I am currently struggling to edit a fundraising trailer for my new documentary FINDING KUKAN. As my mind gets muddled with soundbites and competing shots and scenes, it’s helpful to remind myself what drew me into the story to begin with — the search for a missing Chinese American heroine. That there were sophisticated, modern, gutsy Chinese American women out there in the 1930’s and 40’s that were worthy of lead-character status in mystery novels was a revelation provided to me by reading Juanita Sheridan’s Lily Wu series. Although my documentary is focussed on one woman in particular — Li Ling-Ai, the ground-breaking exploits of other courageous Chinese women from the period have slowly begun to populate my consciousness. Now I realize that there were Chinese heroines aplenty back then. It’s just that they haven’t been talked about enough, written about enough, or had enough movies made about them for people like me to be aware of them.
So what about Wai Sue Chun? Could she have been one of the inspirations for Lily Wu? Although her daughter Juana and her sister Wai Chee don’t think so (they had never heard of either Juanita Sheridan or Lily Wu), I still think the circumstantial evidence is strongly in Wai Sue’s favor. Plus, reading about Wai Sue’s early married life in China during the Sino-Japanese War reminds me a little of Inn of the Sixth Happiness with Wai Sue taking the place of Ingmar Bergman, leading children to safety during the Japanese invasion of the country.
Wai Sue’s husband Fawn Louie was an engineer working for the Chinese Nationalist government setting up factories to help finance China’s war of resistance against the ongoing Japanese invasion. Since the lost film KUKAN is also about this time period, I’ve been learning a lot about how the continuous bombing of Chinese cities affected the populace and the hardships that people who chose to remain in China faced. Wai Sue left her husband for 2 years during the early part of the war and came back to Honolulu with 3 young children. Incredibly, she chose to return to Kunming with her children in 1940 — the Japanese had already taken over most of the Chinese coastal ports and were relentlessly bombing other parts of the country.
After Pearl Harbor and the official start of WWII, living conditions in China became even more difficult. Wai Sue’s young family seems to have been constantly on the move. Her husband’s factory in Kunming was bombed and destroyed forcing the family to move to Guilin where they barely escaped the invading Japanese Army by taking the last train out of Guilin before the city was destroyed. Wai Sue’s children, who wrote a tribute to their mother in ACUW’s wonderful book about pioneering Chinese women from Hawaii, remember their terror when caught in a bombing raid halfway between school and home.
It’s really hard for me, living in this tranquil Kailua beach town, to imagine what the stress of raising young children amongst the danger of daily bombings and constant threat of an invading army must have been like. The pictures of Chinese refugees I found in archives are almost too glossy to communicate the reality of the situation at hand.
I imagine that Wai Sue’s experiences of war provided her with a reservoir of strength and courage that could have inspired a novelist like Sheridan to create Lily Wu. Of course when Wai Sue was on the same boat as Earl Derr Biggers and Juanita Sheridan, she had not yet had those experiences. Could Sheridan have started a friendship with Chun on the boat that lasted long enough to hear about her later exploits? Or was the comment that Lily Wu throws out in THE MAMO MURDERS about a friend who married another student at the University of Peking then joined the Eighth Army and “During the Japanese invasion of Kuei-Tsu was one of the women who helped to carry a dismantled factory several hundred miles and then set it up again.” taken from stories passed along to her by another Chinese woman? I will probably never be able to figure it out. But regardless, Wai Sue Chun is definitely worthy of fictional immortality, and more people should know about her.