Tag Archives: Chinese American Women

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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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 KUKANs 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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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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