Thursday, January 22, 2009

Lee Ya-Ching: Flying for Victory

Lee Ya-ching in the 1942 "War Gum" card series

On October 20, 1938 Lee Ya-ching, "China's First Lady of the Air", arrived in San Francisco in preparation for her barnstorming tour across the United States in support of the Chinese War of Resistance against Japan. Her next stop was Los Angeles, where with the help of her friends Anna May Wong and Bernadine Fritz — a former newspaper reporter and noted salon hostess who had traveled extensively in China — she was introduced to the crème of Hollywood society.

Lee continued making public appearances throughout California and eventually met up with American aviator Jacqueline Cochran, who offered to sponsor her and helped secure an aircraft from the Beech Corporation. Now that she had obtained a plane, Lee was ready to begin her tour. But not before she enlisted the participation of fellow aviatrix Hilda Yan, one of her friends from Shanghai who was now living in the States and had just completed her flight training. They had often talked about starting an aviation club for Chinese women and were excited about the opportunity to work together. On March 23, 1939 Lee and Yan commenced their tour. They flew together on the first few legs of their journey until the delivery of Yan's own plane, when they then proceeded along separate itineraries. While Yan's journey was unfortunately cut short by a serious (but not deadly) accident on May 1, Lee safely completed her 3-month, 10,000-mile cross-country tour. Wherever she touched ground, she made a strong impression and garnered support for the Chinese cause. With her winning smile and glamorous white sharkskin flying outfit, it's no wonder that Americans were starstruck by "China's Pretty Propagandist"!

Lee Ya-ching's charm and beauty did not go unnoticed by Hollywood studios. MGM tried to sign her up for a supporting role in Lady of the Tropics (1939), starring "the sensational Heddy Lamar as Manon, fiery captive of the Tropics!" Whatever the reasons, the deal fell through and Lee was spared from appearing in — judging from the trailer — an egregious example of Hollywood's Orientalist fantasies. Far more dignified was the cameo appearance that she ended up making for Paramount in Frank Borzage's Disputed Passage (1939). Dorothy Lamour stars as an orphaned white American girl who was raised in China by Chinese parents, and John Howard plays a dedicated medical student who falls in love with her and follows her back to war-torn China. As he did with China Doll (1958), director Borzage sensitively handles the interracial aspects of the story. Lee Ya Ching must have felt this film was more deserving of her participation than Lady of the Tropics, and was probably tickled to play essentially herself, that is, a Chinese aviatrix. Here is a clip from the end of the film. John Howard lies in a coma, resulting from a head injury suffered after rescuing one of his young patients during a Japanese bombing, and is finally reunited with Dorothy Lamour, who is brought to his side by Lee Ya-ching around the 50 second mark.

Lee Ya-ching in Disputed Passage (1939)

There is a lot more to be said about Lee Ya-ching, not the least of which is her brief film career as a teenager in 1920s Shanghai under the stage name Li Dandan. But let me beg off telling that story and instead recommend to you Patti Gully's superb Sisters of Heaven: China's Barnstorming Aviatrixes, which explores the lives of Lee Ya-ching, Hilda Yan, and Jessie Zheng. And to get you started, here is an article about Lee Ya-ching from the Smithsonian's Air and Space magazine. Finally, here is a comic book biography (1.4 MB PDF) of "China's First Lady of the Air" that appeared in True Aviation Picture-Stories No. 3 (June-July, 1943).

Lee Ya-ching in True Aviation Picture-Stories (1943)

1 comment:

Dev said...

Thanks for this wonderful information about Lee Dan Dan (ya Ching)~~

Despite knowing her as the first lady of the air and her 20s film career in Shanghai, this is the first time I came across her story in Hollywood and the sensastion she via the success of the long journey~~

Thanks again for sharing this !