“[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.”
The Kim Sisters playing the banjo in a concert in Hawaii in 1963.
The Kim Sisters performing at the Latin Quarter in New York in 1963.
The Kim Sisters playing the marimba at the Palmer House in Chicago in 1965.
The Kim Sisters playing the violin at the Stardust Hotel in Las Vegas in 1965.
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.”
The Kim Sisters with Dean Martin on the set of his show in 1967.
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.
The Kim Sisters with Frank Sinatra at the Harrah’s Club (Lake Tahoe) in 1976.
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.
Sue Kim, in a photo taken this past April.
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).