Philip Ahn, the Little Big Man: Seeing In Yellow
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This paper examines Philip Ahn's constructed media representations in his three movies, Back to Bataan, Macao, and Battle Hymn, and discloses the hidden ideology behind his screen images. He carries the honoring modifier "first" when introduced: the first U.S. born Korean American, and the first actor of Korean descent who established a long standing career in Hollywood. The proud pioneering Asian American movie star, however, is frequently dishonored on the silver screen. Starting from a "chinaman" in A Scream in the Night in 1935, Ahn played mostly in Chinese and Japanese parts. When white actors were cast in the leading roles and portrayed as American heroes, Ahn's screen character was always fixed to the buck-toothed, slit-eyed, untrustworthy, and threatening ethnic other and a racialized and sexualized inscrutable Oriental. Off screen, he was an acculturated American who called America his home country, but his Americanness was completely ignored on screen. The discourse surrounding Ahn continuously centers on his foreignness or otherness. The creation of Ahn's foreignness is deeply rooted in the premise that non-whites are non-Americans, and it functions as an instrument to continue the order of white America, hold up racial hierarchy, and maintain white dominance. Unfortunately, Ahn's racialized otherness is recycled and reused in portraying today's Asian Americans. This must not be overlooked, considering the psychological and emotional impact on Asian Americans, especially growing Asian American children, and we should seek solutions for the betterment to move onto evolving images.Philip Ahn may be a little man considering his filler roles and the little recognition despite his exceptionally long career in the entertainment industry. But this minor, yet versatile and prolific, actor's existence is big because he is a pioneering actor in making his mark on American movies, and his star on the Walk of Fame serves as a monument to Asian American actors and the Asian American community. All the experiences and struggles that he went through as an Asian American actor are not only confined to himself alone. They are also Asian Americans' stories.