By Brennan Lowe
(Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of Kollaboration SF’s Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month series on prominent APA figures in media. Follow us on WordPress and FB, and check in every week of May for new profiles and features!)
What if I told you that the biggest K-Pop success ever seen in America happened some fifty years ago? That, in the 1960s, a family trio of female Korean singers and musicians enjoyed a longer period of sustained public visibility in the US than BoA, Rain, Se7en, the Wonder Girls, SNSD, and “Gangnam Style” did combined? (This is without the help of Twitter and YouTube, may I remind you, so feel free to leave your “but global online followings!” argument at the door.) Don’t believe me? Watch the above video and say hello to The Kim Sisters.
Long before PSY galloped in and out of the American cultural conscience, and long before Nickelodeon decided to jump on the Hallyu wave by doing, well, whatever Make It Pop is, The Kim Sisters enjoyed a period of unmatched success in this country through playing the primetime variety show circuit. As regular performers on the ubiquitous The Ed Sullivan Show and its West Coast counterpart Hollywood Palace, sisters Sook-ja and Ai-ja and cousin Min-ja seemed poised to lead the way for other Asian and Asian American musical acts to find national visibility. Allow me to give some context for their achievements, since today’s television programming culture has all but done away with shows like Ed Sullivan. Their feats are the rough equivalent of 2NE1 performing at every awards show while also being featured every week on SNL. That’s how integral variety shows were to the American public in those days, and that’s how often that same public tuned in to see a Kim Sisters performance. Singing both American and Korean standards while boasting the ability to play twenty (count em!) instruments, The Kim Sisters very well could have been made legends in the entertainment world. They could have ushered in a golden era of Asian performers in America and I wouldn’t have had to write this piece, but that golden era never materialized, and I’m writing this while anxiously waiting for the likes of CL and Aziatix to make even the slightest splash in the US music scene.
So what happened? How could the trails these women blazed be left so untraveled? One obvious answer lies in the time of The Kim Sisters’ ascent. As referred to by Min-ja in a recent interview, their timing was perfect, for few to no other Asian acts had the ability or opportunities to gain traction in the US. The Kims were aided tremendously by their relationship with Ed Sullivan himself, and it’s arguable that they may have never breached the American public eye without this connection. Another reason may be in the fact that, though The Kim Sisters rose quickly to prominence after their American debut in 1959, their careers simply did not last long enough to leave a strong legacy for future generations of would-be stars. When the trio promptly each got married in 1967, The Kim Sisters immediately and permanently disbanded, content with family life. There were no comebacks, no reunion tours, and no solo careers to blossom in suit. All that remains of The Kim Sisters’ legacy are a smattering of YouTube videos and bunches of viewers wondering why they hadn’t heard of them before. It seems almost unimaginable that an Asian act could reach the same consistent heights that The Kim Sisters did in today’s world, let alone that of a half-century ago, but it happened. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another fifty years for it to again.
Brennan is an incoming 1L at the UC Irvine School of Law. If you’re reading this Steph Curry is the MVP. Send hate mail to firstname.lastname@example.org or talk trash on twitter @flawanddisorder.