Friday, December 20, 2013

Lily Yuen

Lily Yuen was born in Savannah, Georgia around 1902, according to census records at In the 1910 U.S. Federal Census, she was eight years old, her name was spelled with two Ls and was the oldest of three children. The second oldest was her sister, Olivia, who was born in Florida. Next was Alfred Brown, a step-brother. A later census revealed that Yuen had two older sisters, Jennie and Edna. Their parents were Joe, a Chinese emigrant, and Josie, a Georgia native, and their father operated his own laundry business.

Yuen attended St. Benedict’s, a Catholic school. She was scheduled to participate in the closing exercises on June 16, 1913; her character was Lucy in the one-act play, “Ghost in the School Room.” In the Savannah Tribune, June 14, 1913 article below, it’s not clear what grade she was in.

In the May, 12, 1917, Savannah Tribune, the St. Benedict’s School report cards were handed out and seventh-grader Yuen received a 95.

In the 1920 census, eighteen-year-old Yuen resided in Savannah with her older sister, Edna, and her husband, John Mingo, both of whom were in the laundry business. Their address was 407 Taylor. Yuen’s occupation was ticket seller at a theater. A 1920 Savannah city directory listing said: “Yuen, Lilly, cshr [cashier] Star Theater, r 407 Taylor, w”. About seven months after the census enumeration, Yuen was injured in a car accident as reported in the Savannah Tribune, August 14, 1920.

Hula dancer Yuen was mentioned in the December 15, 1921, Savannah Tribune.

The passing of Yuen’s maternal grandmother was published in the Savannah Tribune, May 11, 1922.

According to the blog, Soft Film, Yuen started dancing professionally in 1922. A Century of Musicals in Black and White (1993) said Yuen appeared in the 1923 vaudeville revue, “Jones Syncopated Syncopators”. In the following articles, Yuen’s name appeared most of time as “Lily Yuen”, and sometimes as “Lilly Yuen”, “Lily Pontop (her nickname) Yuen”, “L. Pontop” and “L. Pontop Yuen”.

The upcoming performance of Yuen the “wonder dancer” was noted in the Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), February 13, 1925.

The Afro-American (Baltimore, Maryland), June 20, 1925, profiled Yuen in the page four article, “Artist Here from Savannah Had Chinese Father; A Racial Puzzle”.

According to A Century of Musicals in Black and White (1993), the revue, “Brownskin Models”, began at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem in 1925. Yuen was a principal. She also appeared in “Miss Georgia Brown”.

Chronicle Telegram
(Elyria, Ohio)
January 18, 1926

Kansas City Advocate
February 19, 1926

Cleveland Plain Dealer
December 26, 1926

New York Age
February 4, 1928

New York Age
February 11, 1928

New York Age
April 20, 1929

New York Age
June 8, 1929

New York Age
August 17, 1929

According to A Century of Musicals in Black and White (1993), Yuen appeared in the 1929 vaudeville revue, “Hottentots of 1930”.

In the 1930 census, Yuen, age 25, resided in Manhattan, New York City, at 232 West 142nd Street. Her sister, Edna, had remarried to Devereaux Greene, the head of the household. Also there was Yuen’s mother (a widow) and brother.

New York Age
April 19, 1930

New York Age
April 26, 1930

New York Age
May 31, 1930

New York Age
July 12, 1930

The Afro-American
September 6, 1930

New York Age
June 13, 1931

New York Age
June 20, 1931

Brooklyn Daily Eagle
August 21, 1931

Daily Star
(Long Island City, New York)
August 21, 1931

New York Post
August 21, 1931

New York Age
October 31, 1931

Brooklyn Daily Eagle
May 27, 1932

New York Age
June 4, 1932

The Plaindealer
(Kansas City, Kansas)
April 20, 1934

New York Age
February 9, 1935

New York Age
February 16, 1935

New York Post
July 1, 1936

New York Post
September 4, 1937

New York Post
September 11, 1937

The Augusta Chronicle
March 24, 1938

The Pittsburgh Courier, February 25, 1939, reported the death of Yuen’s older sister, Jennie.
Savannah, Ga. Feb. 23.—Mrs. Jennie Webb, sister of Lily “Pontop” Yuen and Libo Yuen, died here at her home, 612 W. Broad street, on February 2. Libo, who was in Honolulu at the time of her sister’s death, flew by plane to San Francisco in order to arrive here in time for the final rites. In addition to Lily and Libo, Mrs. Webb is survived by her mother, Mrs. Josie Pontop Yuen; her husband Jim Webb; sister, Edna Mingo of New York and a brother, Tommie Yuen, also of New York.
Yuen has not been found in the 1940 census.

New York Age
May 4, 1940

New York Age
November 9, 1940

The Afro-American
September 28, 1946
Headlining in Baltimore
page six photograph

In Josephine Baker: The Hungry Heart (2001), Yuen recalls the apartment she shared with Josephine Baker and other chorus girls.
Josephine and some of the other girls were staying at 200 West 137th Street, in an apartment up over the Howell Funeral Parlor. She and Mildred Smallwood shared a room. In the 1980s, I went to Harlem to interview Lilly Yuen, who still lived in that fifth-floor walk-up apartment. She told me Mama Dinks had held the leases on a few places like this that she sublet to show people. “There was a bunch of us girls here, Josephine had the smallest of the four bedrooms.
She showed me the long narrow cubicle with a window at one end....“At first I was afraid to live over a funeral parlor,” Lilly said....“People always say she was in the Cotton Club,” Lilly complained. “Josephine wasn’t in no Cotton Club. She was just a chorus girl, baby, we all was chorus girls.”

The New York Public Library, Archives & Manuscripts
Lily Yuen was a singer and dancer, who also considered herself a comedienne, performer of novelty songs, parodies and specialty acts, as well as an emcee, during the 1920’s and 1930’s. She was a principal in the Brownskin Models, an annual touring revue produced by Irvin C. Miller in which her sister, Libo, also appeared. Yuen performed in “Broadway Rastus,” “Fast and Furious” and “Yeah Man.” Lily Yuen, also known as “Hoy Hoy” and “Pontop,” was born in Georgia and lived her adult life in New York City. The Lily Yuen Papers provides some documentation of the dancing and entertainment career of this revue performer, in addition to containing personal family papers. A small number of papers pertain to Yuen’s mother, brother, husband, and her sister and colleague, Libo (Olivia) Yuen. Of interest are two manuscript joke books containing hundreds of jokes, many titled, often about the relationship between men and women. There are also programs for the Brownskin Models, “Fast and Furious” and “Yeah Man,” and sheet and manuscript music, some with parts, and most annotated, including “Can’t Believe” and “Why Do I Lie to Myself About You?” A scrapbook of newsclippings documents Yuen’s career as a Brownskin Model during the group’s nationwide tours (1926-1930). The scrapbook emphasizes Yuen’s fellow dancer, Blanche Thompson, who was a principal dancer in Brownskin Models, as well as Florence Mills of “Bye Bye Blackbirds” fame. Yuen’s sister, Libo, is also mentioned in the scrapbook as a dancer.

An obituary or death notice for Yuen has not been found.

(Today’s post supports Arthur Dong’s upcoming exhibition, “Forbidden City, USA: Chinese American Nightclubs, 1936-1965.”; next post December 27: Beatrice Fung Oye)