Cherylene Lee (1956-2016): Pioneering Actor and Writer

Cherylene Lee with Gene Kelly.
The "Chinese Shirley Temple" danced alongside Gene Kelly, starred in "Flower Drum Song," and became an award-winning playwright.

Cherylene Lee, a trailblazing Asian American actor and writer, passed away on March 18 after a decade-long battle with breast cancer.

Cherylene Lee started as a child actor at age three. For three summers, she and her sister, Virginia, performed on the Las Vegas strip as The Lee Sisters act. Lee is perhaps best known for her role in Flower Drum Song, where she sang and danced in “The Other Generation,” which also starred her sister. She appeared in shows like Dennis the Menace, M.A.S.H., and other TV shows and movies in the 1950s and 60s. Lee went on to become a prolific, award-winning playwright.

“Cherylene Lee was a remarkable woman, whose career spanned stage, screen and television,” said CAAM Executive Director Stephen Gong. “We are proud of having the opportunity to help Cherylene tell her story and send our deepest condolences to her family.”

Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 12.39.22 PM

In 2011, with support from the Creative Work Fund, CAAM began working with Cherylene on a live multimedia presentation ofJust Like Really”: An Uncommon Chinese American Memoir at SFIAAFF in 2012. We then produced several short videos, and finally, the longer video piece by John Liau (below).

In the video, Lee talks about her motivation as a writer:

“As a playwright, whose plays often draw parallels between the past and the present, East and West, science and art, I found a breach between how Asian Americans were and are still perceived, and how we perceive ourselves. I write to bridge that gap, to illuminate our humanity, our emotional common ground, to show how we all fit together, how we reinvent ourselves, how we all have a place at the table. What can be more American than that.” — Cherylene Lee