1930 UH Graduate won first Documentary Film Oscar in 1941

Gladys Li as shown in Ka Palapala

Gladys Li as shown in Ka Palapala

You may have seen the PBS documentary Finding Kukan, about the story of Li Ling-Ai, a female film producer from Hawai‘i who was uncredited for her work on an Oscar-winning documentary about World War II in China called Kukan.  Winning an Honorary Academy Award in 1941—the first instance of an Oscar being bestowed to a documentary before becoming an official category the next year—Kukan introduced audiences to the ethnicities within China and provided the only ground-level footage of the bombing of Chongqing by the Japanese Air Force in World War II.  Finding Kukan producer and director Robin Lung brought to light Ling-Ai’s story, which had gone untold for decades. Both mysteries are unraveled over a seven-year journey in Finding Kukan.

Punahou graduate Li Ling-Ai went by Gladys Ling Oi Li while at UH, where she graduated in Language, Literature, Art.  While a member of a variety of literary and honor societies, it’s interesting to note she did not belong to the Chinese Students’ Alliance.  Her activities at the time of her 1930 graduation included:

  • A. W. – Executive Committee
  • Berndt Stage
  • Cosmopolitan Club
  • Dramatic Nights.
  • Hawaii Quill – President & VP
  • Hawaii Quill Magazine – Staff
  • Hui Po‘okela
  • Ka Leo – Staff
  • Ka Palapala – Staff
  • University Chorus
  • University Press Club

Upon graduation, she made the “Who’s Who.”

Photos of Li and others arrayed as winners of a personality contest judged by Lon Chaney, along with Chaney's letter explaining his judging.

Li’s relationship with Hollywood started in her junior year, as evidenced by the letter from horror star Lon Chaney.


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