Friday, December 6, 2013

Lily Yuen: Afro-Chinese Dance Maniac

Lily Yuen (Pittsburgh Courier, January 10, 1931)
The thing I love most about the past is that it never runs out of surprises. A couple of days ago I was trying to re-find a full-page feature about the legendary Chinese actress Ruan Lingyu that had appeared in American newspapers at the time of her death in 1935. I remembered that the article had referred to her as Lily Yuen. Searching for that name, I unexpectedly came across another Lily Yuen.

Born around 1902, this Lily Yuen grew up not in Shanghai, China, but in Savannah, Georgia, and was famous during the 20s and 30s as a dancer, singer, and comedienne. Beneath a headline proclaiming her “A RACIAL PUZZLE”, an article in The Afro-American (June 20, 1925) revealed that “Miss Lily Yuen, a tall, agile, brown girl... is typically Negro, and yet she is the daughter of a Chinese subject and of a colored woman.” It went to say that her father was an immigrant from China named Ton Yuen [also known as Joe Yuen] who settled down in Savannah, opened a laundry business, and married an African American woman [named Josephine, also known as Josie].

Lily started dancing professionally in 1922 and a year later was performing with Jones’ Syncopated Syncopators, an African-American vaudeville revue led by Joseph Jones, who was known as “the best Jewish impersonator among colored actors” (The Afro-American, October 5, 1923). She soon earned a reputation for her Charleston strut and “eccentric” dance steps which left audiences clamoring for encore after encore.

In 1926 she joined Irvin C. Miller’s “Brown Skin Models” revue, billed in newspaper advertisements as “The Greatest Array of Colored Stars Ever Assembled” and “The Ziegfeld Follies with a Palm Beach Tan”. Lily was one of the show’s leading attractions and “a fully recognized star in her line and exceptionally in the Charlestonian realm” (Pittsburgh Courier, February 13, 1926).

Newspaper ad from the Cleveland Plain Dealer, December 26, 1926
By the end of 1927 Lily had left “Brown Skin Models” to form her own trio called the Three Dance Maniacs. The next year a short profile of Lily appeared in the Pittsburgh Courier (December 8, 1928), summing up her successful career thus far:
Fifty Thousand Dollar Legs
This may be only a small part of the real value of the shapely dancing limbs of one Lily Yuen, good looking, fine personality and a stage favorite wherever she puts on her large flat shoes, sweater and cap that rests at a saucy angle upon her pretty tresses. Miss Yuen has been dancing about five years. Reaching efficiency of a charming type which placed her on many bills in big time white houses, where she never failed to score. Sometimes she works in a trio other times alone. But at all times she is earnest and a hard worker. She originates all her steps, many of which are now being copied and used by Broadway white girls.

Around this time Lily settled down in New York and during the next few years performed in such shows as “Ginger Snaps of 1929”, “Fidgety Feet”, “S’prise Me!”, and “Jazz-Mad”. She continued performing throughout the 30s, including a stint with Ethel Waters in 1938. Lily was reported to have married in 1941, but that didn’t seem to stop her career. In 1946 she was headlining nightclubs in Baltimore and Washington D.C.

It’s a real shame that the memory of Lily Yuen has slipped through the cracks of history. I’d love to know more about this racial puzzle, this dance maniac with the fifty-thousand-dollar legs.

“Lily Yuen, singing comedienne, better known throughout the East as the ‘Hoy-Hoy Girl’...” (The Afro-American, September 28, 1946)


Alex Jay said...

Thanks for introducing Lily to me. I've posted some more information about her on my blog, Chinese American Eyes,

Alex Jay

duriandave said...

Hi Alex! I'm so glad that you posted all those news articles about Lily Yuen. It's great to have them gathered in one spot and is a boon for future researchers. I discovered your blog several weeks ago and have enjoyed discovering so many Chinese American artists I'd never knew about before. Happy holidays!

Bernita Allen said...

Great post. Thanks for sharing her story.

duriandave said...

Glad you found it, Bernita! Thanks saying hi. :)

Dev said...

Thanks Dave for the wonderful post, great to know this "new" Lily Yuen of Afro Chinese origin...

duriandave said...

It's a pleasure to introduce her to you! ;D

Mae Gentry said...

There's more information about Lily Yuen in the book "Josephine Baker: The Hungry Heart," by Baker's adopted son Jean-Claude. He interviewed Yuen for the book and quotes her extensively about her fellow entertainer Josephine Baker.

duriandave said...

Cool! Thanks for the info. I'll definitely check it out.