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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