Thu, Nov 28, 2019 - Page 13 News List

The Tao of Stephen Cheng

A look at the late entertainer reveals the difficulties Chinese faced breaking into the American entertainment industry in the US during the 1950s and 1960s

By James Baron  /  Contributing reporter

Stephen Cheng sings at the studio of WNYC, the “most-listened to public radio station in America.”

Photo courtesy of Chung Li Lo Photography

Like many Chinese immigrants in 1950s America, Stephen Cheng (程俊濤) had difficulty breaking into the entertainment industry over concerns that he was a spy.

“He graduated during the [Joseph] McCarthy era when any Chinese person was questioned about whether they were a communist,” says his son Pascal Cheng, referring to a time when many entertainers were seen as communist sympathizers.

But fortunately Stephen Cheng was working with Voice of America, which wrote a letter attesting to his character and saying he wasn’t a communist.

Evidence of Stephen Cheng’s political affiliations is scant.

“I think he was basically apolitical,” says his son. “He never wanted to talk much about the thirties and forties. It think it was pretty traumatic.”


Stephen Cheng was born to a wealthy family in Shanghai in 1923 before emigrating to the US in 1948, where he studied voice at Julliard and Columbia. Yet, there were gaps in the biography. Among his personal effects were some clues, such as an address in Shanghai’s French Concession.

“When the communists came they lost everything, including the family home. There was a big exodus of educated Chinese,” Pascal Cheng says.

Pascal Cheng says that following graduation in 1944 from St John’s University — China’s most prestigious college until it was dismantled by the communists in 1952 — his father worked as a journalist in Shanghai and southern China from 1945 to 1948. Thanks to an arrangement dating from 1905 that enabled St John’s to be registered as a domestic university in the US, graduates gained admission to American colleges.

Pascal Cheng is still unsure what spurred his father’s change of direction and how he earned a scholarship to one of the world’s most prestigious performing arts schools.

“I’m trying to learn where he got the passion for music because there isn’t anything in his background,” he said.


Post-graduation, life in the US was no cakewalk.

“He didn’t do the typical Chinese immigrant thing, like open a restaurant or a laundromat,” says Pascal Cheng. “He went into the arts, which was very challenging for a Chinese immigrant. He was trying to break into entertainment and got small parts in Broadway productions like The World of Suzie Wong.”

Playing the role of hotel manager Ah Tong in the stage version of Richard Mason’s novel, Cheng trod the boards alongside William Shatner. He held his own in the production, which ran from 1958-1959, with one critic calling him the“standout” performer. It was the pinnacle of his stage career, yet he wasn’t quite able to capitalize on it.

“You need to have more than one talent to make it in the theater,” Stephen Cheng told the Jamaica Gleaner during a visit to Kingston that yielded the recording of Always Together. “It is a difficult profession, and the beginner has to be prepared to keep on and on till he makes it.”

Always Together is based on the perennial KTV favorite, the song Alishan Maiden (阿里山的姑娘), which was first recorded in 1949, shortly after the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) retreated to Taiwan.

Assumed by many to be an Aboriginal melody, the song was actually the theme to a film called Storm Clouds Over Alishan (阿里山風雲). Composition is attributed to the movie’s director, Chang Cheh (張徹), under its original title “Green is the High Mountain.” Of the many versions over the years, a 1971 cover by a 17-year-old Teresa Teng (鄧麗君) is among the most beloved. For Chinese speakers worldwide, the song is a folk standard.

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