I’m not sure where I first learned about this beautiful graphic novel, but I think it was somewhere on Amazon. I love Chinese history, a good romance, and–kind of new for me–graphic novels. Ann Marie Fleming’s The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam: An Illustrated Memoir (Riverhead, 2007) was all of that and so much more.
I knew nothing about Long Tack Sam before I read this book, but if I’d lived 100 years ago he would have been a household name.
You see, Long Tack Sam was born in northern China in the late 1800s and went to England and then the US. His early story is a little vague and Ann Marie Fleming, Long’s great-granddaughter, handles these different versions of his childhood in a creative way: different versions of the same comic.
Long was a vaudeville staple who traveled around the world. He performed with Cary Grant, Laurel and Hardy, Jean Harlow, and just about every famous performer before talking movies became mainstream. His name was on the grandest marquees around the world and his speciality was Chinese acrobatics and magic, which, according to his great-granddaughter and her research, go hand in hand in China. And that’s where Long learned his trade.
Before the end of the Qing dynasty, Long’s most famous act involved hanging on a wire from his long braid. Once 1911 hit (and Fleming has amazing historical sidebars throughout the book that outline American and Chinese history, films, art, and other hot topics ranging from the end of the Qing to the early 21st century), “kews” were outlawed in China and Long cut his.
When Long was traveling with his vaudeville troupe through Austria before the start of WWI, he met and fell in love with an Austrian woman named Leopoldi, or Poldi for short. The two married, but were separated due to Long’s hectic international travel schedule. When they were reunited, they had two daughters, stunning beauties with the stage names of Mi-Na and Nee-Sa who became part of their father’s exotic vaudeville act. Imagine dragons, long Chinese robes, lanterns, and gongs. Long played those up and his audiences just loved it.
But poor Poldi had a hard time on the road and missed her native Austria. On the other hand, she would do anything to prevent another separation from her husband. The couple eventually had a son who didn’t go into showbiz.
WWII brought more stress to the family since Hitler’s ideal German/Austrian didn’t include someone who looked like Long or their daughters. The family was in Austria when the war broke out, but eventually made it back to the US and lived there, Australia, and China.
This memoir not only traces Long’s story, but also the many routes Fleming took to find out more about her grandmother (Mi-Na) and great-grandfather (Long). It’s fascinating to learn about her journey and about her family’s history. The graphics are precious and include illustrations, newspaper clippings, old photos, and guest comics by another illustrator. It’s such a beautiful multi-media publication, the kind of book I’d much rather own than borrow.
If you like graphic novels, Chinese history, a good love story, or showbiz history, you’ll love this book as much as I do.