She was an activist, a playwright, an actress, a cook, a pilot, a filmmaker, and a woman who did not put up with the status quo. Li Ling-Ai was a second generation Chinese-American who produced an Academy Award winning documentary in 1941, but was never formally credited. She pushed boundaries, and fought for what she believed in, and yet have any of us heard of her? I myself had not heard about her until learning of Robin Lung’s documentary, Finding Kukan. Robin Lung, a filmmaker from Hawai’i undertook a seven-year project to uncover the story of Li Ling-Ai. Finding Kukan follows Lung’s journey to retrace the life of Li Ling-Ai and recover her lost film, Kukan.
Kukan was a documentary shot by Rey Scott in China during WWII and the Japanese occupation. It was produced by Li Ling-Ai and inspired by her desire to inform Americans of the atrocities being committed in China and her lifelong struggle to dispel racist stereotypes against Chinese and Chinese Americans.
After attending a screening of Finding Kukan at the Seattle International Film Festival, Lung discussed her initial desire to create a documentary about a powerful woman, and a woman of her own ethnicity. As a fourth generation Chinese American woman and a filmmaker, the process of making Finding Kukan was one that was quite personal. I had the opportunity to sit down with Lung to learn more about the film and her story.
Aya Bisbee: Could you talk a bit about your experience as a Chinese American woman growing up in Hawai’i?
Robin Lung: Growing up in Hawai’i, my teachers, newscasters, those all around me were primarily Asians. Therefore, I never thought about my identity as an Asian American until I went to the mainland to study at Stanford University. When I came to the mainland, I was seen by others first and foremost as a Chinese American woman, and I had to come to terms with this new way of being perceived.
AB: How did you become drawn to this story and to Li Ling-Ai? As a Chinese American woman and a filmmaker, what did this story mean to you?
RL: I wasn’t really looking for a role model, but then she became one and the more I found out about her, the more that I almost, not consciously, but unconsciously started following in her path.
AB: Your film was a really impressive undertaking. Could you talk about highs and lows you encountered in the process and how you overcame any challenges you faced?
RL: I think the very first obstacle that I faced was that there wasn’t enough information. I think this is very typical of women’s history and minority history in general because women and minorities haven’t been focused on by the mainstream historians or the mainstream media. Newspaper articles don’t exist or historians writing about women and minorities often don’t exist. Li Ling-Ai’s story wasn’t as well documented as Rey Scott’s story, for instance. Finding out her story was really difficult and then so much of it was missing still. That was really one of the huge obstacles that I had.
An insight that I had was that Li Ling-Ai chose career over marriage. At that time, women were either at home taking care of children and their husband, or they were single. There was no option. I think one of the ways women’s stories get carried forward is through their children. And their children pay attention to their lives and then it’s almost like an oral history that gets carried forward. A lot of times children actually document the stories of their mothers. In this case, Li Ling-Ai didn’t have any child to do that. She did have nieces and nephews who actually kept letters and helped me research her. But a lot of the nieces and nephews had no idea about her career with Kukan or her past. So all these tantalizing facts that I want to know like how Li Ling-Ai met Eleanor Roosevelt, what happened during the White House visit, all these questions that I still have, she’s not alive to answer those and there’s no documentation that I could find.
AB: What kind of barriers do you think Asian American filmmakers face today and how does this compare to the time when Li Ling-Ai was producing this film?
RL: I think filmmaking in general is difficult. It’s difficult for any filmmaker. I can’t speak for all Asian American filmmakers, and I think every filmmaker has a different experience. But I can say that for myself, because I chose to feature an Asian American woman as my main character, and a relatively unknown Asian American woman, it’s been more difficult to get funding, and it’s been more difficult to get screening and broadcasting because the assumption of broadcasters and programmers is that if the film is about an Asian American woman, that only Asian American women would be interested in it. Which is kind of, not logical thinking. I grew up watching lots of films about Caucasians, right? And I loved those films and I watched them over and over again. I think if you have a great story, the story will pull you in no matter what. And I think what’s really been heartwarming for me is that across the board, these audiences that are of any ethnicity or any gender, they’ve all responded well to the film. So I think the film, the story, is really a universal story that people are connecting with.
AB: Were there any stories of Li Ling-Ai that intrigued you and that you wish you had time to explore further?
RL: She went on to become a cooking instructor and she continued to lecture. Some of the people that have been in our audiences have been her former cooking students. They all say, she didn’t only teach cooking, she taught about life. She was quite a powerhouse, even in her older years.
One of her friends said she put together a cookbook that never got published. And it was a cookbook that was a satire cookbook. So it was half a manual of traditional Chinese sexual practices, like with drawings and everything, and then recipes to go along. For each instruction, there would be a recipe. Her friend said, like, “in this practice, there’s no time for tea, but in this practice, there’s time for a tea break and this would be a great thing to serve” or something like that. (laughter).
I think she was way ahead of her time. Now, I think it would be a big hit, but back then, it was like nobody wanted to publish it because it was too naughty.
AB: If Li Ling-Ai was alive today, what would you like her to know or what would you like to ask her?
RL: I would have a hundred questions for Li Ling-Ai, if she were alive today. And I think that I would be a little scared by her. Because I think she would be on my case for not knowing my Chinese history, and not learning the language. But there are so many questions I would like to ask. She was so tough and put on a tough exterior. I think one of the things I would really want to know is what created that tough exterior. What are the things she really had to battle with and the personal stories? What did she really feel when she was being interrogated at Ellis Island? She was a U.S. citizen with a passport and she was being interrogated like a criminal. What did that feel like? How did she battle that? Those kinds of things are things that I would like to ask her.
AB: What is the legacy of Li Ling-Ai? Why is it important for the world to know about her story?
RL: To me, Li Ling-Ai represents the artist activist. She was using her art and her storytelling to change the world to be better. I think that so many artists are working on that and doing that. We all need inspiration from people from out past who have done that and succeeded in that. I think that’s the legacy she leaves us. That it is possible to be both an artist, an activist, and a woman.
AB: At the screening, you mentioned reading a series about a detective character that was based off of Li Ling-Ai. Could you speak more about that?
RL: I came across Li Ling-Ai because I was searching for the real life inspiration for a fictional character. That character’s name is Lily Wu. She is a female detective in a series of vintage mystery novels written by an author named Juanita Sheridan. I had read these books when I was thinking of making a new film and I fell in love with this fictional character that was supposed to be based on a few real life women. I never found out whether or not Li Ling-Ai was one of those women, but because I was searching for women in the ’30s and ’40s who had traveled in New York and in Hawai’i and who were college educated and really independent, I came across Li Ling-Ai. I came across her memoir called Life is for a Long Time. That’s the memoir that had a little paragraph about Kukan in it. So it was kind of like following a detective trail that led me to Li Ling-Ai in the first place. Then I had to keep following the trail to uncover the story.
AB: What is the next step with this film for you? How can we follow your continued work on this story?
RL: The story of Finding Kukan is still in process because it is kind of a personal story. My story with the film, and with Li Ling-Ai continues. People can follow it by checking into our Facebook page and our website. So the easiest thing is to go to the website: findingkukan.com. Another thing is to put Chinese subtitles on the film and bring my film to China. That will be really interesting to see the Chinese reaction to my film. And then I’m also working on an adaptation of the film for a fictional film treatment.
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Conclusion: After the screening of Finding Kukan over Memorial Day weekend, Lung stressed the importance of memory. As I reflect on and explore my own identity as a multiracial, multi-ethnic, Japanese-Taiwanese-American, I have come to realize the importance of my roots and understanding where and who I come from. Back home in Seattle for the summer, I am spending time where my family has lived for three generations and am putting together some oral histories from family members, focusing on my Japanese-American grandmother whom I never had the chance to meet, but whose name I carry forward. Lung’s film was a beautiful demonstration of the power in stories and the urgency for us to remember and tell the stories of our community.
Learning about the determination of Li Ling-Ai through a time in which she faced sexism and anti-Chinese racism is inspiring and reminds me of all the Asian American women who paved the way for my generation and for young people today. At the same time, the film is a painful reminder of the way in which the history of Asian Americans and the prolific lives of Asian American women have been overlooked and forgotten through time. Finding Kukan not only teaches us about the life of Li Ling-Ai, but it also says so much about the marginalization of people of color, and women of color in society, and in history, media, and memory.
Linda Ando contributed to this story.