The Year of the Rabbit started with a big bang for Asian Americans and Asians worldwide who love movies. I was thrilled when Time magazine named Malaysian/Chinese actress Michelle Yeoh Icon of the Year. That accolade was only superseded at the 95th Academy Awards when she walked away with the Oscar for Best Actress. Ke Huy Quan won Best Supporting Actor. The Daniels— Scheinert and Kwan—were named Best Directors. And Everything Everywhere All At Once won Best Picture and Best Screenplay. James Hong, who played Evelyn’s dour father in the film, noted that Jamie Lee Curtis, who won Best Supporting Actress and isn’t Asian, did have a name—Lee—that definitely could be Asian! The outrageous, impossible-to-categorize movie did the outrageous and the impossible, winning 7 out of the 11 Academy Awards it was nominated for, making movie history.
Which brings me to another Oscar awards story of a very different stripe. It comes straight from Horse’s mouth—”Horse” being Jenée Kim Loo’s childhood nickname. My mother Jenée (left) and her Kim Loo Sisters were auditioning at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Los Angeles when a talent scout saw her. The cast for a Hollywood movie based on Pearl Buck’s novel The Good Earth hadn’t yet been chosen and the studio wanted to give Jenée a screen test for the part of O-Lan, the female lead. But when Paul Muni, a Viennese actor, was chosen to play the male lead Wang Lung in yellow face, the screen test was dropped: the Hays Code, enforced at that time, forbade interracial romantic or marital relationships onscreen. The Viennese actress Louise Rainer—also in yellow face— was chosen for the role of O-Lan and won the Academy Award for Best Actress. The year was 1936. This year’s Academy Awards couldn’t have been more different.
It was impossible for me to celebrate International Women’s Day (March 8th) without honoring a very international woman—Lena Wojcik Louie, mother of the Kim Loo Sisters. Born in Buczacz, Poland (today’s Buchach, Ukraine), she immigrated to the United States at the age of 12 and lived with an older sister in Minneapolis. A few years later, on a fateful bridge, she met Shear Gim Louie, a young Chinese man from Toisan, China who worked as a waiter at the famous Nankin Café. Lena and Shear Kim married and had six children, four of whom became the Kim Loo Sisters. It wasn’t unusual at that time for Caucasian actors to play Asian characters on stage and screen. Not to be left out of the act, Mama Lena donned Chinese robes and headdress to appear with her six children in “Louie’s Chinese Revue.”