Some 50 years before South Korea would export K-pop music across the globe, a trio of talented Korean singer-musicians arrived in the U.S. via the Las Vegas showroom scene. In January 1959, the Kim Sisters — comprised of sisters Sook-Ja, Ai-Ja, and their cousin Min-Ja — joined the cast of “The China Doll Revue” at the Thunderbird Hotel for a four-week engagement. Within a year, the girl group had released an album, performed on The Ed Sullivan Show, and were optioned to perform in the lounge at the Stardust Hotel. As a scholar of race and American popular culture and television, I am fascinated by the Kim Sisters’ sudden and spectacular appearance on the American “small screen” and entertainment scene.
At the UNLV Libraries Special Collections, I am researching the materials that document how the Kim Sisters were produced and received as Asian ethnic performers by American audiences during the Cold War 1960s. My research began with the Kim Sisters scrapbooks, which contain an abundance of photos and press clippings that describe the trio’s early years performing for American GIs in Korea, their arrival in Las Vegas, and career success within national popular culture.
To provide historical and cultural context, I have turned to entertainment publications like Jack Cortez’s Fabulous Las Vegas Magazine, which regularly featured showgirls and other performers who starred in the city’s Orientalist spectacles like “Holiday in Japan,” “Philippine Festival,” and “Holiday in the Orient.” Reading Fabulous Las Vegas Magazine, alongside Las Vegas newspapers like the Las Vegas Sun, I work to draw connections between the racial and sexual spectacle of the Las Vegas entertainment scene in the early 1960s and broader social anxieties related to Cold War politics and the growing Civil Rights and sexual liberation movements. The show programs for productions like “The World of Suzie Wong” and “The Flower Drum Song” in the Las Vegas Show Programs Collection have also provided rich visual materials for analysis of American Orientalist imagery at the time.
In addition to articles, photos, and show programs, I have also looked at Sook-Ja’s transcribed interview for the Las Vegas Women in Gaming and Entertainment oral history project and considered how the performer’s personal memory and perception of the Kim Sisters as Korean entertainers differs from and conflicts with the narratives about the Kim Sisters that circulated in the popular press. Narratives in the press, I have found, focused largely on the Kim Sisters’ beauty as exotic, cute, or a combination of the two, as well as the Kim Sisters’ supposed quick assimilation to American customs.
Drawing from theories about race and Asian Americans in the postwar era, my project explores how the Kim Sisters’ star-text can be used to theorize the role of beauty, sexuality, and feminine ideals as each of these relates to cultural and legal citizenship, American democracy and capitalism, and U.S. military and economic expansion in Asia and the Pacific during the Cold War 1960s.