All his life, Johnny had treasured his musically-inclined grandmother, Teresa Leung. But as much as he thought he knew her through and through, there was one photo album of her past that remained strictly off-limits to him and the rest of his family. Upon her passing, these hidden photos at last came to light. And the scale of the unbelievable double life Johnny’s grandmother had once led was nothing short of electrifying.
The Kwang-Leung Family
Incredible as it was, Johnny’s story was initially intended to serve as a a memorial to his beloved grandmother, Teresa Leung. For all his life, Johnny had only ever seen her as an ordinary grandmother — simple, humble, and protecting him from the occasional bully at school. But, as it turned out, in reality she was anything but ordinary.
Once she moved to the United States, Teresa, born Leung Ping, settled in San Francisco, where her family has lived ever since. Her grandson Johnny, a lifelong resident of the Bay Area, currently works as a freelance artist and art teacher, a talent which he says he inherited from his late grandmother herself. He knew that she was musically inclined, singing and playing piano at the occasional Christmas party. But her full story was yet to be revealed.
A Private Photo Album
As a child, Johnny enjoyed going through his grandmother’s old pictures. From them, he learned more about his family members, his heritage, and about a past rooted in Shanghai that could only be revisited through the photographs. However, Teresa had kept several albums of hidden photos completely to herself — off-limits to the rest of the family.
As a child, Johnny was prohibited from seeing the albums. Even Johnny’s aunt reflected how she once asked her mother if she could see the notorious hidden photos. The answer from Teresa was a resounding no. “You can see them when I go,” she told her. And so the family waited until Teresa’s death in February 2020, before daring to open the secret photo book.
Another Time And Place
Upon opening the album, Johnny and his family were transported through time and space to a different era and an incredible setting. It was the “Golden Age” in Shanghai, a time of prosperity and expansion. New districts were being built to accommodate visitors, and businessmen from the West were flooding in.
By the early 1930s, Shanghai was the world’s fifth-largest city. As the decade progressed, the cosmopolitan metropolis would become home to over 70,000 foreigners, almost half of whom were European Jews fleeing Nazism. Having shown an aptitude for music at an early age, Teresa Leung, would enroll at the newly opened Shanghai Conservatory of Music. It would prove to be the path to amazing fortune.
Teresa was signed to Pathé Records, which later was absorbed by the music giant, EMI Group. The label still exists today, and throughout its history has signed musical talent like The Rolling Stones, Michael Jackson, and Radiohead. When she signed her first record deal in 1942, Teresa was just fifteen years old.
She was trained in shidaiqu, a fusion-genre which blends elements of Chinese folk music with jazz instruments. Songs were typically performed in a high-pitched, almost child-like style, which required sophisticated and well-trained singers. Teresa was in the right place at the right time to launch a successful music career. But trouble was on the horizon.
Nightclub Smash Success
Of course, it helped that Teresa had an amazing voice. She recorded vinyl albums and performed in nightclubs in Shanghai throughout the ’30s, when Western businessmen were frequent patrons. She had several recognizable hits including, “Spring Does Not Come”, “My Youthful Days”, and “Wang Zhaojun”, among others. But the glamour of this lifestyle wouldn’t last forever. This form of music would soon be outlawed.
The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese stormed Shanghai’s International Settlement, imprisoning the nightclubs’ European clientele. At the end of World War II, China entered a devastating period of civil war which had resumed after being on hold during the Japanese occupation. By the end of the 1940s, political upheaval left Teresa’s homeland in a vice. Where would she be able to progress?
War and Hardship
Cities like Shanghai suffered through the decades of conflict, and the Leung family was stuck in the middle. Loss of foreign business and investments led to a dizzying rise in unemployment, which neared forty percent. Exhausted government forces could not prevent the biggest city in China and its population of 6,000,000 from being overtaken by the Communists.
Government forces lost control of Shanghai in 1949 during a fierce battle. In the aftermath, Teresa was forced to flee with her family to neighboring Hong Kong, an administrative region which then belonged to the British and served as a refuge for many Chinese fleeing the Communist takeover. What awaited her there?
The Show Must Go On
Teresa’s art form was under constant pressure after being labeled “yellow”, which meant that it contained commercial elements frowned upon by the Communist government. By the time she settled in Hong Kong in the early 1950s, she was a full-fledged, extremely well-known shidaiqu star. Yet though the city was a safe haven for arts and culture that didn’t meet the Communist standards, she didn’t plan on making the city her permanent home.
After a brief spell in Hong Kong, Teresa and her family relocated to Singapore. It was there where she met the entertainment mogul, Sir Run Run Shaw. He’d founded his own studios and production companies, modeled after early entertainment companies in Hollywood. When Elizabeth Taylor visited Singapore in 1954, Shaw included Teresa in the envoy of entertainers that greeted her. And, as the hidden photos would prove, this wasn’t the only celebrity to cross Teresa’s path.
Traversing Famous Circles
Johnny and his family knew about their matriarch’s international fame. But they largely thought that it existed solely within the realm of shidaiqu fans — who were mostly Chinese. They had no idea that she had once rubbed shoulders with Hollywood royalty, or with Run Run Shaw, a celebrity in his own right. But that was just the tip of the iceberg. The other hidden photos revealed more incredible surprises: Teresa standing with none other than Marian Anderson.
One of the most famous singers of all time, performing opera, classical music, and spirituals, Anderson performed all over the United States and Europe, breaking racial barriers in the process. As goodwill ambassador for the United States, she toured the Far East during the 1950s, stopping in Singapore, which is where she met Teresa in 1957. Teresa’s fame was skyrocketing all over Asia — and her best years were yet to come.
At the time when Elizabeth Taylor and Marian Anderson were touring in East Asia, Teresa was in the prime of her career. She was famous in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and British Malaya (today’s Malaysia). Throughout the 1950s, she was performing live and on radio, in addition to releasing records.
She was friends with several other shidaiqu vocalists, many of whom had become immortalized on the silver screen. In addition to producing the top musical talent in Asia from the 1950s through the 1970s, Run Run Shaw also produced films, casting several shidaiqu vocalists to his movies. The singers/actresses, with their previously-established fame, helped draw larger audiences to the pictures. Similarly, Teresa was about to make a career change of her own.
The Beer And Motorcycle Girl
Teresa was no stranger to television. Though she kept it a secret, her hidden photos laid bare the truth: at one time she appeared in advertisements for the German beer brand Beck’s, among others. One picture shows her posing on a motorcycle. Perhaps she thought that showing her grandson would send the wrong message to him.
While it would have been nice if Teresa could have shared the backstories behind her amazing snapshots, it is also respectable to know just how humble she was to keep the memories to herself. From the sheer number of photos, it is crystal clear that Teresa was a bona fide star. In addition to singing and acting, the family discovered another unbelievable secret.
In a separate album with newspaper clippings from 1952, Johnny and his family discovered something electrifying: that Teresa had competed in the first-ever Miss Universe pageant, representing her then-home country of British Hong Kong. The find was a complete shock to everyone in the family, who had never heard her utter one word about it.
While some older people might revel in pictures that highlight their extraordinary good looks from when they were younger, it simply wasn’t in Teresa’s character. In fact, she almost won the contest. Eventually she was eliminated in the semi-finals by Judy Dan, a Shanghai-born actress who appeared in several American films, including Get Smart and To Kill A Dragon. Yet even this wouldn’t be Teresa’s last time in front of the camera.
When browsing through Teresa’s album of hidden photos, it is difficult to not be struck by how naturally she photographed. In the pictures where she is not singing, it is difficult to tell whether or not the photos were taken as part of a modeling shoot, or just a candid moment in front of the camera. She had indisputable poise.
The photo above, as she casually struts the tarmac, was taken at the first airport in Malaysia. It’s obvious that if there was a readily available camera, Teresa was a prime choice to be included in the photo opp. In some pictures that lacked context, Johnny surmised that they could have potentially been a part of a movie or advertisement. But even her enormous career couldn’t stop one aspiration.
Starting A Family
In the prime of her career, Teresa also made it a point to get married and to have a family, juggling both stardom and motherhood. In the album, Johnny and his family were lucky to find a previously unseen color photograph from Teresa’s wedding night. Pure elegance!
After a singing career spanning more than three decades, Teresa was forced to make a very difficult decision. In the waning years of her career, she decided to immigrate to the United States from Singapore, feeling that her children, and future grandchildren, might have more opportunity there. But first, she had to find a way to support herself.
Settling In San Francisco
After learning about her character, it is perhaps unsurprising that Teresa didn’t stop pursuing her passion even once she’d moved to a new country where she didn’t speak the language fluently. While in San Francisco, she still made it a point to sing, as well as to teach music, occasionally even performing.
Once in the United States, she was invited to give performances in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, as well as in Canada and Australia. She had even boasted to her grandson that she was a member of a gospel choir during the late 1970s in San Francisco, something that Johnny doubted until he finally saw the evidence in her hidden photos. The question lingered: what to do with this newfound explosion of information?
Leaving A Legacy
While Johnny and his family did know that Teresa had been a famous singer, they had no idea just how unbelievably glamorous the beloved grandmother’s life had been. The private photo album served as a window into a life that until that point they had only vague recollections about. Now, Johnny is faced with a decision about what to do with the album.
Since posting the long-hidden photos to the Internet, several media outlets have become interested in his grandmother’s story. Admittedly, Johnny is unsure what his plans are, but he’s not discounting turning the photos into something bigger. Whether or not it’s what his grandmother would want is impossible to tell, but her reluctance to share moments of her life that would be envious to anyone are a true lesson in humility for us all.
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