Words by Samantha Pak
The 442: A JoySauce column named after the military unit, designed to school you (in all the best ways) on accomplished Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders of the past. Asians have been shaping American history, culture, food, politics, identity, and more for centuries—it’s time we acknowledge what’s been left out of most textbooks.
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Before idols took over the American music charts, there were The Kim Sisters—the original K-pop stars before the concept of K-pop was even conceived.
BTS may have its ARMY, but The Kim Sisters’ first fans were actual soldiers. The trio, made up of sisters Kim Sook-ja (Sue) and Kim Ai-ja, and their cousin Kim Min-ja (Mia), got their start in the 1950s during the Korean War. From 1953-1958, they performed on an entertainment circuit linking U.S. military camps throughout South Korea. They traveled to the United States shortly after Bob McMackin—an ex-GI turned music promoter, who became the group’s first manager—saw them perform and worked to bring them to the United States. Once they arrived in 1959, The Kim Sisters began making a name for themselves.
As the daughters of composer Kim Hai-Song and legendary Korean singer Lee Nan-Young, Sue and Ai-ja were born into a musical family. Their father, an “outspoken anti-communist who incorporated Western styles into his musical composition,” was taken prisoner by North Korea in 1950 and later executed, according to The World.
With seven children to care for on her own, Nan-Young turned to the same thing that helped her and her family survive Japanese colonial rule two decades prior: music.
Armed with only a few American records purchased off the black markets, Nan-Young began training her daughters and niece (whom she had adopted). She molded the girls—at the time, Sue was 12, Ai-ja was 11, and Mia was 10—into a sister act in the vein of American girl groups like The Andrews Sisters and The McGuire Sisters. From American standards and folk, to hillbilly and country, to salsa, the girls sang a variety of styles, learning the lyrics phonetically since they didn’t speak English. In addition to singing, the girls also learned to play instruments, including bass guitar, tenor saxophone and drums.
The Kim Sisters signed with an American producer and moved stateside in 1959, while they were still teenagers. They appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show 22 times (more than any other act), and performed in Las Vegas, where they became a consistently top-selling act. They also shared the stage with big names like Louis Armstrong and Dean Martin. During an era filled with sister acts, playing those instruments paid off as it helped The Kim Sisters stand out from the rest. In a 2018 interview with NBC News, Sue said, “If you added to your act, something extra, people would be wowed. That these Asian girls not only sing, not only dance, but also play different instruments. That was the key.”
Sue also compared The Kim Sisters to present-day K-pop stars. Performers of today are similarly disciplined like they were, she said, but not everyone can handle that. The trio had no choice but to handle it because they were singing for their survival as well as their family’s in South Korea.
The trio dissolved by the mid 1970s after Sue and Mia had a falling out over their husbands’ involvement in the group. Ai-ja died of lung cancer in 1987. Today, Sue still occasionally performs in Las Vegas, while Mia lives in Hungary with her husband and regularly performs in jazz clubs.
Published on August 31, 2022
Words by Samantha Pak
Samantha Pak (she/her) is an award-winning Cambodian American journalist from the Seattle area and assistant editor for JoySauce. She spends more time than she’ll admit shopping for books than actually reading them, and has made it her mission to show others how amazing Southeast Asian people are. Follow her on Twitter at @iam_sammi and on Instagram at @sammi.pak.