Dragon Lady (Terry and the Pirates)

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Milton Caniff's Terry and the Pirates (September 27, 1936).

The Dragon Lady, also known as Madam Deal, was a well-known character in the U.S. comic strip Terry and the Pirates, created by Milton Caniff, and in the movie serial, comic books, and TV series based on the comic strip. Her real name is Lai Choi San.


The Dragon Lady first appeared in 1934 in the first Sunday strip story. She began as a stereotypically beautiful, seductive and evil Asian, but as the comic strip became more realistic, the character grew more complex. Fans of the strip recall her passionate love for the journalist and man-of-action Pat Ryan, and the time she taught Terry how to dance. In the years leading up to World War II, she became a heroic, though Machiavellian figure, leading the resistance against the Japanese invasion of China.

According to Milton Caniff: Conversations, she "was modeled from a real person, as are all Caniff's characters", in this case a succession of them, starting with professional model Phyllis Johnson.[1]

Some characters/locations in Terry were really modeled from real persons/locations. The US Navy was quite active in mainland China during World War II. Among other things, the Navy hired 'coast watchers' to keep an eye on Japanese shipping and other activities. They, naturally were much more effective if they had ships. The South China Sea was (and is today) full of pirates. Numerous bands of pirates were recruited to keep an eye on the Japanese military. One of these bands was located near Shanghai [according to my information], and was run by a woman, who was fairly young and quite good looking. Hence, the "Dragon Lady". Reportedly, her band was quite successful, and she ran a taut ship. Another event in the strip was when the characters were supposedly setting up radio beacons, to aid in a bombing raid on the "invaders" base,[the word 'Japanese' was not used in the strip, so far as i know]. This 'base' was referred to in the strip as "Happy Valley". The 'sensitive' part, was that the main US Navy training base in mainland China - which was used to train the Chinese insurgent forces, was CALLED "Happy Valley" by those stationed there. I heard that the FBI showed up to talk to Mr. Caniff on that one. He found a boy's summer camp in his area that (coincidentally was also called "Happy Valley"). This seemed to placate the FBI. US Navy personnel were stationed on the outskirts of the Gobi desert, to do radio direction finding [RDF] on Japanese shipping. They were hundreds of miles from anything. They reported their directional bearings [called 'cuts'] back to the US, via HF radio to a commercial shipping company on the US west coast, who was paid to relay the traffic. The shipping company was never told where the station they were talking to was located. The Navy people thought that if the shipping company found out that they were thousands of miles away from the US, that they would 'stop listening' - convinced that they could NOT hear signals that far away. This activity was documented (to a degree) in the movie "Destination Gobi", with Richard Widmark and Don Taylor. In the movie, which was made shortly after World War II, the RDF aspects were covered up, and the story line was that they were reporting the weather. That WAS true, they did report weather conditions, because their weather moved over the Pacific ocean days later, but their real, and most important task was RDF.

In other media[edit]

Various actresses played the Dragon Lady in the radio series of Terry and the Pirates (1937–48), including Agnes Moorehead, Adelaide Klein and Marion Sweet. In the 1940 film serial, the part was played by Sheila Darcy. Gloria Saunders was cast as the Dragon Lady in the brief 1953 television series.

Radio actress Marion Sweet as the Dragon Lady

Agnes Moorehead's portrayal of the Dragon Lady is mentioned in Harlan Ellison's "Jeffty is Five" as a comment marking the passage of time and things past.

See also[edit]

  • Dragon Lady – the stereotype derived from the character


  1. ^ Caniff 2002, p. 20.

Further reading[edit]

  • Caniff, Milton (2002). Harvey, Robert C. (ed.). Milton Caniff: Conversations. Conversations With Comic Artists Series. University Press of Mississippi. ISBN 1-57806-438-4.
  • Milton Caniff, The Complete Terry and the Pirates, IDW Publishing, 2007. ISBN 1-60010-100-3, ISBN 978-1-60010-100-7
  • R. C. Harvey, Meanwhile... A Biography of Milton Caniff, Creator of Terry and the Pirates and Steve Canyon, Fantagraphics, 2007, ISBN 1-56097-782-5 ISBN 978-1560977827.
  • Smithsonian Institution, Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics. Harry N. Abrams, 1978. ISBN 0-8109-1612-6, ISBN 978-0-8109-1612-8