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Daniel Kim ‘21: “The Hollywood Asian” Screenplay

Project Date:
Project Date: Summer 2020

My project is a screenplay that follows Philip Ahn, the first Korean-American movie star, as he rises to stardom while pandering to Hollywood discrimination. This year, I will continue to refine the project through the Studio Duke program in conjunction with UTA literary partner Julien Thuan.

About the Project

Emasculated and neutered or evil and calculating? Domineering dragon lady or helpless concubine? In 20th century Hollywood, the choices for Asian American actors were few and far between. Often, the roles available were reductive and one-dimensional — stereotypes come to life.

The types of roles also fluctuated unpredictably decade to decade to reflect evolving attitudes towards Asians. For example, evil caricatures like Fu Manchu were popularized during the “yellow peril” of the early 1900s, driven by fear of an influx of Asian laborers in California. Several decades later, World War II changed the reputation of Korean and Chinese immigrants from enemies to benign, hardworking allies in films like the Academy Award winning The Good Earth, while Japanese characters became evil masochists.

I am on the second draft of a screenplay following Korean American actor Philip Ahn as he navigates the tumultuous landscape of early 20th century Hollywood. The screenplay also features other landmark characters: Chinese American movie star Anna May Wong and Japanese silent film heartthrob Sessue Hayakawa. All three actors were the first of their respective ethnicities to receive stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

I chose these individuals due to their long-lasting presence in 20th-century media and their diversity of roles, genders, and various countries of origin, representing each major American population of East Asian descent at the time. All three actors were also connected to each other: Anna May Wong and Philip Ahn were childhood friends and rumored lovers but never married; Sessue Hayakawa and Philip Ahn co-starred in a number of films with Anna May Wong due in part to anti-miscegenation laws.

Additionally, in the screenplay, I explore nuances within the Asian American community, especially as the media tends to categorize Asians as a singular group. For example, Philip Ahn enthusiastically portrayed Japanese people as vicious villains due to his hatred of the Japanese colonialism of Korea, giving him complex motivations that deserve to be explored.

As an Asian American myself, I want to understand the historical context of why Asian Americans have been portrayed so poorly on screen. Through this, I hope to raise awareness of the industry-driven stereotypes that continue to affect representation today. Finally, having read the biographies of these characters, I want to recognize the historical figures who paved the way for other minorities in media and share their compelling stories.

Reflecting on Art Amidst Covid-19

Benenson has provided immense support for me during this difficult time. I am enormously grateful to the family for their financial benefaction and for providing me the time and freedom to freely explore and develop this project!