Tag Archives: Asian Actress

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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