The Kim Loo Sisters, true Chinese-American icons

George Koo December 14, 2016 11:48 AM (UTC+8)
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Throughout the decade that was the Great Depression, four Chinese American sisters were gainfully employed going around the country performing on the vaudeville circuit. The youngest was not even a teenager when the family started but they were captivating audiences wherever they went.

At the apex of their career, they became known as the Kim Loo Sisters and performed on Broadway and appeared on Hollywood screen and shared top billing with such stars as Frank Sinatra, Jackie Gleason and Ann Miller. When their show went on the road, they had their own Pullman coach with a private dining car attached.

During War World II, they sold war bonds and entertained the troops. Eventually they became commissioned officers in the USO so that they could sail to the European theater to entertain the soldiers at the front.

The audiences were attracted by their wholesome and vivacious appearance, the energy and originality of their dance routines, the pleasant harmony of their singing and the fun and zest they exuded on stage. They did not resort to the various Asian sexual stereotypes but succeeded by being the All American girl next door.

As a matter of fact, these sisters in their way fulfilled the American Dream of every struggling immigrant that came to America. They were the offspring of a classic East-meets-West, Boy-meets-Girl story.

The father, Louie Shear Gim, came to the US from China as a paper son. He boarded a ship from Canton to Vancouver Canada by himself when he was 9. Somehow he made his way to Minneapolis via Seattle by the time he was 15. There he met Lena Wojcik who came to Minneapolis from Poland also by herself. They met when she was 13 and they married two years later.

Shear Gim valiantly supported a growing family, about one new addition every two years, with his wages as a waiter at a Chinese restaurant, supplemented by Lena’s work as a seamstress. They were to eventually have six children; the first four were daughters before a son and one last daughter. Somehow he managed to buy a house for the family.

This family was poor. They were lucky to have meat once a week, sometimes only one meal a day. They certainly did not have toys but they had each other as playmates and their imagination to devise games. They were also musically talented. When their father assembled a radio for the family, singing and dancing to the top tunes of the day became the sisters’ favorite pastime.

Mama Lena enrolled Alice, the oldest daughter, in the local dancing school because dancing would be good therapy for her bow-legged conditions. The owner of the school decided to admit all four sisters for a nominal tuition because he thought the girls were such good dancers that the association would have the same effect as a favorable endorsement for the school.

Jenée, the third daughter, would visit her father once a week and they would go see a movie after his shift. She would memorialize every song and dance routine from the show and teach them to her sisters so that they could incorporate new additions to their repertoire.

First they performed as part of church activities and in local kiddie fairs. One time a touring orchestra came into town and wanted to hire some local kids for the Christmas pageant. Mama Lena brought the four sisters hoping that the orchestra leader would hire one of them. He hired all four.

Gradually Mama realized the show time potential of the four sisters and became the manager of the group and took them on the vaudeville circuit around the country. Usually this meant performing 5-6 times a day in movie houses between the showings of the main feature. They probably didn’t make a whole lot of money but this was during the depression when unemployment was in the levels of 20-30%.

This was a heart-warming story on many levels. A Chinese young man and a Polish young woman fell in love despite neither could speak each other’s language, and hardly much English in common. And out of material deprivation, they built a tightly bonded, loving family.

They were fortunate to have met and settled in Minneapolis where there were few ethnic Chinese and thus they did not suffer the bitter sting of racial prejudice that they would have in say California. Growing up, the girls were not subject to many incidents of racial discrimination and were able to dismiss such incidences without much afterthought.

The Kim Loo Sisters were never made to feel ashamed of their being part Chinese but looked upon their heritage as an advantage in furthering their show business identity. Their skills on stage gave them so much self-confidence that it probably never occurred to them to feel defensive. They simply adored their father and felt neither proud nor ashamed of his being a Chinese.

Jenée left the group at the height of success to marry a student from China, one of those stage door johnnies with a surname of Li that she had met on tour. The remaining trio of sisters continued their success all the way through their USO tour of Europe. After their return, each wanted to leave and get married and thus the Kim Loo Sisters was disbanded and then forgotten.

More than 60 years later, Leslie Li decided that she wanted to tell their story while the four sisters were still alive. Leslie was one of Jenée’s four daughters. She made videos of interviews of her mother and each of her aunts individually and together as a group. She then interspersed archival footage of actual performances of the Kim Loo Sisters with the interviews.

This film is in post production. When the film is released, it will be one of the most upbeat and heart warming stories ever told about a Chinese American family. Readers that would like to know more now, can go to www.kimloosisters.com for more information.

There is another footnote to history. Leslie’s mother, Jenée was married to the son of one of the most famous Chinese generals that fought the Japanese in WWII. He was Li Zongren. General Li became the vice president of the post WWII nationalist government and was briefly president when Chiang Kai-shek resigned his post and fled to Taiwan. When the communists took over China, Li left for New York where he lived for some years before surreptitiously returning to Beijing.

George Koo
Dr. George Koo recently retired from a global advisory services firm where he advised clients on their China strategies and business operations. Educated at MIT, Stevens Institute and Santa Clara University, he is the founder and former managing director of International Strategic Alliances. He is a member of the Committee of 100, and a director of New America Media.
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