A visit with a member of the Kim Sisters, the singing trio who rose to fame in the U.S. long before K-pop hit these shores, leaves an indelible impression.
(Above photo: The Kim Sisters (left to right: Mia, Sue and Aija) pose for a photo shoot at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago, 1961.)
by BENJAMIN M. HAN
November 2009. Las Vegas, Nevada. I claim my baggage and wait eagerly outside the airport for Sue Kim to pick me up. I’ve never met this member of the Kim Sisters, the singing trio from South Korea who earned notoriety in America in the 1950s and ’60s; the only image I have of her is from the YouTube videos I’d watched over the years. As I look at my watch, I grow anxious and wonder, “How will I recognize her?” Then, I notice a silver Mercedes SUV slowly drive by, with a license plate that reads: SOOK-JA, Sue’s Korean name. Phew. One problem solved. We make eye contact, and she seemingly knows to pull over for me. I get in the car quickly. Seated next to her is her husband, John Bonifazio. We stop at a cozy Korean restaurant, and as I browse the menu, I wonder if Sue still speaks Korean fluently. As soon as she orders bibimbap in perfect Korean, I have my answer.
Over the next two days, I would visit Sue’ s home and conduct extensive interviews with her. As a scholar working on my doctoral dissertation, I was seeking to unearth the history of Korean Americans in early American television. The Kim Sisters were pioneers in this regard, appearing on such popular TV variety shows hosted by the likes of American legends Ed Sullivan and Dean Martin—long before “Gangnam Style” made its way to these shores.
But my time in Las Vegas talking with Sue would turn out to be more than just a research trip; it would be a revelation for me.
As a Korean American myself who grew up in four different countries—the Dominican Republic, Mexico, Indonesia and the United States—I always struggled with identity. When someone would ask me, “Where are you from?” I would hesitate to answer. While I can speak English, Korean and Spanish fluently, I am not a native speaker in any of these languages. In the three days I would spend with Sue, I would feel a deep bond with her. Despite us seemingly having very little in common, and being decades and generations apart, she would become the role model that I had been searching for since I left South Korea at the age of 7. As someone who challenged the racial status when it came to representations on American television at that time, she would become a source of inspiration for me, someone who tries to challenge the black-white paradigm in academia.
I first heard about the Kim Sisters while a graduate student at the University of Southern California studying media. I was already familiar with Asian American actors like Sessue Hayakawa and Philip Ahn. But then, someone mentioned the Kim Sisters to me one day. I asked my parents about the group, and my dad explained that they were really popular in Korea back in the day.
Later, as a doctoral student at NYU, I started seriously researching the Kim Sisters and managed to find a Las Vegas mailing address for Sue on the Internet. At that time, I had no clue whether she was still residing there, but I drafted a formal letter and mailed it. A few weeks later, I received an unexpected phone call from Sue, and I still remember vividly the first question she asked me: “Why are you interested in my story?” After I gave her a detailed response, she then asked my age. “Twenty-eight years old,” I answered. She was surprised that I was so young. I kindly asked her if I could fly to Vegas to interview her, and she eventually agreed.
Later at an event at the Korea Society in 2010, Sue shared with the audience how she was hesitant to reach out to me when she first received my letter, but it was her husband who convinced her to respond. She ultimately agreed to the interview, she says, because I had told her, “I want to tell your story.”
Sue was one of seven siblings born in Korea to a very musical couple. Their mother, Lee Nan-young, rose to stardom prior to the Korean War with her sentimental ballad “Mokpo Tears.” Their father, Kim Hai-song, was a well-respected composer and orchestra conductor who produced a number of popular musical shows. Thanks to this parentage, the Kim children naturally would become quite musical themselves—but it was also, in part, out of necessity.
After the Korean War broke out in 1950, Kim Hai-song was captured and murdered by the North Korean army, and Lee had to find a way to take care of her family. So she sang for American troops as a way to earn money. Soon, her children would learn how to sing American tunes like “Candy and Cake.” Eldest daughters Young-ja (Jane), and Sook-Ja (Sue) would eventually join their mother performing in the nightclubs of Busan. But being an entertainer was not the life Jane wanted. That’s when their youngest sister Ai-ja and their cousin Min-ja (Mia) Kim joined Sue, and together they formed the Kim Sisters in 1954.
Despite the negative perception of Asians as the Yellow Peril—an image often perpetuated by Hollywood movies with conniving “Orientals” as the antagonists—the Kim girls established a rapport with the Americans GIs stationed in Korea, and the latter, in turn, taught Sue, then 13, 12-year-old Ai-ja and 11-year-old Min-ja pop stan- dards and, later, rock ‘n’ roll.
“The GIs would go crazy when we sang rock ‘n’ roll songs, even though we didn’t pronounce the lyrics correctly for ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ and ‘St. Louis Blues,” remembered Sue, now 73. “They were pounding their feet and say- ing, ‘More, more!’ … They would give us cases of whiskey and beer, and we would exchange them for rice.
“Without the GIs, we didn’t perform. I don’t know where we will be today. That’s how I feel, how grateful I am. Without them, we couldn’t have survived.”
Meanwhile, on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, there was a flourishing Chinese nightclub scene with the establishment of the Forbidden City and the Chinese Sky Room in San Francisco. A club owner by the name of Tom Ball was the force behind the production of “Oriental” shows, such as the “China Doll Revue” and the “Geisha Revue,” which were performed regularly at the Thunderbird Hotel and Desert Inn Hotel in Las Vegas, respectively. Ball told his friend Dan Sawyer, an owner of an entertainment production company in Japan, that he was searching for another Asian act to headline one of his shows. GIs in South Korea who had seen the Kim Sisters’ act told Sawyer to check out the talented trio. One soldier, Bob McMackin, who was also Sawyer’s friend, arranged an audition for the Kim Sisters in front of Ball in Yongsan, South Korea, in 1958.
“[Ball] liked the fact [we] could sing a lot better than the Happy Tokyo Coats,” recalled Sue, referring to the Japanese performers in one of Ball’s shows.
After the Kim Sisters’ successful tryout, McMackin became their personal manager. “We respect McMackin a lot,” Sue said. “He used to take us to all these clubs and give us fried chicken.”
When the young ladies, who had never before been anywhere outside of Korea, arrived in Los Angeles in 1959, the experience was a bit anti-climatic at first. “Someone told us when you go to L.A., you open the hotel room window, you look out, and there is a movie star walking around,” said Sue. “All day we waited, and nobody showed up. [So] our agent Tom Ball put us in his 1959 Cadillac and drove us to Las Vegas.”
While there, the Thunderbird Hotel signed the Kim Sisters for a four-week engagement with a four-week option as part of the “China Doll Revue.” After a successful eight-week run, the group was signed to perform at the Stardust Lounge, where the Sisters would remain entertainers for eight consecutive months.
It was at the Stardust where they captured the attention of legendary TV host Ed Sullivan. In 1959, he was in town to broadcast The Ed Sullivan Show live from Vegas, and after a successful audition, the Kim Sisters made their debut on the variety program on Sept. 20, 1959, performing a cover of the hit song “Sincerely.” They would go on to make 22 appearances on the country’s most watched program, known for bringing American families together every Sunday night. While the trio was able to sing renditions of American popular songs in perfect English, Sue said they had just memorized the lyrics phonetically. She said their struggle to master the English language hindered them somewhat because they could not interact easily with other guests on American shows when they made appearances.
Meanwhile, many newspapers at the time highlighted their assimilation into American society, yet the Kim Sisters always thought of themselves as proud Koreans, said Sue. She described the time when they wore traditional Korean clothing out on the streets, expecting Americans to recognize the hanboks as Korean. “Everybody says, ‘what a beautiful kimono.’ We get so angry—‘this is not a kimono!’” said Sue. “‘This is a Korean outfit!’ I told Ai-ja and Mia: ‘We have to become successful. That’s the only way they are gonna know we are from Korea.’
“As young as we were, we had strong patriotism in our heart,” added Sue. “If anybody said we are from China, we used to get angry. They couldn’ t tell the difference between Japan, China and Korea.”
While different Asian ethnicities were not distinguishable on American television, what was anomalous about the Kim Sisters’ appearances was the fact that Sullivan often introduced them as performers from Korea. As Sue explained, “Absolutely, we are from the Republic of Korea. They couldn’ t tell South or North. So our manager told Ed Sullivan, ‘It’s gotta be the Republic of Korea.’ ”
My days spent with Sue were filled with unforgettable anecdotes. She recounted giddily the time a container filled with kimchi sent from their family in Korea exploded in the lobby of a New York hotel where they were staying. Then, there was the time the king of rock ‘n’ roll himself, Elvis Presley, came to the Stardust and told the Kim Sisters’ drummer that he would like to take them out. The sisters’ response: “We are not dating.”
The Kim Sisters perform on the variety show Hollywood Palace:
As Sue drove me around Las Vegas, each hotel on the Strip that we passed seemed to conjure vivid memories from her past. She played the Kim Sisters’ songs on the car stereo as she shared her thoughts about each recording. As I observed her face, she looked like a grandmother finding renewed vigor and enthusiasm in telling bedtime stories to her grandchild.
But I had a burning question, one I was initially hesitant to ask: Why would the Sisters often wear the traditional Chinese costume, cheongsam, if they were so self-conscious about their identity as Koreans? I couldn’t leave Las Vegas without getting an answer, and the opportunity came while discussing how Asians have been victims of Orientalism in America. “The act we were doing, there is no way we are going to move around the stage with a Korean costume. It is too much material,” Sue answered matter-of-factly. Also, their agent, Ball, wanted the performers to showcase their beautiful straight legs, she said. Sue, however, did note that the Sisters would also open their act wearing hanboks and singing “Arirang,” the beloved Korean folk song.
As for responding to critics who could read the Kim Sisters perfor ances as self-Orientalism, Sue said that the Kim Sisters knew what the industry wanted, and therefore that meant they had to sometimes perform songs like “China Nights” (or “Shina No Yoru,” a Japanese song), the most requested song by GIs in the U.S. Army clubs. But the Sisters also often switched into different costumes—including Western dresses, heels and sometimes top hats— and played a variety of musical instruments (clarinet, xylophone, drums, trumpet, etc.) and genres of music within the same act. As the women took command of the stage, showing off their considerable talent as entertainers, period, this was arguably an illustration of how they were subverting stereotypical representations of Asians in America. Who could forget their 1963 Ed Sullivan performance, in which they sang a song in English paying homage to their mother, singing lyrics like, “Mother taught us all we know in Korea”? In the same performance, their mother joined the Kim Sisters on stage and sang her lyrics in Korean. Again, this happened in the 1960s, on the most popular American TV show at the time.
Throughout the ’60s, the Kim Sisters would enjoy tremendous visibility and success, also appearing on the shows of entertainers Dinah Shore and Dean Martin. Ai-ja was even offered a role in the all-Asian cast for the musical Flower Drum Song. However, she turned down the offer because she thought her English was not fluent enough to play the role.
In 1970, the Kim Sisters returned to Korea for the first time since they left in 1959. They had been cultural ambassadors on behalf of Korea to the United States for years, but upon their arrival, they did not receive a warm welcome. An interpreter was waiting for them at the airport because the Korean government thought they had not only lost touch with their native country, but also lost the language. When the Kim Sisters showed they could speak Korean just fine and had their cultural pride still intact, Koreans embraced them. Their concert at Sejong Center sold out quickly. During their short stay in Korea, they recorded a song titled “Kimchi Kkakdugi,” (Cubed Radish Kimchi) that described their experience as diasporic Koreans:
Our home is far away Memories of yesterday
Now we found the other way We are in the U.S.A.
We will rock some songs today We must eat the American way
Just like there is an ending to every great film or novel, there is an ending to the extraordinary story of the Kim Sisters. As each member found her life partner and started her own family, the siblings’ career as entertainers slowly came to an end. Ai-ja passed away in 1987 due to lung cancer; Mia went to Hungary to relaunch her music career; and Sue settled in Las Vegas with John, her husband of 45 years, giving birth to a son and daughter and now with five grandchildren. Sue continued to perform with her brothers, the Kim Brothers, in different venues throughout the United States and Korea until 1994.
March 2014. Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Four years after my visit, I receive a phone call from Sue. She can’t hide her excitement as she shares the news that she will become the first Korean to be inducted into the Nevada Entertainer/ Artist Hall of Fame on March 27.
After the Hall of Fame event, I speak again with Sue. The Korean American Women’s Association attended the event to honor her, she says, but not a single Korean newspaper showed up to cover the story. Even former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung once promised that the country would host a celebration to commemorate the trio’s contribution to South Korean cultural diplomacy, but that promise was never fulfilled.
I hope articles like this one help make people more aware of the Kim Sisters’ incredible journey as some of the earliest Korean entertainers to be embraced by mainstream American audiences. I hope their story inspires younger generations, as it has me.
Sue tells me that, as a young child in Korea, she used to look at the stars in the sky, pray and hope that she would go to America someday. Her childhood dreams have been more than fulfilled. “Dream big, never give up,” said Sue. “Work at it, and your dream will come true.”
This article was published in the June 2014 issue of KoreAm. Subscribe today! To purchase a single issue copy of the June issue, click the “Buy Now” button below. (U.S. customers only. Expect delivery in 5-7 business days).