Work in progress

Senior Daniel Kim's screenplay exploring Asian-American images

Senior Daniel Kim

Emasculated and neutered or evil and calculating? Domineering dragon lady or helpless concubine? In twentieth-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 toward Asians: Evil caricatures like Fu Manchu were popularized during the “yellow peril” of the early 1900s, but during World War II, Chinese immigrants became the benign, hardworking allies in films like The Good Earth, while Japanese characters became evil masochists.

My screenplay, Hollywood Asian, is based on a true story; it follows Korean-American actor Philip Ahn as he navigates the tumultuous landscape of twentieth-century Hollywood. He and his Chinese-American childhood friend, Anna May Wong, climb the ladder of Hollywood success in unorthodox and sometimes painful ways. However, Ahn is haunted by a specter, which takes the form of a famously violent Japanese villain played by Sessue Hayakawa, and over time, Ahn slowly becomes the demon that he has feared since childhood.

These three actors were the first of their respective ethnic groups to receive stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. I discovered their fascinating, intertwined lives on a Wikipedia binge while completing an assignment for my Asian-American theater class. When I moved to Los Angeles for the Duke in L.A. program, I was inspired to tell their stories after reading their biographies in my free time while working in film development. Over the summer, I applied for and received several grants, including Duke’s Benenson Award in the Arts and a Pacific Studies grant, to research more about that era and receive support for the screenplay. I am continuing to revise my screenplay through the Studio Duke program in conjunction with my mentor, Julien Thuan ’97, a literary partner at the United Talent Agency.

As an aspiring Asian-American creative, I want to recognize the historical figures who paved the way in Hollywood and to share their compelling stories. I also hope to raise awareness of the industry-driven stereotypes that continue to affect representation today and explore nuances within the Asian-American community, which is often perceived as a monolithic group. 

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