Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Becoming Weda Yap

Like Weda Yap, the name of the author of Willie Wong, American, was a pseudonym. Vanya Oakes -- Virginia Armstrong Oakes (1909-1983) -- was a librarian, journalist, and author who wrote prolifically about China. Her best-known book, White Man's Folly (1942), was reviewed in Foreign Affairs as "an indictment of the ineptness of European and American policy during the last decade."

Allen Drew Cook and his wife, Bertha, reared their four daughters in Camden, N.J.  Louise, born in 1894, was the eldest. She studied at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and received a Certificate of Applied Art in 1912. One has the feeling she was not demure.

Her father encouraged her career in art, Louise once said. Allen Drew Cook belonged to a school of photographers called the Pictorialists (of whom the most famous was Alfred Stieglitz), whose images had the quality of being painted. During World War I, Clarence Darrow and Eugene V. Debs sat for portraits in Cook’s Philadelphia studio.

In 1913, Louise began work as a studio artist in New York City while continuing to live at home.

She soon became romantically involved with the publicity director of the Co-operative League of America, Edward Ralph Cheyney, who was helping to build the American cooperative movement. The goal was to organize collective purchasing for American consumers. In this way, industrial workers and farmers could stretch their budgets in hard times.  

Although the League’s offices were in New York City, Ralph, as he was known, resided at home with his family in Philadelphia. His father was an eminent University of Pennsylvania historian named Edward Potts Cheyney who lived in an elegant house on Spruce Street.  

Several leaders of the cooperative movement, including Ralph Cheyney, worked closely with the Socialist Party. When the U.S. entered the war in April 1917, they became vocal critics of the draft.

That fall, Ralph and a revolution-minded firebrand named Louis Fraina were arrested while leading a meeting to recruit conscientious objectors. A jury in U.S. District Court found the two men guilty of conspiring to violate the draft law. The Second Circuit upheld the verdict and in 1919 Cheyney and Fraina were sentenced to 30 days in prison.

In the meantime, Louise and Ralph decided to marry. Their daughter, Gertrude Louise, came along in 1918.

And then, in 1920, China called out to Louise and off she went for five years. There is no record of what she did there. Most likely she studied art. Curiously, during this very time many Chinese artists left to study in Europe, embracing the Western aesthetic.

When Louise returned to the U.S., she was a Chinese citizen.  

Soon enough, she and Ralph divorced. Louise’s new husband, a Filipino of Chinese ancestry named Chu Pei Yap, worked as a chemical engineer.

In 1929, now Louise Yap, she sailed alone to Shanghai on a Japanese ship called the Yokohama Maru. There’s an elegant menu from the ship’s dining room in the New York Public Library’s digitized collection. Navarin de la Porc a la Printaniere . . . but who knows if Louise traveled first-class?

It’s hard to imagine why she chose to visit China again at this particular time. In 1927, Chiang Kai-shek’s National Revolutionary Army had led the Shanghai Massacre to triumph over Mao and the Chinese Communists, and a civil war was raging.

Clearly there was “the urge for going,” as Joni Mitchell sang.

When Louise came back to New York a year later, she and Chu Pei, and not 12-year old Gertrude, moved to a house on charming crooked Grove Street in the West Village.  

Now she took the name Weda Yap.

Many years later, she explained:

My real name is Louise Drew Cook. My professional name, Weda Yap, was acquired during a long and close association with the Chinese. The ideographs which are used to write this name mean “a witty and sagacious page." 


Weda Yap, 1930s
(photo courtesy of her family)

In 1932, Weda published Abigail’s Private Reason, the only book she wrote. That same year, she drew pictures for Rosalita, the story of “a charming Spanish girl who lived on a ranch with her family when California was ruled by the Mexican government. Rosalita’s impetuous search for a doll results in her being kidnapped,” according to a review.

Through the rest of her life, Weda illustrated dozens of children’s books. Some of the titles are Rain, Hail, Sleet and Snow; Rico the Young Rancher, Peter on the Min, and Children of the Sun in Hawaii. Weda was prolific and stayed married to Chu Phay. They moved to Milligan Place, virtually an alley off Sixth Avenue where Eugene O’Neill also lived in a small brick house.

On the eve of World War II, she decided to become an American citizen again. Just two days before Germany invaded Poland, she brought two witnesses to the courthouse to sign the petition for naturalization: her mother, Bertha, and a friend named Remo Bufano. That in itself is noteworthy.

Remo Bufano and his family emigrated from Italy to the U.S. in 1897. Remo loved arts and crafts from the time he could hold a pencil. He became a superb puppeteer and toured nationwide, performing marionette operas with puppets as tall as 12 feet. The year that Bufano signed Louise’s petition, the New York World’s Fair featured his giant puppets portraying the history of medicine to music by Aaron Copland.    

Bertha Louise Drew Cook Yap, as she signed her petition, and Remo Bufano knew each other because all Greenwich Village artists were connected. The Bohemian, leftist intellectual scene that flourished during World War I continued through Prohibition.

Eventually Weda Yap left Greenwich Village. In 1989, she died in a nursing home in South Carolina, where her daughter lived.

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2 comments:

  1. What a fascinating life. I am particular struck by one detail - that she decided to take American citizenship again. I didn't even know you could do that!

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  2. My grandmother, Ada Beall Triggs, wrote Rosalita, which Weda Yap illustrated. She wrote under the name Lovell Beall Triggs.

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