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.
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?
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 the 1930s Soo Yong was interviewed by Loui Leong Hop 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.
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.