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

  1. It is Li Ling Ai’s birth­day today, May 19th! Thank you for cre­at­ing the won­der­ful doc­u­men­tary. It inspired me to blog about it at https://losangelesrevisited.blogspot.com. As a Chi­nese Amer­i­can woman and work­ing in the archives pro­fes­sion, the sto­ry and the jour­ney of the film­mak­er touched me.

    • robin says:

      Thanks so much for your won­der­ful blog, Elis­a­beth and the reminder of Li Ling-Ai’s birth­day. alo­ha, Robin

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