li Ling-Ai:

July 31, 1941,
Dear Li Ling Ai,
Now that I am home again, it all seems like a dream that I met you and all the others in New York and had such a wonderful time…. Please give my Aloha to Mrs. James Young, Rey Scott and Mr. Ripley when you see them.

May Day Lo had been in New York right around the time when KUKAN premiered at the World Theater just off Broadway! She had met both Rey Scott and Robert Ripley – two key players in Li Ling-Ai’s life at the time. Could May Day hold clues to some of the unsolved mysteries surrounding KUKAN?

Unfortunately May Day had died in a tragic car accident in 1986. May Lee Chung, editor of the ACUW publication that documents so many pioneering Chinese women’s lives (see other posts about this “Orange Bible”), could remember clearly the circumstances of May Day’s death. But she did not know what had become of May Day’s only child David, someone who might be able to tell me more. The trail remained cold until the Power of the Press struck again in 2011. Stay tuned…

Support our 10K in 10 Weeks campaign by clicking the red button.  Make a Secure Donation Now

(As of 9/6/13 we have raised $5,025 and have $4,975 more to raise by 10/15/13)

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Soo Yong – Another Chinese Woman We Should Know More About – Part 2

A blog in support of FINDING KUKAN’s 10K in 10weeks “Keep This Film Alive Campaign”.

A family story often told about Soo Yong (born Ahee Young) is that when she was four or five years old her father became gravely ill and summoned the family to hear his last words.  But Ahee was missing.  The family searched all over for her. They finally found her in Wailuku town.  She was completely mesmerized by the performance of a Chinese opera troupe who had come to town.  This is Soo Yong’s earliest dramatic memory.

Chinese Opera Performers in Hawaii

Chinese Opera Performers in Hawaii

 

Si it must have been a dream come true for Soo Yong when in 1930, at 28 years of age, she was chosen to accompany the most famous Chinese opera star of all time on a six-month tour of America.

SooYong & Mei Lanfang

Soo Yong acts as Mistress of Ceremonies for Mei Lanfang’s 1930 tour of America

 

Mei Lanfang was also idolized by Li Ling-Ai whose dramatic interests were stirred up by Chinese opera performances her father took her to when she was a young girl. During his 1930 tour Mei stopped in Honolulu and Li Ling-Ai had a chance to meet him.

Members of Hawaii's ACUW greet Mei Lanfang

Photo from the ACUW publication TRADITIONS FOR LIVING

 

A year or so later Li Ling-Ai left on her second trip to China and told newspaper reporters she intended to study with the great man – a lofty goal for a recent graduate of the University of Hawaii.  I wondered if Soo Yong’s insider position emboldened Li Ling-Ai to approach the great Mei for lessons.

 

Honolulu Star Bulletin article about Li Ling-Ai

Honolulu Star Bulletin Article from August 6, 1932

 

I found no subsequent mention of Li Ling-Ai studying with Mei Lanfang.  But several biographies of Li state that she studied privately with the famous dancer Chu Kuei Fang.  It was hard to find any mention of Chu Kuei Fang on the internet and I began to doubt Li Ling-Ai’s claims.  But in Soo Yong’s personal scrapbook that was donated to the University of Hawaii, I discovered Chu listed as a performer in a 1930 program for Mei Lanfang’s tour.

 

1930 Mei Lanfang Tour Program

Chu Kue-Fang performs on the same program as Mei Lanfang

 

Chu must have been very accomplished to share stage time with the great Mei Lanfang.  I wonder if this old photo, found amongst Li Ling-Ai’s possessions, is of Chu Kuei Fang.  If anyone can positively identify the man in the photo, please let me know.

Li Ling-Ai with Chinese dancers

Could the man behind Li Ling-Ai be Chu Kuei-Fang?

 

Soo Yong and Li Ling-Ai also shared a passion for helping their Chinese homeland during the Japanese invasion of the country.  As early as 1937 Soo Yong was performing in benefits to aid Chinese refugees.

December 1937 Soo Yong hosts tea for China Relief

December 1937 Soo Yong hosts tea for China Relief

 

1937 was also the year that Li Ling-Ai sent Rey Scott to China so that the story of the people of China could be told in photographs and film – the film would eventually become KUKAN.  Whether Soo Yong was a role model for Li Ling-Ai or simply another extraordinary Chinese woman who became a political activist when war came we might never know.  But one thing’s for certain — we should definitely know more about her than we do.

 

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Soo Yong: Another Chinese Woman We Should Know More About — Part I

Could the Chinese American actress Soo Yong have been an inspiration for the fictional Lily Wu? (photo courtesy of Barbara Wong)

Could the Chinese American actress Soo Yong have been an inspiration for the fictional Lily Wu? (photo courtesy of Barbara Wong)

 

I’m starting a 10-week blog-a-thon in support of our 10K in 10weeks “Keep This Film Alive Campaign”. The goal: get us back into the edit room on October 15 to finish a rough cut of FINDING KUKAN. What better way to kick off that effort than to re-visit my search for LILY WU – the fictional detective created by author Juanita Sheridan. According to Lily’s friend and Watson-like companion Janice Cameron, “Lily is a chameleon. She can change effortlessly into whatever character the occasion requires…” Lily is also smarter, sexier and more worldly than most of the Caucasian characters she runs into.

 

Chinese Women Pioneers in Hawaii

This book, published by the Associated Chinese University Women of Hawaii, is a wonderful collection of short bios


While trying to locate the real life inspirations for Lily Wu I recall poring over what I now think of as THE ORANGE BIBLE (see photo above) and stopping short at the entry for Soo Yong. Why? Because Soo Yong was a Chinese movie star from Hawaii! She appeared glamorous and gutsy, running away from a restrictive small town life in Wailuku, Maui for the more cosmopolitan Honolulu where she put herself through school at the University of Hawaii and then Columbia University in NYC. She was just the kind of woman who might have inspired Juanita Sheridan to create Lily Wu. 
But my interest in Soo Yong tailed off when I discovered that Soo Yong had left Hawaii before Juanita Sheridan arrived there, making it unlikely that the two women were friends.

My interest in Soo Yong was re-ignited when Li Ling-Ai’s sole surviving sister mentioned that Ling-Ai had spent time in Hollywood and had been friendly with a Chinese actress from Maui. Sure enough, a keyword search through the Los Angeles Times brought up a 1936 article placing Soo Yong and Li Ling-Ai together in Hollywood:


“East is east and west is west, and the two of them met last Tuesday afternoon at Joine Alderman’s Salon. The east was personified by a lovely Chinese lady whose name and voice are poetry itself, Li Ling Ai. Clad in her native black satin robes, embroidered in gold and silver and shining colors, she told the forty or so debs who comprise the salon about her native country. … And her words about the beauties of Pekin and her studies in ancient philosophy were translated to the debs by another Chinese-robed lady, Soo Yung.”


The gossip column inaccurately assumed that Ling-Ai could not speak English and Soo Yong was there merely as a translator, but it whetted my appetite to learn more about Soo Yong. Could she have been a mentor or role model for Li Ling-Ai?

 

Clark Gable and Soo Yong in The China Seas

Clark Gable and Soo Yong in The China Seas

 


Being an old movie nut, one of the first things I did was rent one of the Clark Gable movies Soo Yong had been in, China Seas. Although the movie depicts most Chinese in stereotypical coolie roles, Soo Yong convincingly plays a high-brow Chinese aristocrat who out-classes Gable’s ex-girlfriend played by Jean Harlow. This small 1935 role would lead to Yong playing two parts in the 1937 hit The Good Earth. She was also Jack Soo’s mother in Flower Drum Song and had supporting roles in Soldier of Fortune with Clark Gable, Peking Express with Joseph Cotton, and Love is a Many Splendored Thing with Jennifer Jones. Why we don’t know much about her may be because she was never able to have a full-fledged Hollywood movie career.

In 1935 Soo Yong advised islanders that Asians have "A Chinaman's Chance" of breaking into Hollywood.

In 1935 Soo Yong advised islanders that Asians have “A Chinaman’s Chance” of breaking into Hollywood.


In the 1930s Soo Yong was interviewed by Loui Leong Ho
p for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin:

“When asked about the possibility for local-born orientals to break into the talkies, she simply said, “A Chinese has a Chinaman’s Chance.” Explaining further on this point Miss Young stated that at present the Hollywood studios are name crazed. If there’s a production which required an oriental to play the part, the Hollywood producers would invariably select one of their more famous actors or actresses.”

Unfortunately not much has changed in Hollywood, and Asians still struggle to find starring roles on the big screen.

SooYong Lecture brochure

Soo Yong, Interpreter of China to America


Soo Yong would eventually make a living on the lecture circuit, performing entertaining Chinese monologues to educate audiences around the country about Chinese culture. As of this date Soo Yong does not even have a Wikipedia page, but we should definitely know more about this pioneering Chinese American actress. Stay tuned for part two of this blog where I’ll write about some amazing discoveries I found in Soo Yong’s personal scrapbook.

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