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[Grace Kao] Did K-pop debut in US with The Kim Sisters in 1959?

May 28, 2024 - 05:30 By Korea Herald

K-pop’s first appearance on the US Billboard Hot 100 Chart was in 2009, when the Wonder Girls’ “Nobody” hit No. 76. Fifty years earlier, in 1959 The Kim Sisters (Sue, Aija, and Mia) from Korea made their American TV premiere on The Ed Sullivan show. So, is 1959 the year that K-Pop made its debut in the US? Probably not, but we should celebrate the importance of The Kim Sisters in representing Korea to the US.

They would eventually appear on The Ed Sullivan Show twenty-one times, more than any other act. They performed covers of popular American songs, such as “Charlie Brown” (originally by The Coasters), “Try to Remember” (original song from the musical “The Fantasticks”) and “When the Saints Go Marching In” (traditional Christian hymn covered by Louis Armstrong, Fats Domino, Elvis, Judy Garland and many others). They sang songs familiar to mainstream American audiences. On one occasion, they performed “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” and they were joined by their mother who added the occasional “Arirang” lyric, a nod to the traditional Korean song.

These young women were remarkable not only because they could sing and dance as well as any of the girl groups popular in the US at the time, but they were also multi-instrumentalists. YouTube clips feature the members playing drums, saxophones, guitars, etc., in their performances.

Sue (Kim Sook-ja) and Aija (Kim Ai-ja) were biological sisters. Mia (Kim Min-ja) was Sue and Aija’s cousin who was later adopted by Sue and Aija’s mother, singer Lee Nan-yang. Lee was famous for her 1935 song “Tears of Mokpo.” After the kidnapping and murder of her husband, conductor Kim Hae-song, she had to support herself and her children by entertaining American GIs. She later taught her children how to sing American songs and play musical instruments. Eventually, The Kim Sisters were formed and sent to Las Vegas with their manager, Bob McMackin. Their initial 4 week stint in 1959 at The Thunderbird in Las Vegas led to an additional 35 years in residency in Las Vegas venues including The Stardust, Las Vegas Hilton and the Holiday Casino.

I think they deserve a place alongside other Asian American entertainers, perhaps more so than next to K-pop acts. What cemented this position for me was when I discovered their medley of songs from the film adaptation of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musical “Flower Drum Song” (1961).

This film is based on a Broadway musical inspired by Chin Yang Lee’s novel of the same title. The story is about Chinese American families in San Francisco, whose parents and children straddle stereotypically traditional Chinese versus American values. It includes Chinese characters who are born in the US and others that are recent arrivals to America. It became the first Hollywood film to feature a majority Asian American cast (and there would not be another one for another 30 years, until “The Joy Luck Club” in 1993). The film was nominated for numerous Academy Awards. The lead actors for the film included Nancy Kwan (biracial Chinese/white American), James Shigeta (Japanese American), Miyoshi Umeki (Japanese American), Jack Soo (Japanese American), Benson Fong (Chinese American), and Juanita Hall (biracial black/white American). Miyoshi Umeki is also the first Asian American actress to win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress (for “Sayonara.”) These were many of the most well-known Asian American (and Black) actors of the time, but most were not Chinese or Chinese American.

Among Asian American fans and scholars, views of “Flower Drum Song” have swung from positive to negative and back again. However, there is no debate about its iconic status for Asian Americans in the history of Hollywood films.

As a Chinese American who grew up in San Francisco, I remember seeing this film as a child. I’ve seen it many times since. While songs like “Chop Suey” are a little “cringey,” seeing Asian American actors tell a story about the diversity of Chinese Americans in San Francisco left a deep impression on me. I’ve appreciated the importance of this film, even before I became an academic. The stereotypes of “traditional Chinese” versus “modern American” values is arguably a retrograde representation of the immigrant experience, but the film avoids using white actors in yellowface. There are no white actors with their eyes taped so they might appear “oriental” as was standard practice in Hollywood. Some might complain that not all of the actors were Chinese or Chinese American, but given the period during which this film was produced, the cast is a great leap forward.

Despite being born in Korea, The Kim Sisters’ professional careers were built on their performances of American songs arranged to appeal to Americans, from GIs in Korea, to American TV and Las Vegas audiences. Their first job was performing as a part of the “China Doll Revue,” which included Chinese and Japanese American entertainers. They lived most of their lives in the US as Americans. Like the other Asian American actors in “Flower Drum Song,” they were constrained by how white Americans viewed Asian Americans. They could convincingly sing about a Chinese American family not only because they were seen as Korean, but also as Asian American.

Grace Kao

Grace Kao is IBM professor of sociology and professor of ethnicity, race and migration at Yale University. The views expressed here are the writer‘s own. -- Ed.