Sue Kim: the greatest American story never told

By Sarah Gerdes
For Northwest Asian Weekly

The Kim Sisters featured in Life Magazine

Before Tiger Woods, Margaret Cho, and Michelle Wie, there were the Kim Sisters.

Few Americans know the Kim Sisters, arguably one of the most talented and internationally recognized musical acts for generations, were the preeminent female act of the 1960s. Their sold-out shows rivaled those of Sammy Davis Jr., Sinatra, and later in the 70s and 80s, Elvis and John Travolta.

Now, the story of Sue Kim, the lead singer of the group, is being featured in a book and film. As the writer of her authorized biography, and executive producer on the movie adaptation, I am privileged to share her story.

War and food rations

Born Sook-Ja Kim, Sue’s saga began in the early 1950s. Her father, Hai Song Kim, was a famous composer, and her mother, Ran Yong Lee, was one of the most admired singers in Korean history.

The family lived in a secluded mansion, befitting the man who wrote and the woman who sang more than 100 songs reaching the top of Korean musical charts.

With the invasion from the North, Hai Song was taken and executed. Ran Yong was kidnapped. Sue was left to care for her seven siblings. She and her two sisters, Ai-Ja and Min-Ja, sang for the American troops at USO centers around Korea, receiving rations, chocolate bars, and empty whiskey bottles as payment.

“Imagine a 12-year-old having the sense to sing, sell bottles on the black market, and keep her family alive,” said producer Lucas Foster, who optioned the Sue Kim story.

It wasn’t long until the Kim Sisters attracted a former GI-turned-talent-agent, who convinced the group to come to America.

Coming to America

The Kim sisters, from left: Sue, Ai-Ja, and Mia Kim (Photo provided by Sarah Gerdes)

The Kim Sisters arrived in America in 1959 and within a week of performing, were signed to a contract in Las Vegas. Sue didn’t realize her group was selling more tickets than the biggest stars of the day, nor did she know that socializing after hours with Frank Sinatra or Wayne Newton was a big deal.

“We were performing six nights a week, from 8 p.m. until 3 a.m.,” she said. “All we did was work.”

Their poise and professionalism wowed the media, breaking racial barriers they didn’t know existed.

The Kim Sisters were the first Asian group to appear on national television on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

They still hold the record for most appearances — 22 — more than any other act, including the Beatles.

Their show-stopping performance led to invitations to every major television show, including “Dinah Shore” and “Dean Martin.” Sue was featured in a 10-page article in Life Magazine, was profiled in dozens of publications, from the Los Angeles Times to the New York Post, and made the cover of the top weekly magazines, including Parade Magazine. The Chicago Sun-Times even credited the Kim Sisters with starting the occidental clothing trend that had taken the country by storm, comparing Sue to Jackie Kennedy for her sense of style.

Finding love and family

Sue Kim with her husband, John Bonifazio, in 1968 in a wedding photo (Photo provided by Sarah Gerdes)

“Sue Kim’s influence went beyond fashion,” continued Foster. “She was the start of the Korean community in the United States.”

Once Sue was made a U.S. citizen, she brought hundreds of Korean relatives, establishing the Las Vegas basin as an Asian center. Sue’s marriage to New York Italian John Bonifazio seemed odd to many. But to Sue, the bond with the man she’d met during a performance was natural.

“We both believe in family first, above anything,” she said. “It is in our culture. Our DNA.”

As her husband went on to become the longest serving casino boss in the country, Sue had two children, a boy and a girl, though she barely slowed down. At the end of her second pregnancy, Sue played in a tennis tournament, had lunch, then delivered her daughter, Marisa. The following week, she was back in her sequined gown, taking the stage and wowing the black tie crowd at the sold-out show.

Coming to the big screen

In September 2010, the story of Sue Kim’s life was optioned by Warp Entertainment, the producers of blockbuster films “Mr. & Mrs. Smith,” “Man on Fire,” and “Jumper.”

“Sue’s story is an incredible love story, of overcoming adversity against all odds, and one of sacrifice and perseverance,” said producer Lucas Foster. Production is expected to begin next year. “It’s time that the rest of the country learned about her amazing contribution to music and to America.”

The global appeal of the Kim Sisters kept Sue touring across the United States, Europe, and Latin America for decades.

Finally, after nearly 50 years on stage, she decided to retire. She channeled her energy into real estate, and helped to build the local Korean American business community.

Today, Sue Kim, her husband, children, and grandchildren still reside in the Las Vegas basin, a power couple now more at home watching their legacy than being in front of the spotlight.

“I never could have imagined I’d end up here, with all this,” she said, gesturing to her family. “It is where we belong.” ♦

Sarah Gerdes is the writer of Sue Kim’s authorized biography and executive producer of the movie adaptation. For more information, visit sarahgerdes.com.

She can be reached at washingtonauthor@gmail.com.

7 Responses to “Sue Kim: the greatest American story never told”

  1. Sk says:

    The best person I have ever known. Thank you for all that you have done auntie xoxox

  2. Lydia Postolowski says:

    Wow, how wonderful for you Sue! We missed hearing from you via Xmas card this past year(Xmas ’12) and were wondering how you and John were doing and feeling?! For everyone, John & Sue are relatives of ours from back in NY. Her mother-in-law was my great aunt. My Mom & Aunt Dolly here in Fl. were very close with her mother-in-law and the family. We have been trying to get in touch with Sue & John to inform them of some latest family news. Did this book/movie ever come about yet? Only read this article now sent from my sister who is going on a trip to Las Vegas soon and was trying to get in touch with the family. Hope all is well with my cousins, John and Sue, love to them and their family, Lydia

  3. When I ran the NCO club in Soul Korea in the 1950’s, I hired the 3 Kim sisters when we could get them. I was in the 8030 Ordnance Company. This was at the edge of the 6th Army compond. I used to pick them up in a 2 1/2 ton Army Truck. The ride was very bumpy and rough. They performed very well and worked hard. I know it was not easy in front of drinking troops to preform. I had to return them late after the show to get them safely home. I will save the artical from the August 20 to August 26 edition on page 9.

    Larry M

  4. Susan says:

    Wow, I can’t wait. I am so proud of Sue’s accomplishment as a Korean-American. She is a great role model for many young people.

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