US Hallyu: Korean-American Roles Become More Visible in Hollywood

Oct 25, 2006

By Cathy Rose A. Garcia
Staff Reporter

As Korean dramas and movies spread like wildfire in Asia, a different form of ‘hallyu’ or Korean Wave seems to be taking place in the U.S.

Hollywood appears to be catching on to the so-called Korean Wave, as Korean-American and Korean characters are popping up in some top-rating U.S. TV shows and movies.

Strong-willed surgical intern Christina Yang in "Grey’s Anatomy," rock band drummer Lane Kim in "Gilmore Girls" and mysterious married couple Sun and Jin in "Lost" are just some of the Korean and Korean-American characters on popular shows.

Jeff Chung, general manager and owner of TV station KBFD in Hawaii, calls this phenomenon a sort of "U.S. hallyu."

"It seems Korean (culture) is the ‘in culture’ among Asian cultures in the U.S. There are now a lot of Korean-American roles. Korean American actors and actresses are gaining a foothold in American TV series like Grey’s Anatomy," Chung told The Korea Times.

Unlike in the past where Korean-American actors were usually limited to playing "token" Asian roles such as neighborhood grocer, dry-cleaner or someone who speaks in halting English, now Korean-Americans are playing more complex characters.

These roles are not too focused on the Korean or Asian aspects; instead they show the characters as fully integrated into American society.

In Grey’s Anatomy, Sandra Oh’s Dr. Yang is a surgical intern grappling with the challenges of working at a hospital and juggling her relationships with her co-interns.

In the first season, Yang is asked by a co-worker to talk to a Chinese-speaking patient, simply because she looks Asian. "I grew up in Beverly Hills. The only Chinese I know is from Mr. Chow’s menu. And I’m Korean," she sharply says, before walking out.

"Sandra Oh’s role definitely is breaking new ground. It is more about her character. It is more evolved. It does not have anything to do with her being Korean. Being Korean has no meaning in the storyline. That’s a great thing," Chung said.

For her role in Grey’s Anatony, Oh won the Screen Actor’s Guild Award for outstanding performance by a female actor in a drama series last January. "I’m really proud to be on a show whose casting is a little more representative of how I think the world is," she said, in her acceptance speech.

Koreans in ‘Lost’

Lost, one of the most popular TV shows in the U.S., has undoubtedly increased the visibility of Koreans in Hollywood. Most of the show’s fans admit they are emotionally drawn to the characters of married couple Sun and Jin Kwon, despite or because of the language barrier.

Korean actress Kim Yun-jin and Korean-American Daniel Dae Kim have managed to create sympathetic characters, who do not need to speak English to effectively bond with American viewers.

Kim Yun-jin is now one of the hottest faces in Hollywood, appearing on several U.S. magazine covers and snagging a role in an upcoming movie with Billy Bob Thornton.

However, Daniel Dae Kim admitted he had played at least 50 roles on TV and had never had an on-screen kiss until "Lost."

"We’ve (Asian men) been portrayed as inscrutable villains and asexualized kind of eunuchs…Even Jackie Chan in his movies rarely gets to kiss his female lead," Kim said, in an interview with ABC Television’s news show 20/20.

Chung also points to the title role played by John Cho, in "Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle" as another groundbreaking role. "It’s the first movie where I’ve seen the main Asian character kiss a non-Asian character,’’ Chung said.

On the other hand, Korean-American actor Bobby Lee is a regular member of the comedy show, MadTV. On the show, he plays various Asian characters, including North Korean leader Kim Jong-il and a Korean drama actor, for laughs.

Korean Family

Gilmore Girls, now in its seventh season, is one of the few shows with a Korean-American family on the regular cast. The lead character Rory Gilmore’s best friend is Lane Kim, a rock-music loving girl whose mother is a strict Seventh-day Adventist. The character is based on the Gilmore Girls creator Amy Sherman-Palladino’s best friend and co-producer Helen Pai, who is Korean-American.

Unlike the usual stereotype of Korean kids as overachievers, Kim is an average student whose is extremely passionate about music and plays drums in a rock band.

Interestingly enough, the roles or Lane and her mother, Mrs. Kim, have gone to Japanese-American actresses Keiko Agena and Emily Kuroda.

One of the unique things about Gilmore Girls is how well integrated the Korean characters are in the community. The characters do not have Korean accents, but occasionally show aspects of Korean culture.

Sherman-Palladino is reported to have adapted some of Pai’s real-life experiences and integrated them into the Gilmore Girls storyline.

More Roles Needed

Even as Korean-American characters have increased, there is a lot of work to be done to keep Korean Americans and the rest of the Asian-American community more visible in Hollywood.

The University of California-Los Angeles conducted a study for the Asian American Justice Center which showed only 2.6 percent of primetime TV roles went to Asian Americans.

The study, "Asian Pacific Americans in Prime Time: Setting the Stage," noted Asian-Americans are "invisible" on prime-time U.S. TV despite the fact that they make up five percent of the U.S. population.

The study singled out Lost and Grey’s Anatomy as exemplary programs showing complex and well-developed Asian-American characters, particularly the Korean characters.

"Christina (Oh’s character) repeatedly displays both her intellectual skills on the job and a range of emotions involving personal issues… Her character is simply not a token Asian in the workplace… It is no surprise that such a multifaceted character ranks second in screen time among all regular characters on her program," it noted.

However, the study noted some concern the Asian-American characters were still portrayed in high-status occupations perpetuating the ‘"model minority" stereotype.


The Media Action Network for Asian Americans has continued to lobby for an increase in Asian American roles in Hollywood, as well as breaking the stereotypes.

On its Web site, MANAA issued an open memorandum to Hollywood on how to erase the restrictive portrayals of Asians in the media and how to balance them.

"In the film ‘Falling Down,’ the white main character accuses a Korean grocer of draining American resources without bothering to fit into American society. This accusation ‘justifies’ the lead character’s destruction of the Korean’s grocery store," according to the MANAA Web site.

MANAA has sought to encourage Hollywood to abandon old, cliched stereotypes and look at a different side of Asian Americans.

However, there is still a lot to be done for Korean-Americans actors and actresses to break out of the Asian-American mold and star in a big-budget film or become a lead character on a major TV show.

"I think we still have a long way to go. It’s a long way from that happening. But we have made great leap, we have made a huge step forward in the right direction. It depends on the kind of talent of the Korean-American actors and actresses to make something out of this," Chung said.

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Source: The Korea Times