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Review of Hollywood Asian: Philip Ahn and the Politics of Cross-Cultural Performance

Tony Williams

I first encountered Philip Ahn on the big screen some forty-seven years ago when Val Guest’s grim World War Two film Yesterday’s Enemy (1959) appeared for a week on general release at a local cinema in Swansea, South Wales. Long unavailable for viewing in any format and urgently needing re-release and re-evaluation, this bleak war movie deliberately challenged contemporary codes of the war genre, both American and British, attempting to depict the viciousness of war that recognized neither heroes and villains, nor conventional moral boundaries. Yesterday’s Enemy appeared at the end of the 1950s British war cycle which tended to be escapist fantasies concerning England’s “finest hour” at a time when that country’s economic and imperial status began its slow decline. The film was a product of Hammer Studios that had begun releasing a series of horror films that indirectly reflected the tensions of a country moving towards questioning establishment values at the same time the British “Angry Young Man” theatrical movement began similar articulation of oppositional values. Rather than starring “stiff upper lip” contemporary English stars such as Jack Hawkins, Kenneth More, Anthony Steel and Richard Todd (who, ironically would play a working class sergeant two years later in the screen adaptation of Willis Hall’s iconoclastic war drama The Long and the Short and The Tall), Yesterday’s Enemy cast Welsh actor Stanley Baker, normally associated with more proletarian roles as its main star. He played an officer who broke the conventional rules of screen warfare long before Saving Private Ryan by allowing his men to kill wounded Japanese soldiers in Burma breaching Geneva Conventions normally associated with the enemy. In another breach of contemporary cinematic convention Philip Ahn appeared in the role of Japanese officer Yamazuki who was merely trying to carry out his duty in the most humane way possible. His role anticipated the later appearance of Takakura Ken as Major Yamaguchi in Robert Aldrich’s shamefully neglected Too Late the Hero (1969).

As I read over the above paragraph I’ve realized that I’ve unconsciously evoked similar words to Mr. Thatcher in the first flashback to Citizen Kane (1941), a film dealing with the problems surrounding memory and perception. Since I’ve not seen Yesterday’s Enemy for nearly fifty years, I can not claim infallibility concerning my own personal memory. But classical Hollywood directors such as John Ford would always attempt to sow memories of certain scenes in the mind of their audiences that would remain long after most of the film was forgotten. Even “lesser talents” such as Val Guest can do this. In Yesterday’s Enemy, Ahn’s performance lingered in my mind long after most of the rest of the film became forgotten. Yesterday’s Enemy was a war film deliberately designed to explode the cinematic myths of screen heroism and take no prisoners from any remnant of the stubborn ideology of that 1950s genre. Perhaps that is why it has long remained in oblivion while other films such as The Wooden Horse (1950) remain sterile examples of a vanished class system whose stereotypical characters became objects of parody in later decades. Yesterday’s Enemy is more challenging especially in the performance of Philip Ahn, a Korean actor who played sinister Japanese in world War Two movies as his personal contribution to the cause of his country’s desire for independence. Here he plays a much more complex role than any of his previous wartime performances.

These two paragraphs may appear as if I’m playing a game of cinematic one-upmanship with the author of this worthy study. This is not my intention. If none of my underground sources in England can find this film, Dr. Hey Seung Chung should not be held accountable for its omission in her book. However, since she cogently concludes by regarding her book as “an incomplete project or, more accurately, the mere beginning of a long road that I hope will be explored by future scholars” (189), I wish both to applaud her pioneering efforts and suggest further ways for the project to continue. What influenced Ahn to appear in Yesterday’s Enemy in a role that contradicted his previous screen wartime incarnations? Were there any changes in Japanese-Korean relationss that resulted in this type of performance? Unfortunately, the late Val Guest’s self-serving autobiography provides no answers apart from mentioning that the film was adapted from a television play and that the great Hammer art director Bernard Robinson constructed the Burmese jungle set on an entire stage at Shepperton Studios.1 Perhaps only Hammer Studios could produce this type of film in the late 50s before it began to concentrate on its well known cycle of horror films.

Significant portions of Hollywood Asian have already appeared in earlier forms in the Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, the anthology East Main Street: Asian American Popular Culture (both 2005) and Cinema Journal (2006) as essays respectively dealing with Battle Hymn as Biopic and Melodrama, Asian American Romance in Oriental Detective Films, and Ahn’s Disasporic Hollywood Identities. These are all prestigious publications and, as earlier versions of this book, would whet the appetite for future discoveries. Unfortunately, they comprise the major part of Hollywood Asian and this represents its major problem as a book publication. Although I may be incorrect in my assumption, this book appears little different from its dissertation format, which worthy as it is, needs further expansion. Nevertheless, it is essential reading in its present form.

Hye’s introduction presents Philip Ahn (1905-1978) as not only as a veteran Asian actor playing virtually all the stereotypes within Hollywood cinema but also a key figure in Korean American history. Korean audiences knew Ahn as the American born eldest son of the celebrated patriot Tosan An Chang-ho (1879-1938) a resilient fighter for his country’s independence from Japanese colonial role who died in house arrest following illnesses resulting from torture and imprisonment. This was well known both to Korean American audiences and their national counterparts but, naturally, not to Western audiences. The author sees Ahn as an object of transnational study and highlights “his lifelong struggle to bridge the American and Korean film industries through his political connections to his parental homeland” and “explores the complexity and richness of Ahn’s hyphenated identity and border-crossing legacy by framing it in the interstitial space of Korea diaspora and Asian America.” (xiv) In this respect, a new alternative canon formation becomes necessary by focusing on hitherto neglected works such as The General Died at Dawn (1936), Daughter of Shanghai (1937), King of Chinatown (1939), China Sky (1945), and Battle Hymn (1957) as central case studies. Ahn’s association with the Korean independence movement distinguishes him from other stars such as Sessue Hayakawa and Anna May Wong (with whom he made two films) resulting in a particular type of reader-reception on the part of local audiences at home and abroad. In this light Hye utilizes the arguments of Ella Shohat and Robert Stamm in Unthinking Eurocentrism concerning the fact that “Asian American spectators may also reinterpret stereotypes for the advancement of their groups’ own political interests and can enter the narratives by experiencing ethnic solidarity with onscreen surrogates, whose performances may outshine their own caricatured roles and thus are things to celebrate rather than dismiss in anger or disgust.” (xvii)

This is fine as it goes. The parallel case of Steppin Fetchit represents another example. But care must be taken to define the different reader-reception historical currents affecting such representations. Contemporary audiences may have been familiar with the extra-textual associations accompanying these actors’ screen roles. But what of future generations, especially those who lose touch with once important formations of historical memory and lack access to those classical films once broadcast on mainstream television channels but now rarely screened at all unless on cable stations catering to older audiences who have no problem watching back and white films? This raises the issue of cross-generational reception that needs further attention.

However, excavations of cultural and historical memories are important, and Hye supplies these in the first part of her book dealing with Asian American Acts: Performance and Spectatorship. The first chapter documents Ahn’s prestigious Korean background as Tosan’s son contrasting it with the stereotyped roles Hollywood demanded of him as well as his friendship with Chinese-American actress Anna May Wong (1907-1961) who suffered from similar casting problems. But whereas she was able to diversify her career by starring in European films from 1928-1934 (including a remarkable brief cameo appearance in the Alfred Hitchcock directed “Taming of the Shrew” segment to the 1930 variety film Elstree Calling) Ahn mostly remained in America where he “attempted to traverse the boundaries of Korean and American culture throughout his life.” (17) He also unsuccessfully attempted to initiate US-South Korean productions during the 1950s and 1960s during the regimes of Syngman Rhee and Park Chung Hee that sadly came to nothing. As a result Ahn became identified with a legacy of displaced identities in his Hollywood career, one that “not only registers the imperative of cross-ethnic masquerade as a means of survival for a minority actor working in mainstream industry oblivious to ethnic differences among racial others but also reflects the theme of displacement in that era’s Korean and Korean American identity politics. In the collective consciousness of Koreans (domestic or overseas) the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and World War II functions as a war for independence.” (28)

This is one of the strongest parts of the book which sees Ahn’s Japanese roles as his subversive Hollywood contribution both to World War Two and his country’s desire for independence from colonial rule. Also, as chapter two shows, Ahn played a significant role in terms of Oriental masquerade and ethnic recognition for Asian American audiences in certain roles. Employing the “resistant spectator” thesis Hye focuses not on the visible aspects of performance but on the audible drawing attention to Ahn’s frequent use of a linguistic masquerade that established “an extra-textual, cultural bonding” (49) with his diasporic Korean American audiences. Playing a Japanese general in MGM’s They Met in Bombay (1941), Ahn managed to insert some uncomplimentary Korean lines into his dialogue that resulted in the film being banned in Oriental territories. This linguistic subversion also occurred later in his career when he appeared in a 1967 episode of I-Spy where he masqueraded as a Chinese but actually spoke Korean in certain scenes.

Ahn starred with his lifelong friend Anna May Wong in two films featuring them as the first Asian American couple in Hollywood cinema: Daughter of Shanghai (1937) and King of Chinatown (1939) that Hye sees as crucial in representing Korean-American middle class values as well as countering the ethnic stereotyping of Charlie Chan films. This third chapter dealing with Asian American Romance in Oriental Detective films is well researched. So too is the fourth chapter that explores the imaging of Orientals in China films of the 1930s and 1940s against the background of censorship issues concerning Hollywood representations of America’s future wartime ally. Ahn’s wartime Japanese roles left a lingering impression of many audiences that tended to overshadow his more diversified performances. Like Anna May Wong, Ahn particularly fought against institutionalized bigotry pioneering “Asian American stardom through sheer determination and professionalism” (105). But Ahn could sometimes internally reinterpret Oriental stereotypes for his own political cause of Korean independence within many of the cross-ethnic roles he played in wartime Hollywood. RKO’s China Sky (1945) is one remarkable example. In his first Korean role in Hollywood Ahn played a Japanese collaborator but used the role to finally manifest his character’s “good” Korean side even inserting a strategically placed Korean word into the dialogue to reveal a guilty conscience. China Sky represented a kind of cinematic `coming out’ for the actor who “identified himself as Korean three times in the narrative, self-consciously asserting and commenting on his own ethnic identity, which had been previously mistaken as Chinese or Japanese by mainstream audiences.” (110) Despite its problems, China Sky paved the way for more positive Korean representations that appeared in First Yank into Tokyo (1945), another RKO film that did not feature Ahn but instead depicted “brave members of the Korean underground working on the side of the Allies in China and Japan.” (116)

The final chapter examines Battle Hymn (1957) as a war, melodrama, and biopic in the context of American popular cultural representations of the Korean War from The Steel Helmet to M*A*S*H. As well as examining the conflicting historical issues involving the Korean War and a divided nation during this era as well as revealing certain Orientalist aspects of the performances of both Ahn and Soon Tek-Oh in certain M*A*S*H episodes, Hye draws attention to a particular South Korean reader-reception of one scene in Battle Hymn revealing American cultural ignorance in a local theatre attended by celebrated author Ahn Junghyo. “This differentiated viewing position demonstrates that cultural competency and spectatorial `double consciousness’ can provide the potential for a detached, resistant reading of what might be consumed as a hegemonic text.” (168)

My response to this would be “Which audiences?” and “What historical/linguistic reception situation?” The author has documented well the original reader-reception situation concerning Ahn’s stardom as well as suggesting that his role in the ignominious Kung Fu television series may see him as a father figure to a white star as well as possibly representing another version of Tosan. But would a new generation of Korean American audiences unfamiliar with their language as well as their homeland see Ahn in the same light? Certainly, Korean American commentator Philip W. Chung expressed pleasure at hearing flawless, dignified Korean spoken by Ahn’s most distinguished successor Soon Tek-Oh in a 2000 article, but would many of the younger generation be satisfied with the other type of roles both actors played in American cinema and television? Here, the question of material selection occurs, and Soon Tek-Oh may be regarded as a contemporary test case to the historical arguments made for Philip Ahn in this book. Hye covers the historical conditions affecting Ahn’s role from the 1930s to the 1970s in his Japanese, Korean, and Chinese personae. However, from the seven page filmography contained in the Internet Movie Database, Ahn also played Vietnamese characters in films such as Rogue’s Regiment (1948) and a 1977 episode of Wonder Woman. These roles are scanty in comparison with those later played by Soon Teck-Oh, and one wishes for a comparison between Ahn’s Chinese and Korean performances with his Vietnamese characters. Also, the book could have covered other significant roles in Ahn’s career such as the Shinto priest in Gregg Toland’s footage for December 7th (1943) as well as other television episodes readily accessible from collectors. Since many old television series such as Hawaii Five-0 (where Ahn played an Attorney General in a 1969 episode) are now becoming available on DVD, this newly abundant material could provide the focus for further investigation.

Hye correctly regards the Japanese born Korean actor Soon Teck-Oh as “the most prolific and distinguished Korean actor in Hollywood and television besides Philip Ahn.” (207, n.38) A book on this prestigious actor is urgently needed sometime in the future but here, I’d like to make some comparisons with Philip Ahn. Soon Teck-Oh continued the heritage of Ahn both culturally and prolifically in his many film and television roles that run to six pages in the Internet Movie Database. I’m sure there are more and I can’t currently trace that “Back to Vietnam” episode in one of the Walker Texas Ranger series that paralleled similar tropes in other television series such as Magnum P.I (where Soon played a North Vietnamese General in a 1986 episode) and Matt Houston (where he played a Vietnamese warlord in a 1984 episode.) Like Ahn, Soon Teck-Oh has played Chinese, Japanese and Korean characters but he has also specialized in Vietnamese roles very similar to those World War Two “fiendish Oriental” types his distinguished predecessor made as a contribution to World War Two. Issues of ideology and politics undoubtedly affect these roles and I have no wish to speculate on whatever views he may share with Chuck Norris with whom he has appeared in at least two films and one television episode. However, despite the “Reaganite entertainment” concept of Missing in Action 2: The Beginning (1985) introduced by news footage showing “The Gipper” himself, Soon Teck-Oh’s performance as the evil P.0.W. camp commandant Colonel Yin at times manages to transcend his ideological role as the new incarnation of “Tojo and his bug-eyed monsters”, so sensitively described by John Wayne in the mostly forgettable The Fighting Seebees (1944), to suggest an actor having the same type of professional and non-stereotypical abilities as that of his late predecessor Philip Ahn. He is certainly a subject for further research on the part of Korean cultural scholars.

Finally, I see the flaws in this book less due to any failing on the part of the author who has provided a significant contribution to Asian-American studies. She has unearthed the cultural importance of one of Hollywood’s most prolific Asian actors. Hollywood Asian represents an appetizer. But, like Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, many of us would ask for more and I’m sure that the author’s honest recognition of her work as an “incomplete project” at this early stage of her academic career will result in our desire for “more” being gradually filled as she advances further in her quest.


1. Val Guest, So You Want to Be in Pictures: From Will Hay to Hammer Horror and James Bond. London: Reynolds and Hearn. Ltd, 2001, 135. Like Nigel Kneale’s lost BBC television production The Creature (1955) later directed by Guest for Hammer under the title The Abominable Snowman (1957), Yesterday’s Enemy first appeared on September 14th, 1958 with Manchester born Chinese actor Burt Kwouk (the future Kato of the Inspector Clouzot series) in the role of the Japanese officer Yamazuki. Although veteran Scottish actor Gordon Jackson repeated his television role as the sergeant in Guest’s film version, Kwouk was replaced by Philip Ahn probably because of the veteran actor’s more familiar screen persona. But Kwouk still appeared in the film version in another role. “I did the live television and film versions of Yesterday’s Enemy. I was Japanese army. I remember it was about a British war crime. In those days, Britain did not commit war crimes. War crimes were for the Japanese and the Germans (Chuckles). It was perhaps a bit too early for its time. People didn’t like the idea of British soldiers behaving badly.” See Burt Kwouk: Interview by Paul Duane.” Psychotronic 37 (2002): 36. (return)