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Tag Archives: Soo Yong
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.