A Few Words About Li Ling-Ai

Li Ling-Ai 1930s

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.

Chinatown fire 1900

1900 Chinatown quarantine

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.

Drs. Li Khai Fai and Kong Tai Heong with family (courtesy Andrew Li)

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.

About nestedegg

Robin Lung is a documentary filmmaker currently producing a film about the first American feature length documentary to win an Academy Award.
This entry was posted in Chinatown Hawaii, Female Role Models, Kong Tai Heong, Li Khai Fai, Li Ling-Ai, On A Dream and a Dare. Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to A Few Words About Li Ling-Ai

  1. Wei says:

    It is a pleasant surprise to read a blog on Li. As a Chinese scholar specializing in Chinese American drama, I’m deeply interested in her life story. I’ve been reading her book Life is for a Long time which is mainly about the life experience of her parents. I would like to know more about her own life, particularly her life in Beijing. She first came to learn dance, later worked as a director at Beijing Institute of Fine Arts. I’ve searched for this institute in Chinese and haven’t found any information about her. It could be an improper translation of the title. Did Li leave any records concerning her stay in China?

  2. Chris Klein says:

    I have a signed copy of Li Ling Ai’s book, Life is for A Long Time. The copy was lent to me by her nephew, Andrew Li. Andy was a friend with whom I’ve lost touch, but I would lilke to return the book. Can anyone tell me how to contact Andy Li?

    Chris Klein

  3. Barry Chung says:

    Li Ling-Ai is the sister of the late Min Hin Li, M.D. and aunt of Loretta Li, Punahou ’48.

  4. R Tam says:

    Great story in the SBA this morning. I wonder if Li Ling Ai and Hazel Ying Lee knew each other in China? They were there for the same reason and around the same time. And maybe even related (Li and Lee)?
    But that is possibly another story/movie: Female Chinese American pilots in WWII.

    • nestedegg says:

      Althoug Li Ling-Ai took many flying lessons and had the ambition to become a pilot, I don’t think she ever completed enough training to become a private pilot as Hazel Ying Lee did. I have to think that they knew about each other though. There is a book about the Chinese female pilots and certainly there should be a movie too!

  5. Peg Sloggatt Wallace says:

    I have a book signed from Li Ling-Ai which was give to Bob Ripley (Ripley’s Believe it or Not) which was given to my father who illustrated for Bob Ripley in the 1950’s. It is a book “Teach yourself conversational Chinese”. She signed it to “bosee man Ripley” May you learn Chinese better than me.”
    Would this be the same Li Ling-Ai?

    • nestedegg says:

      Hi Peg. That is definitely the same Li Ling-Ai. She met Robert Ripley circa 1941 and was his close friend until he died in 1949. Are you in touch with the Ripley archivist, Edward Meyer? I’m sure he’d be interested in your book. aloha, Robin

  6. Cynthia Eaton says:

    I was riveted while watching “Finding Kukan.” I loved the mystery unfolding and Robin’s unique and captivating story-telling process. And I especially loved learning about such a significant person who, although she was alive during my own lifetime, I knew nothing about. The life and times of Li Ling-Ai could have been completely forgotten had it not been for the research efforts, talents, tenacity, and persistence of filmmaker, Robin Lung.

    After seeing “Finding Kukan,” I realized that it was directly because of Li Ling Ai and Rey Scott’s efforts that so many Baby Boomers grew up knowing that they had to, “… eat everything on your plate, because there are children starving in China.” What a heroic, single-minded, intelligent and pioneering person Li Ling-Ai was. And what a burden it must have been, I am sure, to be so judged and misunderstood by traditional Chinese and Americans alike.

    Because of Robin Lung’s film, I too went online and found a signed copy of “Life is for a Long Time.” If someone wants to understand what it is like to be Chinese, Li Ling-Ai certainly did a great job of illuminating the experience by letting the voices of her parents and family friends speak. Yes, it tells the history of Hawaii’s annexation, but it also portrays the thought and philosopical underpinnings of the Li family . . . which apparently Li Ling-Ai adhered to throughout her life.

    I wonder if she ever felt recognized or appreciated for her intelligence, foresight, and heroism in her ability to exemplify the best of what it means to be Chinese and an American too.

  7. Joan says:

    I knew Ling really well. I took Chinese cooking classes from her at the China Institute in NY. I still have all her resipies written in her hand. We

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