Students at Harvard are fighting for more Asian representation in media through creative ways to highlight their Asian roots.
Julia Riew, a class of 2022 Theater, Dance & Media major at Harvard, recently gained a huge fan base after uploading a video on TikTok. Titled “There was no Korean Disney princess so I decided to make my own,” the video features a musical adaptation of a Korean folktale “Shimcheong” composed by Riew.
Riew always dreamed about visiting Korea and reuniting with Korean culture throughout her life in the United States, feeling very connected to Shimcheong’s journey of wishing to return home and reunite with her father. Inspired by Shimcheong’s longing to return home, she composed a song titled “Dive” to talk about Shimcheong’s desire to find a sense of belonging and community.
After uploading her video, Riew gained more than 980,000 views and over 6,000 comments within a month. She received messages from parents telling her their children love listening to Riew’s songs and even videos of families singing along.
When asked about Riew’s thoughts on the portrayal of the Asian population in U.S. media, Riew rarely recalled seeing another Asian person on TV and movies, let alone a Korean person when she was a child.
“Even when Asians were on TV, they used to be portrayed as sidekicks, doctors, and serious characters only,” Riew said. “But I think we are now seeing an exciting shift in media right now in which there is a call for diverse stories to be told. There are always more stories to be told, and I’m excited to contribute to that movement of cultural appreciation within the musical film industry and beyond.”
Riew added that it was heartwarming to see the Korean American community coming together around her Shimcheong project as she had always yearned for belonging and that it finally felt like she had found a home.
When Ewha Voice asked if she has any other ongoing projects, Riew revealed that she is premiering a musical this summer in Missouri. She also plans to keep up with writing new music until the day she can watch Shimcheong in theaters as an animated movie with her family and friends.
Aside from individual efforts, a student society at Harvard is also working to present Asian narratives in the media. Asian Student Arts Project (ASAP) is an arts and cultural organization at Harvard University aiming to provide resources, community, and support for students to showcase Pan-Asian and Asian-American experiences and perspectives.
Harvard ASAP has been launching musical projects with an all-Asian cast for the last few years, including an all-Asian “Legally Blonde” production in October 2021 that has garnered huge success.
“The story of Elle going to Harvard in ‘Legally Blonde’ is a story of white privilege,” said Karina Cowperthwaite, the co-president of ASAP in an interview with NBC. “She is blonde, beautiful, rich and white. The admission officers take one look at that identity and say, ‘Yes, she is in.’”
Cowperthwaite explained that there are no musicals talking about Asian American identity that are not offensive or reliant on stereotypes, pointing out how prevalent racism is in musicals. This led students at ASAP to redesign the musical’s original set and costumes to reflect an Asian American experience.
Cowperthwaite was thrilled after all the tickets for ASAP’s six-week-long project sold out.
“In terms of representation, to me it’s a really big step forward, especially on our campus,” Cowperthwaite said in an interview with NBC. “This production is a love letter to all those girls out there who dream of being Elle Woods but feel like they can’t because they don’t look like Reese Witherspoon.”