In the magical world of Sleeping Beauty and Snow White lies one other princess who has yet to awaken: Shimcheong. Only it’s not a prince who’s come to find her — it’s Julia Riew, a musical theater composer and lyricist studying at Harvard who figured if Disney won’t make a Korean American princess, she’d do it on her own.
Riew crafted her story of Princess Shimcheong as part of her senior thesis on playwriting, involving a full, original musical script. After completing her first draft, she shared a 45-second clip of her song “Dive” to TikTok earlier this month, not suspecting that it would generate hundreds of thousands of views and a demand for the story to be made into a real-life production.
“All of the fish in the sea can’t stop me / All of the waves in the world can’t rock me” the lyrics start to an upbeat melody that perfectly blends in with Disney’s repertoire of iconic musical numbers.
“A Korean Disney princess? This needs to happen,” one viewer commented, while countless others made sure to grab Disney’s attention by tagging them under her video. Many other users who were inspired by Riew’s performance have uploaded their own video responses to her song, either harmonizing with Riew or singing along karaoke-style.
Her reaction? “Speechless,” she told NextShark.
“I was telling someone about two weeks ago that one of my dreams is to be walking down the street and hearing a child sing a song that I wrote, and I sort of feel like I’m almost living out that dream right now,” she said. “I’m being able to see that maybe these kids will have a character that I always wished that I had as a kid to look up to, to sing their songs and to really, truly feel represented by that character.”
Riew’s “Shimcheong” is about a year and a half in the making, beginning with a literal “dive” into Korean folktales. The original tale of Shimcheong or “The Blind Man’s Daughter” is about a young woman who sacrifices everything in exchange for her blind father to be able to see. She is then rewarded for her selfless act by being appointed as empress.
It was the character’s bravery and determination to venture out on her own that stuck out to Riew during her research and later served as her source of inspiration. And while Riew says that many of the major themes and characters from the original story have been carried over into her own, it’s been adapted extensively to be more suitable for modern day audiences.
“What I always look for are the seeds of a story, the seeds of an adventure, and how can I turn this into a stage musical,” explained Riew, who’s previously helped adapt folktales for musical theater. “So it’s actually my version of Shimcheong, in the same way that Disney heavily adopts its stories.”
Riew points to Shimcheong’s lack of “agency” in the original story as something she’s altered for her own version, along with its portrayal of disabled people. During her research, she reached out to a blind friend of hers to gather his thoughts on the moral of the original story in which the blind man is gifted sight.
“He said that in his community, there’s a lot of objections about that,” Riew noted. “So a lot of what I did is examine the original focus and say, OK, what are the things that I love about this? And then what are the things that inspire me personally about my own journey? And about the journey of my friends and people that I’ve talked to? And then how can I fuse those together into a musical?”
It’s why the story she’s come up with is less about the traditional Shimcheong and has more to do with Riew’s own search for identity as an Asian American growing up in Missouri.
For Riew, writing for Disney has been a dream of hers “for as long as [she] can remember.”
“Listening to Broadway soundtracks in the car and watching Disney movies as a kid was one of the most inspiring things, creatively and artistically for me. And so I think that’s why I’m personally really called to Disney. And I think a lot of the hope was definitely to get noticed by Disney to say, ‘Hi, I’m out here. If you’re trying to create a Disney princess, and you want her to be Korean, and you want it to be authentic, hi, I’m here and I exist.’”
Mulan, Disney’s token Asian “princess” who’s beloved by many, isn’t enough, Riew says.
“A lot of the media that we consume as kids affects how we see ourselves, especially if the only chances that we have to see ourselves on screen is playing a very specific kind of person or very specific kind of character.”
“I think it’s so wonderful that Mulan exists. I think Mulan for so many people is their favorite Disney princess, and they can see themselves in her. But at the same time, I noticed that when I was a little kid, playing dress up with my friends, they would say things about how the only one I could ever dress up as was Mulan. And I think one of my goals with representation and what I foresee for future representation is just more of it… because when you have more stories you have a broader idea of the spectrum of different stories that are out there… Obviously there’s a really widespread understanding of what it means to be Asian American and having one princess represent all Asian Americans is really, really tricky.”
Riew believes we’re at a turning point now in terms of representation. There’s a sense of “excitement” and a “need” for more diverse stories, and she’s hopeful that there will be a space for them to be showcased.
With all the interest she’s generated from less than a minute of an hour-long script, producers and theaters have also turned their heads towards Riew — enough that she is hesitant to reveal too much about the storyline. Though as of yet, nothing has been set in stone.
Whatever may come of Riew’s “Shimcheong,” at the very least, it has inspired hope for many to see themselves represented on screen. And at the very, very least, it will have earned her what can only be assumed to be an obvious “A” on her thesis.
Featured Image via Julia Riew
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