Tuesday, June 10, 2008

HOLLYWOOD ASIAN: PHILIP AHN AND THE POLITICS OF CROSS-ETHNIC PERFORMANCE—The Evening Class Interview With Hye Seung Chung

I dedicate this entry to Adam Hartzell who—aware of my own experiences with cross-ethnic performance—strongly recommended I read Hye Seung Chung's biography on Philip Ahn; likewise providing an introduction to Professor Chung for this Evening Class interview. My heartfelt thanks, Adam.


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Hye Seung Chung received her B.A. in English Literature from Ewha Woman's University (Seoul, South Korea) in 1994, her M.A. in Cinema Studies at the College of Staten Island, C.U.N.Y. in 1999, and her Ph.D. in Film and Television from the University of California, Los Angeles in 2004. Her areas of specialization include: classical and contemporary Hollywood cinema, race and multiculturalism in American popular culture, feminist and postcolonial film theories, Asian American media, East Asian/Korean cinema, and global Cold War cultures.

In Fall 2008 she will be joining the American Studies faculty at the University of Hawaii, Manoa. Previously, Professor Chung taught in the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, and the Department of Comparative Literature at Hamilton College.

Chung is the author of Hollywood Asian: Philip Ahn and the Politics of Cross-Ethnic Performance (Temple University Press, 2006). As the first book-length study of Korean identities in American cinema and television, this volume investigates the career of Philip Ahn (1905-1978), a pioneering Asian American screen icon as well as the son of celebrated Korean nationalist Dosan Ahn Chang Ho. Far more complex than a conventional star biography, this transnational study bridges American and Korean film histories; suggests new theoretical paradigms with which to address cross-ethnic performance and Asian American spectatorship; and explores the role of American foreign policies in the construction of Hollywood's "Oriental genres" from the 1930s to the 1950s. Drawing upon a wide range of archival documents from the actor's personal papers and studio memos to files of federal government agencies, Professor Chung's book addresses a number of significant historical, theoretical, and critical issues pertaining to different disciplines including film and media studies, cultural studies, Asian American studies, and Korean studies. Since its publication, Hollywood Asian has received positive reviews in Library Journal, Asian Week, International Journal of Communication, Choice, Korean Quarterly, Journal of American History, Journal of Popular Culture, and Pacific Historical Review.

In addition to her book, Professor Chung's scholarship on Korean cinema has been published in such journals and anthologies as Asian Cinema, Film and Philosophy, South Korean Golden Age Melodrama, New Korean Cinema, and Seoul Searching. Her most recent writings on Asian American identities in contemporary television programs will appear in the forthcoming books Grace under Pressure: Grey's Anatomy Uncovered (edited by Cynthia Burkhead and Hillary Robson) and Screwball Television: Critical Perspectives on Gilmore Girls (edited by David Scott Diffrient and David Lavery). A lifelong fan of classical Hollywood cinema, she is now nurturing a passion for American television shows such as The Wire, Lost, Weeds, Nip/Tuck, and Big Love and hopes to teach a course exploring these and other Quality TV series in the future.

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Like so many others of my generation, I first became exposed to Philip Ahn through his performance as Master Kan on the television series Kung Fu. The series provided exposure not only to Philip Ahn, but also to Keye Luke (the blind venerable sage Master Po who was fond of calling David Carradine's character "Grasshopper"). American culture at that time was struggling with its own spiritual misgivings. The Beatles were off gleaning enlightenment at the feet of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Hermann Hesse's Siddhartha had become a countercultural touchstone, LSD usage spiked the sales of Joseph Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces, and Americans turned hungrily to the Orient for wisdom to temper their corrupt materialistic ways. Tapping into this zeitgeist, Kung Fu provided a heady blend of the Old West infused with Buddhist martial arts even as it maintained the racist practices of Hollywood's studio era of—as Professor Chung defines them—"the politics of role segregation (the prohibition against Asians playing whites while the reverse was accepted) and role stratification (in which leading roles are reserved for whites, leaving only character parts open to Asians)." (2006:xvi) In effect, though Carradine's character was half-white, half-Chinese, it was still contentiously "yellowface."

With a certain chagrin, I remember being nicknamed "Grasshopper" when I attended Arkansas College; the only out-of-town student in that small Presbyterian college. Rather than assert a Chicano identity, or come out of the closet as Queer, I settled for passing as Asian. Later, on television, I caught several of Philip Ahn's performances as villainous Japanese military officers in WWII dramas where he invariably tortured American soldiers. Much later I finally caught up to some of his earliest roles as romantic lead for Anna May Wong. Thus, working backwards, I had assessed the career of Philip Ahn, and was grateful for Hye Seung Chung's informed research to appreciate Ahn's career within its proper temporal perspective.

When I asked how she had come to focus on Philip Ahn, Hye Seung Chung admitted the route had likewise been indirect. "I was born and raised in South Korea," she answered, "not very far from Dosan Ahn Chang Ho Park. You might know that Dosan Ahn Chang Ho—Philip Ahn's father—was a Korean national hero in the independence movement against Japanese colonization. Philip Ahn's father and mother are buried together in this memorial park. Both their remains were moved to this park when it was established in the '70s."

Though she had heard of Philip Ahn, she didn't know much about him. Her main exposure was through his performance as Lu Wan, the old man in Douglas Sirk's 1957 film Battle Hymn. As possibly the most famous film about the Korean War, Koreans had effectively canonized Battle Hymn and—while she was growing up in the '80s—the film was shown each June 25th, commemorating the day the Korean War broke out. Hye Seung Chung saw that film repeatedly and—though she somehow knew that Philip Ahn was the son of Dosan Ahn Chang Ho—she didn't know much else about his family history or how Philip Ahn became a Hollywood actor. As she grew older, however, her interest became piqued. In the back of her mind she kept thinking about this Hollywood actor of Korean descent who was the son of Korea's national hero and who had—some say—the added distinction of being the first Korean American born in the United States.

During her years at UCLA when she was studying for her Ph.D., Hye Seung took a course in postcolonial studies and at that time remembered Philip Ahn. Electing to fulfill a class assignment by writing a 20-page paper on him, she researched him online and came across a biography that interested her because it was the first time she realized Philip Ahn had appeared as a romantic lead opposite Anna May Wong in such 1930s vehicles as Daughter of Shanghai (1937) and King of Chinatown (1939). She then became fascinated in how Philip Ahn got his start in Hollywood and how he progressed into his notoriety of the WWII period. Hye Seung discovered Ahn was widely known by the WWII generation, by older Americans in their 60s and 70s, who remembered him as "one of those bad guys" in WWII propaganda films. Though these performances were obviously hideous stereotypes of Japanese military officers and spies, Hye Seung was startled to uncover interviews with Philip Ahn wherein he expressed his pleasure in performing these roles, precisely because they were his way of contributing to his father's legacy. His father died in 1938 before the Korean liberation in 1945.

Unlike Sessue Hayakawa who played a lot of Japanese villains during the silent period or Philip Ahn's close friend Anna May Wong who likewise played many villainous Dragon Ladies during the silent period and early sound period, Philip Ahn's experience is unique for the subversive pleasure he derived from his cross-ethnic performances. As a Korean, they made a political statement against Japanese colonization. Hye Seung wagered Ahn's stance was possible because he was playing roles distant from his own ethnicity. At least 98% of his roles called for him to be Chinese or Japanese. He had the requisite emotional distance to somehow connect his cross-ethnic performances in propaganda films with the Korean independence cause. At this juncture, Hye Seung realized this fascinating anomaly could not be done justice in a 20-page paper. She tracked down Philip Ahn's surviving sister, who was over 90 years old, in the San Fernando Valley and—through her—was provided access to the family archives. She was also fortunate to have access to Ahn's film and television performances through the UCLA archives. "I could not have written this book had I not studied in L.A.," Hye Seung emphasized.

Along with the political import of Philip Ahn's cross-ethnic performances and his own subversive pleasure in performing these roles, in her book Hye Seung has expanded this politicization to include an examination of the pleasures of spectatorial resistance, especially from Asian American audiences. She has structured her book into two basic parts; the first being "Asian American Acts: Performance and Spectatorship" and the second "Oriental Genres, 1930s to 1950s."

What grabbed me right off was her position regarding shifting the critical anchoring of ethnic identity away from—as she has written—"questions of representation (image as source of meaning) to those of performance (actor as enunciative agent) and Asian American spectatorship." The value in that shift being that familiar representation-based models emphasize victimization and alienation, whereas Hye Seung favors "a multifaceted approach that highlights the intricacies and internal tensions' in the construction and reception of mainstream images." (2006:xv)

Hye Seung argues that Asian American actors and spectators are "capable of negotiating, reinterpreting, or resisting misrepresentations and stereotypes of hegemonic texts without necessarily forgoing the benefits of employment (in the case of actors) or dispensing with the pleasure of participation (in the case of audiences)" and she deploys "the concept of cross-ethnic performativity as an overarching theoretical paradigm to address the subversive potential of these hermeneutic acts." (2006:xvi) I queried what had led her to focus on the political agency of such "hermeneutic acts" of performance and spectatorship?

"My performative approach derives from my own evolution," she admitted. She came to the United States because she was a fan of Hollywood classic cinema and loved it so much—"more than what you see at the cinema these days"—that she wanted to study it in depth. She had long been interested in the period of the 1930s and '40s, and the 1950s to a lesser extent. She knew these films intimately and felt comfortable with them. Naturally, after coming to the United States and becoming a serious film scholar, as an Asian and as a woman she experienced conflicts with the hideous stereotypes of Dragon Ladies and Fu Manchus.

As she began to negotiate these conflicts, she realized that the criticism of stereotypes had already been done by several scholars, especially Eugene Franklin Wong [who authored the seminal 1978 study On Visual Media Racism: Asians in the American Motion Pictures, likewise derived from his Ph.D. dissertation]. Following Wong's study, in the '80s and '90s several scholars criticized mainstream Hollywood images from an Asian American perspective. Though Hye Seung recognized the importance of this rich and varied work, she nonetheless felt it was unfair to criticize Anna May Wong, Philip Ahn, or Richard Loo for having taken on these roles and perpetuating these unattractive stereotypes . She allowed that they had little choice. Further, had it not been for them, had they not been Asian American pioneers, all of those roles would have been played by whites in yellow face, well into the '50s and '60s when yellow face finally became problematic. Hye Seung sought out a different theoretical model to evaluate these early performances and she took Philip Ahn's admitted pleasure in playing stereotypes as a cue. This is when she shifted from representation to performance as a means to finesse Asian American agency.

Hye Seung observed how Philip Ahn had adapted stereotypes for his own political purposes. Because he was of Korean descent and because there was such animosity between Korea and Japan, especially during the colonial period, and coming from an anti-colonialist background as the son of a national hero, Ahn willingly didn't identify with the roles he was asked to play. Another important factor was that—at that time—there was no concept of "Asian American"; that was a concept created during the Civil Rights era. Ahn could neatly identify himself as Chinese or Japanese or Korean. During WWII and the shameful internment of Japanese American citizens in the camps, white Americans wouldn't accept Asian groups as Americans. Even if they were born in America, second generation Asian Americans were still considered as foreigners. But because he was Korean, Philip Ahn escaped internment and his professional opportunities to portray Japanese and Chinese roles increased. For American audiences, it was difficult to recognize Ahn as a Korean playing Japanese villains; but Korean audiences, on the other hand, found his performances "kind of fun and ironic." For them it was amusing to hear him speak in Korean while playing Japanese or Chinese roles. Thus a layer of linguistic sophistication became applicable to Ahn's performances by savvy audiences. Chinese and Japanese audiences knew he was not speaking their language and Koreans found it amusing that he spoke their language so clumsily, having grown up in the United States.

These distinctions were confirmed whenever Hye Seung played a particular episode of the television series I Spy where Philip Ahn guest-starred as an old Chinese man. In a certain scene he's supposed to be speaking Chinese. When he told the producers that he couldn't speak Chinese, they encouraged him to go ahead and speak Korean because it all sounded alike and no one would know the difference. Whenever Hye Seung played this episode to audiences of Korean descent, or even Chinese descent, they laughed out loud; but, when she played the episode to mainstream white American audiences, nobody laughed because they didn't catch anything funny. It interested her to play the episode to different audiences to hear such different reactions.

Admitting that "we all get a little bit offended by this racist representation", Hye Seung nonetheless cautions against getting too caught up in the offense, especially because of the history of Asian immigration. There are so many different ethnicities affected by the Japanese colonialism of the first part of the 20th century. There's still anger and resentment among older generations of Chinese about the atrocities perpetrated during Japan's colonial period. It's important to distinguish these positions. Hye Seung wanted to move beyond the stereotype critique as a way to underscore the inherent limitations of identity politics. At the same time, she felt it very important to recuperate the agency of these actors, as well as the spectators. Though admittedly there are independent films made from the perspective of Asian American filmmakers; they are in a minority and usually suffer a limited theatrical release. They're infrequently shown in academic settings or in coastal cities like San Francisco, New York and Los Angeles where there are large Asian American communities. Thus, there's a value to rescuing Asian American performances in classic films and to recuperate the agency of Asian American actors and spectators.

I was hard-pressed to think of any other actor beside Philip Ahn who could so perfectly embody Hye Seung's thesis, precisely because of his political biography and his diasporic position as a Korean American actor. I asked her if she could think of anyone else who effectively used ethnic masquerade? She immediately recalled John Frankenheimer's The Manchurian Candidate (1962) where Khigh Dhiegh played Dr. Yen Lo. Though uncertain of his actual ethnicity, Dhiegh often appeared as Asian in many films, sometimes Chinese or Mongolian. We checked IMdb and determined Dhiegh was of Anglo-Egyptian-Sudanese ancestry. The Manchurian Candidate likewise featured Henry Silva—of Spanish-Sicilian descent—playing Chunjin, a Korean. Many actors have played different ethnic roles, Hye Seung acknowledged, Anthony Quinn—a Mexican-American—played Zorba the Greek, as well as Irish and white characters. Egyptian Omar Sharif also played different ethnicities, including white. There's no shortage of examples of ethnic masquerade.

But in terms of East Asia, in actors of Chinese or Japanese or Korean descent, Philip Ahn remains the most interesting case for being fluent in ethnic masquerade. Nancy Kwan was a Chinese American, and Sessue Hayakawa was a Japanese American, and it was easier for audiences to distinguish them by their last names. People were (are?) more familiar with these two countries, as opposed to Korea. In the '30s and '40s especially, most people didn't even know where Korea was located.

Having detailed the problem of trying to create a homogenous Asian identity because of the various ethnic groups; I offered the same could be said about trying to create a homogenous Chicano/Latino identity, again because of the many ethnic groups immigrating to the U.S. from their respective countries. I asked Hye Seung if she knew of anyone working with that material? She responded that her advisor Chon Noriega has edited seven or eight books on Latino representation and she recalled Adrienne L. McLean's recent study on Rita Hayworth and how her career was composed by "passing" for white. Hayworth rarely played Latin American roles. Hye Seung expressed that she would like to see more studies done like McLean's Being Rita Hayworth: Labor, Identity, and Hollywood Stardom (Rutgers University Press, 2004).

Because she was of Korean heritage, and because she had access to a lot of Korean-language materials, Hye Seung was able to accomplish her research on Philip Ahn; but, not having the same kind of access to Chinese-language or Japanese-language materials, she encouraged it would be great if somebody else could follow up on that. Returning to the Hayworth study, Hye Seung admitted her growing interest in "white face"—where Latin American actors or Mexican American Chicano/a actors or actresses with light skin can play white parts—as a theoretic reversal of the paradigm.

I have frequently quoted Joseph Campbell's assertion that it is through the performance of everyday tasks that an individual's radiance shines through. Philip Ahn seems as suitable an example of this truth as anyone. In her book, Hye Seung quoted John Flaus as singling out Philip Ahn "as a screen performer endowed with so-called lamprotes (a Greek term meaning splendor or brilliance). As a condition contrary to Walter Benjamin's notion of 'aura,' the patina-like radiance of Ahn's myriad screen roles outshines any one particular performance—a quality that can be better appreciated with cumulative and repeated viewing (what Flaus calls 'buffing'). As Flaus puts it, 'No matter how clichéd the characters they play and the dialogue they must say, they give enough of themselves to transcend, however briefly, mere professionalism. It is a joy to see them again; I feel a sense of welcome. For the short time they are on the screen their performance qualifies the narrative, rather than vice versa. These, and others, are hard-nosed, time-worn professionals who can become endeared to us just for "doing their job," as they merge into our personal map of the American industry.' " (2006:xxi, fn. omitted.) Flaus's concept of lamphrotic endowment reminded me of Alexander Nemerov's focus on the iconic stature of supporting characters in his study on Val Lewton, Icons of Grief. Both scholars observe that this lamphrotic quality emanates from steady, hardworking professionals whose constancy endears them to audiences over the years. Philip Ahn certainly attests to that constancy. I asked Hye Seung if she could describe how Philip Ahn specifically inflected that quality?

She felt that was a very interesting and good question and recalled that—when she arrived in L.A. and began to meet film scholars—most of them didn't know who Philip Ahn was, especially the younger generation film scholars. But if you talked to older film buffs in their 50s-70s, they all remember and love Philip Ahn. His roles were really small, often lasting a mere few minutes. She remembered watching a two-hour film just to see Philip Ahn for a few minutes because it remained fascinating for her to see him in whatever capacity. Ahn's sister Susan described him as a very charismatic person. He attended USC for two years but dropped out to become an actor; still, the dean of USC observed that—when Ahn came to the U.S.—he encountered the usual obstacles that a minority student would but he just "threw the obstacles away." He was always one of the most popular students at USC. He worked very well with white actors.

He also had a soothing paternal effect on others, which accounts for why he often played fathers, which Hye Seung writes about in the concluding chapter of her book. He's probably most remembered as Master Kan in Kung Fu. He had a positive impact on actors. Philip Ahn's brother told Hye Seung that—when Philip Ahn appeared with Frank Sinatra—Sinatra, though an established singer, was a newbie in Hollywood and Philip Ahn gave Sinatra good advice. He and Sinatra got along very well and Sinatra became a regular customer at Philip Ahn's restaurant in Ahn's later years in the '60s and '70s. He also had a good interaction with director Cecil B. DeMille who was known for losing his temper and not getting along well with actors. As a minority, Philip Ahn developed a gregarious persona that fit in very well in a white environment. He got along pleasantly with white actors and actresses. Philip Ahn was everybody's friend on the set and Hye Seung conjectures that might be one of the reasons he survived professionally. Whereas David Carradine was difficult on the set of Kung Fu, and the studio had a lot of problems reining him in, Philip Ahn was a friendly rock on the set. People could depend on him. So there was that part to his particular radiance.

But there was something else about him, Hye Seung commented, "something almost campy." There was the rumor that Ahn was homosexual and—as an aside—Hye Seung recounted that she received a couple of hate mails from the gay community for not establishing that Ahn was homosexual in her book. But how could you, I asked her, when there was no direct evidence or admission on his part?

Exactly, Hye Seung agreed. Maybe he was bisexual? She didn't know. There are conflicting stories and the bottom line is that he never identified his sexuality. Besides, that was not the concern of her book. But she can say in retrospect that there was something in his performances you could say was campy. The way he carried himself. Almost a comedic quality. In some of his minor roles there's something campy about how he plays the sidekick to the masculine male hero. It's somewhat appealing for being a little less aggressive than most masculine portrayals at the time. His was a different kind of masculinity. Even before there was such a thing as the new "softer" masculinities that became a big thing in the '70s, if you look at Ahn's performances in the '30-'50s—except, of course, for the WWII propaganda films where he plays an outright villain—there's a softer, kinder masculinity that somehow appealed to everyone.

Hye Seung lays this out intriguingly in her book: "The doubling of the two actors—Rock Hudson and Philip Ahn—provides an opportunity to tease out queer readings of their respective masculinities. Battle Hymn was produced at a time when Rock Hudson's own sexual identity was in crisis. His marriage to Phyllis Gates—allegedly arranged by the studio—was near dissolution, culminating in divorce in 1958, one year after the film's release. The marital and psychological crisis of the closeted, gay man is subtly allegorized in Hudson's screen performance as Hess, who forges more profound and meaningful relationships with men than with women. Hudson's Hess runs away from his complacent small-town life and pregnant wife to return to the militaristic world of intense homosocial bonding. Although heterosexual seductions continuously stalk Hess in the form of Miss Yang, an attractive woman apparently in love with him, he seems completely unresponsive and oblivious. Rather, Hudson/Hess enjoys engaging in spiritually fulfilling conversations with James Edwards/Lieutenant Maples and Ahn/Lu Wan, whose religious devotion and biblical wisdom reinstate his own faltering beliefs. He also consoles his two-war buddy and wingman Don DeFore/Captain Skidmore, at his deathbed—a lengthy, tearful farewell that can be identified as the film's one true 'love scene.' The contrasting yet mirroring masculinity of Hudson and Ahn is particularly intriguing precisely because both actors' offscreen identities are affiliated with the discourse of homosexuality. While the white male star Hudson had to assume the mask of ultra-heterosexuality and normativized manliness to conceal his gay self, the Asian supporting actor Ahn was often cast in sidekick roles that called for an effeminate bodily comportment assimilative of amorphous queer sexuality. Thus, what Ahn's Lu Wan ventriloquizes for Hudson's Hess is not simply the latter's religious conscience but also a potential for expressing queer masculinity, repressed in the homophobic culture of the Eisenhower era." (2006:162-163, fns. omitted.)

Pointing out that Philip Ahn is in three of the six films TCM has chosen to sample the Oriental genre of the Asian detective in their Race and Hollywood: Asians in Film program continuing this week, I pursued Hye Seung's mention in her book that she sometimes feels the derision aimed at the Charlie Chan films is unfounded because it neglects to appreciate that these roles allowed Asian American actors to work in Hollywood and to get valuable on-the-job training. Hye Seung confessed to feeling very conflicted about the Charlie Chan films. Though she recognizes especially that it's problematic for white actors—Warner Oland and Sidney Toler—to play Charlie Chan in yellow face, and though the Charlie Chan films maximize much fortune cookie wisdom essentializing Chinese identity into "a detective who's wise", the series was—at the same time—such a popular drama in the 1930s-40s. They made more than 40 films. The series was well-received in the United States and even outside. In her research she discovered the films did very well in the Latin American market. When the studios released these B-features along with the A-films, these were the films that people were more interested in. In this genre, minorities knew better than whites. The white detectives were fumbling and couldn't solve the cases. They had to rely on Charlie Chan to solve the mysteries for them. Additionally, the villains were all white. The Chinese government didn't have any problem with Charlie Chan; they had more problems with Chinese warlord dramas. More importantly, the series harbors value because Asian Americans could play Asian Americans. Though admittedly Charlie Chan was a stereotype—the Chinese immigrant with an accent—Charlie Chan was paired with his "number one son", Keye Luke, who—by contrast—was a totally assimilated Asian American who spoke English perfectly without an accent. Keye Luke really admired Warner Oland who played Charlie Chan. His role as number one son gave him a professional advantage. Without the Charlie Chan movies, Hye Seung thinks Keye Luke would never have had a start in Hollywood and, later, in television. It's important to at least recognize that—no matter how stereotypical a role might be in retrospect—context is key. Hye Seung concedes there's a lot of neat stuff about Charlie Chan. For a long time there was a boycott of the whole series and it could not be put on the market until recently but when she shows these films to her young Asian American students, they "kind of like" the series. They recognize something of value. It's the history of the moment. I added that I imagine—or would hope—her students would have enough critical distance to know these stereotypical representations are not truly about who they are but reflect situational details of film history.

Notwithstanding, Hye Seung remains conflicted about Charlie Chan because even today Asian American actors have secondary roles. Even today political practices of role segregation and role stratification remain in effect. But the unique history of the Charlie Chan phenomenon in the 1930s and '40s likewise underscores opportunities for Asian American actors that now no longer exist. Now, because everything is patterned on the blockbuster model, films can't invest a lot of money on risky subjects, or too specific subjects. Everything has to have a universal appeal. In the 1930s and '40s, there was no competing media. There was no television. They were churning out so many films—500 films per year—something like Daughter of Shanghai could not be made today. It was special to the moment. It was something of an improvement in a one step forward, two steps back kind of way. Despite reservations, Hye Seung wants to emphasize that the Charlie Chan series gave jobs to Asian American actors, and provided Asian American actors the chance to start their Hollywood careers; Keye Luke especially.

When I spoke to Peter Feng about the TCM series and asked if he could pinpoint an example of ethnic masquerade in the line-up, he mentioned Charlie Chan in Honolulu. I asked Hye Seung if she had any comments on that particular film? She responded that she included Charlie Chan in Honolulu as an example of ethnic masquerade in her book. Philip Ahn plays Charlie Chan's son-in-law Wing Foo. In the beginning of the film Philip Ahn announces that Charlie Chan's daughter is having a baby so everybody goes to the hospital to await the birth of the child. Charlie Chan has to leave to solve a mystery and the baby is born while he's away. Philip Ahn calls Charlie Chan (played by Sidney Toler) to tell him the baby is born, healthy and pretty and looks like Charlie Chan's daughter; but—as in the aforementioned I Spy episode—he speaks in Korean! It's a very short passage and he speaks only a few sentences but it provides a cultural rupture of import to bicultural and bilingual spectators.

I asked if there were any cross-linguistic ruptures in the three Pearl Buck vehicles TCM is broadcasting in which Ahn is likewise featured? Hye Seung answered that in both The Good Earth and Dragon Seed Philip Ahn's roles are quite short. He appears in one scene for maybe one minute or two minutes. He plays Chinese but speaks in English and in Dragon Seed Hye Seung couldn't recall if he even had a speaking line. He might just be in the background as an extra villager; at most, one or two lines.

China Sky proved more problematic, and therefore more interesting, and she used the film as her major case study in chapter four of her book because Ahn's character was a Chinese collaborator with the Japanese against his American supervisors in a Chinese hospital during wartime. At the time the movie was filmed, China was the most valued Asian ally of America so such a traitorous representation of China did not go over well. Hollywood had already received much protest from the Chinese government in the '40s because of their degrading images of China in Shanghai Express and The General Died At Dawn. During WWII especially, the U.S. government had a tight grip on the propaganda incorporated into Hollywood film and all the major studios had to have their treatments and scripts approved before production. In order for China Sky to pass the government censors, Ahn's role had to be changed from Chinese to half-Korean/half-Japanese. In the original story, Ahn betrays his country and his American supervisor because he needed money and is bribed by a Japanese prisoner. The whole logic of the story revolved around the sentiment that—once the white people were kicked out of China—then the Japanese could be kicked out. In the revised script, his rationale for collaborating with the Japanese prisoner was because his father was Japanese. The Japanese prisoner, played by Richard Loo, immediately recognizes Ahn's character as half-Japanese—"which doesn't make any sense," Hye Seung quipped—but, the point being that in China Sky Ahn's character is known as Korean and he carries the secret of his half-heritage.

I asked Hye Seung if she had any plans to convert her research into a filmed documentary on Philip Ahn? "That would be my dream," she confessed. It would take finding someone with whom she could collaborate. She was contacted by Korean American filmmaker Wonsuk Chin (Too Tired to Die, 1998) who was interested in filming a Hollywood feature about Philip Ahn; but, Hye Seung wasn't sure if he was still pursuing the project. Without question, Philip Ahn's life story and career would make a fantastic documentary subject and she hopes someone with production skills will step forward to take on the project.

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If, by chance, you are unfamiliar with the work of Philip Ahn, six of his performances will be featured in TCM's broadcast of Asian Images in Film. They are:

Daughter of Shanghai (Paramount; 1937)
The Good Earth (MGM; 1937)
Thank You, Mr. Moto (20th Century Fox; 1937)
Charlie Chan In Honolulu (20th Century Fox; 1938)
Dragon Seed (MGM; 1944)
China Sky (RKO, 1945)

Video Detective has 10 trailers from Philip Ahn's films. More astoundingly, PerfSpot has multiple Kung Fu episodes available on streaming video. Check it out, Grasshopper!

1 comment:

Adam said...

Michael,

I am not worthy, I am not worthy . . .

. . . but I am blushing ;)

Thank you so much for doing this interview and getting more exposure for Hye Seung Chung's work. (I'm so excited to hear about her essay in the GREY'S ANATOMY collection and I'm itching to read SEOUL SEARCHING during my 3-week work stint at my company's Manila office soon.)

I particularly appreciate how Chung pushes us to rethink how we incorporate roles we'd previously see solely as oppressive. Ahn's agency to find pleasure in the limited roles available to him defnitely provides greater breathing room for actors and scholars.

Thanks again!

Adam