Man Finds Old Family Photos, Realizes Who Grandma Really Was

Teresa Lung lived most of her life as a regular immigrant in the United States. She was known to be humble, and there wasn’t anything about her that might have suggested that she was hiding something big. However, when Teresa passed away in February 2020, a major revelation came to light. Hello wonderful people, I’m Scott Lefler for Wonderbot, and here is “Man Finds Old Family Photos, Realizes Who Grandma Really Was.”

Despite being a fairly private person, Teresa’s family thought they knew her very well. They knew she had grown up in Shanghai and then moved around Asia when things got hard, to finally elope in the United States of America toward the second half of the 20th century, where she led a normal life raising her children.

But this grandma had lived a life like no other and had documented it all in a photo album she kept private until she died. Nothing could have prepared her family for what they found. Teresa’s family knew the album existed, but it was off-limits.

“You can look at them when I go,” she’d tell them whenever they asked, and they honored her wishes. The truth finally came to light when her grandson Johnny Kwan started looking for pictures to use in her memorial services. He thought he’d find similar pictures to the ones he’d already seen, so his findings were a bit shocking, to say the least. The content of the album took Johnny way back to his roots when Shanghai was a prosperous and fast-growing city in the ’30s, home to many tourists and migrants from Europe. It’s where Teresa discovered her passion for music and enrolled in the then-newly opened Shanghai Music Conservatory.

Teresa’s family knew she was talented and musically inclined, but they never knew to which extent. Teresa was a skilled vocalist and pianist, and at age 15, she’d be signed to Path Records, later absorbed by the giant EMI group, which still exists to this day and signed many musical stars throughout the years. She was a shidaku singer, a fusion genre that mixes Chinese folk elements with jazz instruments. Such a genre requires a lot of training and skill, but to Teresa, it came naturally, and she earned a reputation in no time. However, this was only the first surprise of many.

Teresa had many hits and performed in different Shanghai nightclubs, where she sang for some of the most notable citizens. Teresa was already a success in her craft and very well-known, thanks to hits such as “Spring Does Not Come,” “My Youthful Days,” and “Wang Jiaozun.” But her glamorous days in her hometown would not last much longer. Something was about to happen. Teresa’s successful youth doesn’t mean she didn’t experience any hardships growing up in Shanghai.

She experienced the Second Sino-Japanese War, which lasted eight years and was over in 1945. Once World War II was over, China almost immediately entered a difficult civil war between the government and the Communists that lasted for about four years, leaving countless losses. The war ended with a difficult decision to make. The civil war finally came to an end with Communist leader Mao Zedong establishing the People’s Republic of China in October 1949, while the Nationalists had to retreat to Taiwan, escaping their defeat in mainland China. The war was truly devastating for the population.

About 5 million civilians lost their lives due to illness, famine, and combat. The situation was desperate for many, including Teresa. What would she do now? Not only was the country and her hometown in utter chaos, but her craft was under threat as well. Shidaku was categorized as yellow music, prohibited nationwide.

The government only allowed musical propaganda; everything else was banned. For Teresa and her family, the only option was to relocate, so they moved to Hong Kong, like many mainland Chinese seeking refuge. However, she would find much more than just safety. At the time, Hong Kong was still under British administration, so it became a popular destination for those fleeing the war, not only from China but from other parts of the world too. Hong Kong was a land of opportunities, and she worked very hard to stay afloat.

Survival became more important than her career, but you won’t believe how she managed to juggle both. Teresa moved to Hong Kong in the 50s, but she wasn’t planning on staying for too long. She also lived in Singapore for a while before definitely moving to the United States in 1971. Despite the adversities and political turmoil in the region, Theresa managed to hold onto her fame as a shidaku singer. However, she always found time to teach others during her time in Singapore but soon discovered that her stardom days were truly stunning.

Theresa’s family was aware that she had a successful career way back when and she had passed down her love and skill to her kin. “We have a very musical family, actually, which probably started with my grandma,” Johnny shared on his Facebook page. Johnny himself, like his grandma, is very musically inclined and currently works as a freelance artist and art teacher in the Bay Area.

Johnny knew his grandma was a tenacious woman, but he never knew to which extent until that moment. He remembers his grandma presenting herself as a very humble and simple woman, but she surely stunned everyone when she was playing the occasional concert during the holidays.

It seemed like Johnny had a very special bond with Theresa, and he shared a bit on Facebook. “My fondest memories are of her going to school with me and actually protecting me from bullies.” Seeing more of his grandma’s youth helped him connect to her even more, but nothing could have prepared him for what he’d find out later when he was tasked to scan his grandma’s pictures for her funeral.

He was so shocked by the album that he had to share it on his Facebook profile. He made an album named “My Grandma” containing 83 of the photos he had mostly taken between the 50s and the 60s, showcasing Theresa’s extraordinary life, not only as a singer but also as a beauty queen and a model.

No wonder why he felt he had to share this discovery with all his friends. In the album, there were only newspaper clippings that showed evidence of the time she was a beauty queen, but there was a major twist to this revelation. A photo showed her time competing for Miss Hong Kong toward Miss Universe. “I honestly had no idea. It surprised a lot of us in the family,” Johnny shared on Facebook.

Digging deeper into this, now it appears that this was actually for the very first Miss Universe contest ever that would be won by Miss Finland, Army Kusela. “My grandma made it to the semi-finals for Miss Hong Kong but lost to Judy Dan, who would place third in Miss Universe.” This was truly surprising, but Theresa’s album had so much more in store. She also had pictures rubbing shoulders with some of Hollywood’s top celebrities. During her time in Singapore, she met entertainment mogul Sir Shaw, who opened some interesting doors for Theresa.

Johnny posted a 1957 picture of his grandma posing with none other than Elizabeth Taylor and her late husband, Mike Todd. Johnny explained, “She was asked by Run Run Shaw to be a representative of the Singaporean entertainment industry to greet Elizabeth.” This was all surprising, but you won’t expect what came next. But this wouldn’t be the only celebrity to be immortalized with Theresa. She’s found posing with other recognizable shidaku faces such as Gumai and Lu Pingping.

Another highlight in the album is a picture of Theresa posing next to opera singer Miriam Anderson, who was the first African American to perform with the Metropolitan Opera in New York City, breaking important racial barriers. However, being photographed next to Western celebrities was far from her best-kept secret. Theresa was in her prime in the 50s, having made a name for herself in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia (then British Malaya). Not only was she selling her records and performing live on the radio, but Run Shah Shad produced many films in which he cast several shidaiku artists, furthering the careers and reach of the singers. Many of Theresa’s friends from the music scene had gone through the silver screen, but Theresa had other plans for herself.

Theresa had always been a successful model and brand ambassador. She even modeled for the German beer backs, among others, but one picture stood out among the others: a photo of Theresa posing on a motorcycle. This surely was an interesting contrast with the modest grandma he knew. Johnny was in complete shock. It was no surprise that Theresa had had such a wonderful career as a multi-faceted artist.

Even after all those years, her family remembers her as a very elegant woman. She was very photogenic, so it was hard to tell whether a picture had been planned or was a candid shot of her. Here’s Theresa starting at the first airport in Malaysia, and what came next is even more impressive. She was so charismatic and poised; she was asked to appear in the most important places where there would be cameras. Theresa was very skilled and stood out, which allowed her to forge her own career.

But not even being a successful celebrity in her craft would keep her from having to make some tough decisions, like the next one. Theresa was still in her prime career-wise when she made a bold move. She wanted to start a family of her own. She decided to get married. She had saved in the album a color photograph of herself in her wedding gown.

Check it out. Undoubtedly, the past Theresa had kept hidden for so long was very interesting to her family, but these mementos are the ones they cherish the most. However, Theresa would soon make a difficult decision. After three prosperous decades working to make a name for herself, Theresa decided she would try her luck in the United States. Moving from Singapore, Theresa felt this was a necessary move for the future of her children and grandchildren.

She packed her bags and flew all the way to San Francisco, but things wouldn’t be so sweet for the shidaiku star. Once in San Francisco, Theresa did everything she could to support herself, using her talents as a singer. It was no easy feat considering she’d moved to a new country where people didn’t know her like they had in Asia, and she didn’t speak the language fluently. But she was hardworking. Will it be enough for things to go better?

Theresa found a way to support herself, teaching Chinese, but she kept singing and teaching music however she could. She was even invited to perform occasionally. She told her grandson she’d been a part of a gospel choir during the 70s, which she doubted until he found this album. Her career had taken a crazy turn, but that didn’t slow her down. She was invited to perform in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and even in Canada and Australia.

And that wasn’t all. There wasn’t much of her personal life in the album, but there were some treasured pictures of Theresa with her own mother or with Johnny’s mother and aunt when they were babies that became meaningful in the wake of her passing. Certainly, the pictures made Johnny and his family see Theresa in a new light. Finding out about her secret past helped them cope with her death. The best-kept secret became an enormous gift to Theresa’s family.

By sharing Theresa’s past on Facebook and explaining how much he actually knew, he wrote, “I knew she’d like to brag about it to others as well.” My sister interviewed her in 2008. I have her 2011 CD too. However, to my sister, cousins, and me, she heavily downplayed it. His relationship with his grandma had been pretty average up until that point.

She was just a simple grandma to us, like anyone else who would bake nine gal, buy us clothes, and protect me from bullies. Johnny knew this story would be interesting, but he never imagined to what extent. It’s no surprise that her story went viral rather quickly, and sooner rather than later, the story was picked up by media outlets from different countries, including Thailand and China. The feedback was amazing. People couldn’t believe Theresa had hidden her unbelievable story for so long.

One thing was clear: Theresa was one humble, sophisticated lady and received praise from all over the world. Such a wonderful story deserves to be known, and we’re thankful Johnny took the time to share it with the world. Unsurprisingly, people wanted even more. Johnny received calls to write a biography or even make a documentary about his grandmother, but the future’s uncertain. “I’m still thinking on it, but we’ll see where this may take me,” he wrote on Facebook.

As mentioned, Theresa passed early in 2020 of natural causes. However, her legacy is very much alive. Her glamorous past is truly a wonderful story, but we’re sure not even Theresa herself could have anticipated the reception her story got. Sadly, it’s impossible to know her wishes regarding her own story, but we’re definitely holding our breaths.