1941 – At the Academy Awards, John Ford accepted the Oscar for his directing of the ‘Grapes of Wrath,’ ‘Pinocchio’ won for best Original Score and ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’ won for best song.
Keep this in mind; it will put some context to the end of this story. First, let’s look back.
In 1896, western-trained doctors from the Canton School of Medicine, Li Khai Fai and Kong Tai Heong, married and then emigrated to Honolulu from China.
A few short years later, they were one of the first to diagnose the bubonic plague in Honolulu’s Chinatown. This led to the “state of emergency,” quarantine and subsequent “sanitary fire” of Chinatown in 1900.
Although properly set, the fire soon went out of control and caused the destruction of all premises bounded by Kukui Street, River Street, Queen Street (presently Ala Moana Boulevard) and Nuʻuanu Avenue. No lives were lost in the fire, but 4,000 people were left homeless, without food and with little of anything else.
Li Khai Fai was vilified by many Chinese for reporting one of the first bubonic plague cases to the authorities, resulting in what author James C Mohr calls “the worst civic disaster in Hawaiian history” next to the 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor — the accidental burning of the entire Chinatown district and the forced quarantine of all its inhabitants. (Lung)
But that’s not what this story is about – the rest of this story deals with conflict in the Li’s homeland, China – and, the telling of that story has more Hawaiʻi links.
Li Khai Fai and Kong Tai Heong had several children; a daughter, Li Ling Ai, was born in Honolulu and was a 1926 graduate of Punahou School and later a graduate from the University of Hawaiʻi.
In 1930, she traveled to Pekin and studied Chinese theater. The second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) forced her to leave China.
Before 1937, China and Japan fought in small, localized engagements – so-called “incidents”. The last of these was the Marco Polo Bridge Incident of 1937, marking the beginning of total war between the two countries.
Initially, the invading Japanese scored major victories in Shanghai, and by the end of 1937 captured the Chinese capital of Nanking. After failing to stop the Japanese in Wuhan, the Chinese central government moved to Chongqing in the Chinese interior.
In 1937, Li Ling Ai and Rey Scott tell the stories of that war through film – ‘Kukan,’ a color documentary of China at war.
Though she defied tradition in many ways, Li Ling Ai identified closely with her father and his efforts to bring reform to China. After the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, it became her mission to bring China’s plight to the attention of the western world.
Educating Americans about the history and culture of China was an integral part of that mission, and she would employ her dramatic personality and exotic beauty to do so. (Lung)
When it premiered in New York on June 23, 1941 the US was still maintaining a policy of neutrality in military conflicts abroad. But the film clearly depicted the brutality of the invading Japanese military against the citizens of China, and it became a rallying point for those who wanted to sway public opinion towards US engagement in the Chinese war. (Lung)
The film about the Chinese resistance to Japanese aggression during the early part of World War II was screened at the White House for President Roosevelt, was widely covered in newspapers across the country and was the subject of editorials in papers like the New York Times and Chicago Daily Times.
“A crudely made but intensely interesting fact film about modern China, the land of unconquerable people … “Kukan” means “heroic action” – or perhaps, more freely, “courage” – and a more appropriate word could not be found to express the spirit of this film.” (New York Times, June 24, 1941)
“’Kukan’ is one of the few pictures ever made about China which conveys an overpowering sense of the vastness and variety of that great nation, of the tenacity of its millions of people and the mass strength which lies in its depths.” (New York Times, June 24, 1941)
In 1941, Rey Scott was awarded a Special Academy Award for “for his extraordinary achievement in producing Kukan, the film record of China’s struggle, including its photography with a 16mm camera under the most difficult and dangerous conditions,” making Kukan the first American feature documentary to win an Academy Award. Co-producer Li Ling Ai was also listed as the film’s “Technical Advisor.”
However, after the war’s end and the Communist takeover of China, the film faded from view along with the story of its creators. In fact, until recently, Kukan was officially categorized as a “lost” film by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
At the end of 2009, after a year of preliminary research into the life of Li Ling Ai, producer Robin Lung discovered the only known copy of ‘Kukan’ and has been on a mission ever since to find out more about the film and its creators.
Lung’s quest to restore the badly damaged print of Kukan and the story of its makers to their rightful place in history sends her from one end of the country to the other, searching for answers in the past to validate her vision for the future.
In a quickly changing future obsessed 21st Century world, “Finding Kukan” (a film on the film) pauses to look back, examining how history is made vs. how it’s recorded; how it shapes current issues surrounding race, gender, identity and art; and why a healthy future depends on preserving diverse stories from our past.
Like ‘Kukan’, ‘Finding Kukan’ has been recognized with American Library Association “Notable Film for Adults” 2019; Broadcast on PBS World’s America ReFramed Series, May 2018; Audience Award, LA Asian Pacific Film Festial 2017; Honorable Mention, Documentary Award, CAAMFest 2017; Best Documentary, Special Jury Award, Hawaii International Film Festival 2016; Courage in Cinema Award, UMass Boston Film Series 2017; Audience Award Honorable Mention, Boston Asian American Film Festival 2017.