The guardian angel of my blog, she sits in the upper right corner, looking over every post on my home page. You might be wondering why she is there and how she is connected to Lily Wu or Juanita Sheridan. I can’t tell all now — what would be the fun of that? But for those of you who like to peek at the end of the book to read the last lines before starting the first chapter, I will give you a little background on this amazing Chinese woman who is one of the characters in Finding KUKAN, the new documentary film that I’m developing.
Born in Hawaii on May 19, 1908, Li Ling-Ai or Gladys Li as she was known by her family and childhood friends, was the sixth of nine children and grew up in an unconventional household. Her parents were among the first Chinese doctors practicing western medicine in Hawaii during the late 1800s. Her mother Kong Tai Heong was a popular obstetrician and way ahead of her time. Choosing to keep her maiden name, Dr. Kong kept a busy professional practice while raising nine children.
Li Ling-Ai’s father was Li Khai Fai, a principled physiologist who was vilified by many Chinese for reporting one of the first bubonic plague cases to the authorities in 1900, resulting in what author James C. Mohr calls “the worst civic disaster in Hawaiian history” next to the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor — the accidental burning of the entire Chinatown district and the forced quarantine of all its inhabitants.
Despite criticism, Li Khai Fai never wavered from his reformist beliefs. He was an outspoken political activist who helped found one of the first Chinese language newspapers in Hawaii and the Mun Lun Chinese language school that still exists today. He was also a firm believer in the United States democratic system and imbued all of his children with the notion that being a good American and a good Chinese went hand in hand.
Thus, Ling-Ai was the epitome of East meets West. She was given a classical western education at prestigious Punahou School (President Obama’s alma mater) while learning Chinese language, dance and music from Chinese Imperial Court scholars at Mun Lun. She developed an early affection for the stage, gaining acclaim as a published playwright and director while still in college, and creating a dramatic persona for herself that would attract attention throughout her life.
In 1935, the Los Angeles Times daily columnist Harry Carr met Ling-Ai in the journalism class he was teaching in Hawaii. He described her in his column as “brilliant, indolent, and beautiful. She comes to the class arrayed like a princess of Cathay in long Chinese gowns. She has been over the world intellectually and physically. She is a dramatist and a dancer, cynical, gay and withering in her powers of intuition.”
Though she defied tradition in many ways, Ling-Ai identified closely with her father and his efforts to bring reform to China. After the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, it became her mission to bring China’s plight to the attention of the western world. Educating Americans about the history and culture of China was an integral part of that mission, and she would employ her dramatic personality and exotic beauty to do so.
Could Li Ling-Ai have been the real Lily Wu? Like Lily, did she know how to shoot a gun and was she good at solving crimes? Did she wear handmade lingerie and dab herself with insanely expensive Tabac Blond perfume?
You are welcome to do your own detective work, or keep reading this blog to find out.