Tag Archives: Hawaii

The Power of the Press: Part 1– May Day Lo

A blog in support of FINDING KUKAN’s 10K in 10weeks “Keep This Film Alive Campaign”.

In the Lily Wu detec­tive nov­els by Juani­ta Sheri­dan one of the col­or­ful side­kicks is a female reporter named Steve (Stephanie Dugan) who fun­nels infor­ma­tion to her two ama­teur detec­tive friends Lily and Jan­ice. Since many of her fic­tion­al char­ac­ters are based on real life peo­ple, I won­dered if Sheri­dan based Steve on some of the ball­sy female reporters who were break­ing into news­rooms in the 1930s. So my ears pricked when I heard that Li Ling-Ai had a jour­nal­ist friend in the 30s and 40s named May Day Lo. Yes, that is her real name, and no she was not even born in May.

May Day Lo at the University of Missouri (photo courtesy Susan Cummings)

May Day Lo at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri (pho­to cour­tesy Susan Cum­mings)

 

In the mid 1930s May Day Lo made his­to­ry by being one of the first Asian Amer­i­can women hired to report for a major dai­ly news­pa­per. The pro­gres­sive Hon­olu­lu Star-Bul­letin hired Lo and Ah Jook Ku after they grad­u­at­ed from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri Jour­nal­ism School. May Day Lo also broke ground at Jour­nal­ism School by being the first “exchange stu­dent” accept­ed there (remem­ber, Hawaii was still a ter­ri­to­ry and not offi­cial­ly part of the Unit­ed States).

May Day Lo Exchange Student at University of Missouri

How does a girl from Hilo get to Mis­souri in 1933?

 

Notably, in 2010 when the Asian Amer­i­can Jour­nal­ists Asso­ci­a­tion put togeth­er a list of pio­neer­ing Asian jour­nal­ists, a major­i­ty of them were from Hawaii. AAJA his­to­ri­an Chris Chow com­ment­ed, “Hawaii was more open to mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism. There was recog­ni­tion that this is an impor­tant mar­ket and you’d bet­ter well serve them (Asian-Amer­i­cans) if you want to make any mon­ey.”

Back in the 30’s, the Star Bul­letin seemed to cov­er sto­ries about local Asians more com­pre­hen­sive­ly than the rival Hon­olu­lu Adver­tis­er.  And May Day Lo’s byline was on sev­er­al ear­ly arti­cles writ­ten about Li Ling-Ai, includ­ing the one that prob­a­bly prompt­ed Adver­tis­er reporter Rey Scott to call Li Ling-Ai into his office for an inter­view on that fate­ful night in 1937 when plans for mak­ing KUKAN were first hatched.

 

Li Ling-Ai appears on the front page of the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 1937

Reporter May Day Lo gives front page cov­er­age to fel­low Chi­nese Amer­i­can pio­neer — Li Ling-Ai (aka Gladys Li)

 

I love know­ing that a petite Chi­nese woman who was raised by a rev­erend in Hilo was the first exchange stu­dent at the pres­ti­gious Uni­ver­si­ty of Mis­souri School of Jour­nal­ism and that the pow­er of her pen brought atten­tion to anoth­er pio­neer­ing Chi­nese young woman in a way that changed her life for­ev­er. I want­ed to find out more about May Day Lo, espe­cial­ly when I found an intrigu­ing let­ter from her to Li Ling-Ai:

July 31, 1941,
Dear Li Ling Ai,
Now that I am home again, it all seems like a dream that I met you and all the oth­ers in New York and had such a won­der­ful time…. Please give my Alo­ha to Mrs. James Young, Rey Scott and Mr. Rip­ley when you see them.

May Day Lo had been in New York right around the time when KUKAN pre­miered at the World The­ater just off Broad­way! She had met both Rey Scott and Robert Rip­ley – two key play­ers in Li Ling-Ai’s life at the time. Could May Day hold clues to some of the unsolved mys­ter­ies sur­round­ing KUKAN?

Unfor­tu­nate­ly May Day had died in a trag­ic car acci­dent in 1986. May Lee Chung, edi­tor of the ACUW pub­li­ca­tion that doc­u­ments so many pio­neer­ing Chi­nese women’s lives (see oth­er posts about this “Orange Bible”), could remem­ber clear­ly the cir­cum­stances of May Day’s death. But she did not know what had become of May Day’s only child David, some­one who might be able to tell me more. The trail remained cold until the Pow­er of the Press struck again in 2011. Stay tuned…

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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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