Philip Ahn: Born in America
Philip Ahn was in many was as unique as his father. Like Dosan, he was a universal man. He was an artist, a diplomat, a businessman, a patriot, and a leader of his community. These days his uniqueness is unnoticed and his lifetime accomplishments have been ignored. He has become somewhat of a forgotten man. Young Asians in the film and TV industry talk entertainment history like they are the pioneers. Present-day Korean American community activists act as though they are the first generation to encounter real social victimization. Many Koreans don't realize that there are Americans of Korean heritage who were as patriotic as any Korean born and truly helped put Korea in a position to participate in the modern world on a global basis. If you ask who Philip Ahn is, not many people know. Usually a non-Korean would most likely know more. Philip Ahn should be remembered well by all people because he was a person who made history and influenced many people's lives.
Pil Lip Ahn was born March 29, 1905, in Highland Park, California. Philip Ahn, his Westernized name, was the first American citizen born of Korean parents in the United States. His parents--the great Korean patriot Dosan Ahn Chang Ho and his wife, Helen Lee, the second Korean woman to enter America--came to the United States in 1902. They were the first married couple to leave Korea and come to America. Philip was their first son. The Ahn family were pioneers in more ways than one.
The first school he attended was the Seventh Day Adventist school in Riverside. Philip's family moved to Los Angeles, where he finished grammar school at Fremont Avenue. Philip went to Central Junior High, graduated in June 1920, and was valedictorian. He went to Polytechnic High School. Although he studied electrical engineering, he took an interest in drama and speech classes and participated in as many of the school plays as he could with the Mask and Sandal Drama Club. These days Philip began to develop his great voice.
While he was still in high school, he visited Douglas Fairbanks' Thief of Bagdad set and was offered a screen test by Mr. Fairbanks. Ahn did well and was offered a job. Philip said he would never forget that day. "Still wearing my makeup, I proudly came home to tell my mother the good news." His mother upheld the Korean traditional low opinion of acting and said his studies were more important. His father was away in Asia. His mother refused to let him become an actor at this time, saying "No son of mine is going to get mixed up with those awful people." Ahn added he couldn't leave the house for the next three days. Philip graduated from high school in 1923.
After high school Philip went to work in the Hung Sa Dan rice fields in Colusa. The Hung Sa Dan, or Young Korean Academy, was a group founded in San Francisco in 1913 to train young people to become leaders of Korea after the Japanese colonial rule was ended. Because of his American citizenship, they used Philip as the legal entity to start agricultural enterprises in northern California. It was rough work in the fields for Philip. He also drove trucks from the fields to Los Angeles to deliver produce. And it turned out to be an economic disaster as the fields failed to make money due to unusual heavy rains. It took a long time for Philip to clear his name and establish good credit.
These were difficult times for the Ahn family. Since their father was gone, it was up to Philip to be the man of the house. He had to help his mother take care of his brother Philson and two sisters, Susan and Soorah. His youngest brother, Ralph, was born in 1926. The Depression and the immigrant background of America's first Korean American family brought many added responsibilities and hardships for Philip. He found work around Los Angeles as an elevator boy at the now historic apartments like Brysons and the Gaylord building to help the family. His father was gone working for Korea's independence most of the time, and Philip never really had the chance to live his own life.
Because of the Korean traditional poor opinion of actors his first ideas of having a job making motion pictures were confusing. During a conversation in 1925 about his mother's objection to his acting career, he sought the advice of his father, who had just returned from China, where he was active in Korea's fight against Japanese imperialism. His father told him if acting was something he really wanted to do, then he must make it his goal to be one of the best. Dosan, his father's pen name, which means island-mountain, was a man of great vision who was trying to bring social reforms and Western thought to Korea in hope of making the people more worldly. Dosan considered acting as really a form of art that was beneficial to society in some ways. I think his father recognized his son's sincerity and honest desire to work at becoming an accomplished actor and gave Philip his blessings.
In 1934 Philip Ahn resumed his education and attended USC after realizing that acting might not provide a secure future. Ahn majored in foreign commerce and took a minor in speech. Philip was interested in the possibility of going into importing and exporting between the United States and China, but during his time at USC he took as many courses in the motion picture business as possible. He took courses in cinematography and in the dramatic field. He appeared on stage in "Merrily We Roll Along." This role took him on a tour to San Francisco. Even with his awareness of the slim chance to make it in Hollywood his heart was set on acting.
At USC, Philip was also president of the Cosmopolitan Club, chairman of the All University Committee on International Relations, and assistant to Dr. Francis M. Bacon, the dean of men, as advisor for foreign student affairs. He was chairman of planning for many multicultural events, including an international dinner which hosted thirty-two different countries at the USC campus in October 1934. Philip organized many guest speakers from foreign countries such as Princess Der Ling of the Imperial Manchu dynasty, Chaman Lal, Indian journalist and special correspondent of the Hindustan Times, and British explorer and Mayan archaeologist Robert B. Stacey-Judd, among others, in his attempt to give students opportunities to learn about foreign people and their customs. With all these added responsibilities and work for the Hollywood studios, it was hard for Philip to concentrate on his foreign commerce studies. But, he did find time to give lectures on Korea and foreign relations. At the end of his sophomore year, he went to work in the motion picture industry full time.
Philip worked on his first motion picture in 1936 in Anything Goes, a picture directed by Lewis Milestone starring Bing Crosby and Ethel Merman. Director Milestone turned down Philip the very first time they met because Ahn's English was too good. On his way out of their first meeting, Philip, with great humor, mimicked a heavy Asian accent perfectly and got the job immediately. Mae West had also noticed Philip's talent and gave him a part in her movie Klondike Annie.
In a March 31, 1936, interview Philip Ahn gave a statement about one of his motivations to be an actor. "The screen is not restricted to one class of people," he said, "and through bringing the customs of one country to another it creates understanding among the peoples; thus eventually international relations will be brought about."
Philip's work in Anything Goes made way for Milestone to hire him to play Oxford in The General Died at Dawn. During his early years as an actor he made successful appearances on the screen in Hollywood classics like The Good Earth, Anything Goes, The General Died at Dawn, Thank You, Mr. Moto, and Charlie Chan in Honolulu. He played the lead opposite Anna May Wong in King of Chinatown and Daughter of Shanghai. His role with Anna May Wong led to Hollywood gossip columns in 1937 predicting their marriage. Ahn was in love with Anna May, but they never married. He played Ping, the Chinese assistant doctor to Gary Cooper, in Cecil B. DeMille's The Story of Dr. Wassell. One of his famous lines was to Shirley Temple in Stowaway: "May your shadow lengthen always in the sun of happiness." Philip Ahn's acting career was very distinguished as well as very successful.
In 1945 a November 2, 1944, copy of Philip's illustrated character by Peg Murray appeared in the nationally syndicated newspaper section "Seein' Stars" as a postcard released as the first day issue of an American postage stamp of the Korean flag. The postcard was addressed:
A copy of this card also appeared in the Mexico City print of "Seein' Stars" section on April 15th, 1945.
Around February 1945, Philip Ahn joined the United States Army. He served until September 1945. He attended Officer Candidate School, was washed out because of a bad ankle, and then unwittingly passed up an offer to be a diplomatic officer for the OSS. He went to Special Services. While Philip was assigned to School Troops, he produced and directed a play for the Fort Benning Theatre Guild, "You Can't Take It With You." By 1946 Philip had already played about 110 Chinese and 71 Japanese roles. Philip Ahn was cast in dozens of propaganda films that stirred up hate for the Japanese during World War II. He played many roles as the cruel Japanese officer who tortured American flyers and soldiers for information. He once said making people hate the Japanese was a way for him to actively participate in the Independence Movement of Korea, in which his father had been a great leader against imperialism. He played his roles so well that he was personally attacked by people who took the movies seriously. Hate mail, threats on his life, and other manifestations of his unpopularity soon convinced Ahn one way to stop it was to quit acting and join the Army. He served the United States with distinction.
Ahn was asked many times about his playing the role of Japanese "heavies." People who interviewed him wondered about how the death of his father at the hands of the Japanese in 1938 affected his emotions during his portrayal of a Japanese character. "True I hated the Japanese, but I told myself that if I was going to play the enemy, I was going to play him as viciously as I could. In Back to Bataan (RKO, 1945) I slapped little children and went so far as to hang a teacher from an American flagpole. I took pride in being the most evil man alive."
It wasn't always the heavy role for Philip Ahn. His role of Ping, the sympathetic assistant to Gary Cooper in The Story of Dr. Wassell, the romantic lead opposite beautiful Anna May Wong in Daughter of Shanghai, which he said was his most favorite film, Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing with William Holden and Jennifer Jones, Around the World in Eighty Days, Thoroughly Modern Millie with Julie Andrews and Carol Channing, and Paradise Hawaiian Style with Elvis Presley offered him roles of compassion, humor, and warmhearted wisdom. Philip also made an appearance in an episode of Rod Serling's "Twilight Zone."
In the late 1950s, along with his movie career, he helped his sister Soorah Ahn open a Chinese restaurant in Panorama City. The restaurant was in business at 8632 Van Nuys Boulevard for thirty years. It was one of the very first Chinese restaurants in the San Fernando Valley. Philip's popularity and naming it "Phil Ahn's Moongate" brought in the crowds for three decades. On the weekends there would be a long line to get a table. A lot of kids thought he was a real bad guy and were scared to meet him. But many happy customers got a great meal and an autographed photo. The food was very well prepared and even received a good comment from famous taste tester Elmer Dills. Today many people still have fond memories of the Moongate.
Philip Ahn was very involved in the community's affairs as well as entertaining them. In May of 1962 at the first annual Panorama City Chamber of Commerce Day, Philip Ahn was installed as Honorary Mayor of Panorama City. Philip had always found a way to cross lines that others could not. He used his confidence and intelligence to gain acceptance. this appointment added great esteem to the Chamber because of Philip's stature as a well-known international motion picture and television actor. Members from the State Assembly, the County Board of Supervisors, the Los Angeles City Council, and Mayor Sam Yorty's office participated in this event to welcome Philip to the political community. Actually, Philip Ahn was a great diplomat and liked to be involved with lots of people. The political community was another stage on which Philip found it comfortable to perform.
During Tom Bradley's era of running Los Angeles, Philip gave his assistance. He was responsible for giving Korean Americans and the Korean nation some visibility and identity. Two the projects he led were the establishment of Los Angeles as a sister city to Pusan, Korea, and the Korean Friendship Bell. Among Philip's belongings were hundreds of letters from politicians, both Republican and Democratic, and community leaders from all ethnic and mainstream communities thanking him for his participation and support for a wide variety of causes. Philip Ahn definitely gave more than he took.
His early involvement in international affairs at USC came in handy during this facet of his life. His acting made him a great public figure and excellent speaker. He was the honorary mayor of Panorama City for almost twenty years. He was a strong spokesperson for the Korean community and his ability has never been matched, and most likely never will.
By the 1960s Philip Ahn had worked with many great stars such as Bing Crosby, John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Humphrey Bogart, Burt Lancaster, Frank Sinatra, Key Luke, Richard Loo, Madeline Carroll, Anna May Wong, Ethel Merman, Julie Andrews, Shirley Temple, and Mae West, to name a few. He had worked for Desilu, Four Star, Screen Gems, Warner Brothers, MGM, Universal International, Paramount, 20th Century, RKO, Columbia, and all the other major studios. Ahn got to travel the world to filming locations in Hawaii, Fiji, Hong Kong, and Europe, to list a few. He worked hard at developing his skills. He played his parts well. His great success was a product of his determination to be one of the best.
Philip Ahn's commitment to the troops of the United States and Republic of Korea in Vietnam is another example of his broad range of talent and activity. It seemed he was always offering his services to others. Bob Cutts, a Stars & Stripes correspondent for the armed forces, wrote about Philip's USO tour of Vietnam in 1968. "If you thought there were already enough bad guys to worry about in Viet Nam, the USO's got a surprise for you--they're bringing over a guy so nasty he could be an advisor to the Viet Cong. . . . Veteran character actor Philip Ahn has for 30 years been the guy you love to hate. He's played over 200 movie and TV roles, most of them as 'heavies.'" During his two-week 1968 USO tour Ahn traveled almost the whole length of Vietnam visiting the II, III, and IV Corps from July 9 through July 20. Some of the other places he visited were the Republic of Korea forces in Di An, U.S. Army troops n Nha Trang, and the Tae Kwon Do Association of the Vietnam Navy. It's certain that his gregarious spirit and warm smile gave the soldiers a brief uplift during this very tragic period of their lives.
The last popular role Philip Ahn played was the wise Master Kan, leader of the Shaolin Temple in the ABC TV series, "Kung Fu." Ahn played the part of the monk who held the rock out for Kwai Chang Caine (David Carradine) to grab from his palm and graduate from the Shaolin training. "Grasshopper, as soon as you are able to grab the rock from my hand you may leave the temple. . . ." This is probably the line that is best remembered from this era of his career. Ahn teamed up with his old Asian acting pals Keye Luke and Richard Loo to bring Eastern philosophy and martial arts to television in the early 1970s. "Kung Fu" still gets some airtime on TV reruns these days.
Ahn's wisdom and shaven head and veracious performance led people to believe that Philip Ahn really was a Master Kan in his daily existence, quoting the Tao and assuming the lotus position. He commented: "I was raised a Presbyterian and I'll always be a Presbyterian. I'm an actor, who is paid to read the lines as they have been written. Have I ever questioned their authenticity? I prefer to think the philosophies Kan expresses are genuine, that they are taken from the Taos religion, which teaches everyone to do good and which preaches non-violence until you are backed up a tree and must defend yourself. That is where kung fu becomes justified in our stories. Hence a TV series." It was a great series and ran strong in prime time for a few seasons. "Personally? I think 'Kung Fu' has substance--at least it's trying to say something about life, trying to evoke a feeling, an emotion. It's trying to do something besides entertain. I guess that's what I'm trying to say." Philip Ahn's talent was a major reason the series had substance and success.
In the 1970s Philip Ahn was concerned about the young Asian actors. There were none. "What worries me most," said Ahn, "is the acute shortage of young Oriental actors in Hollywood. We've been through the Black cycle, but not the Oriental cycle. Except for 'Kung Fu' there's little opportunity right now. No training ground. We're starting to get old . . . where are the young people to replace us?"
Two things come to mind considering the lack of young Asian actors in those times. One, the Asian view of acting was not very accepting of the art. Most Asian parents wanted their children to be professionals, lawyers, doctors, and the like. Asian American parents weren't concerned about culture as much as finances. Two, there weren't many Asians around, especially in the entertainment field. Now, it's a different situation. The current group has significant numbers, but they give no notice or recognition to the pioneer Asian actors' careers or experiences. There seems to be some attitude of indignity about the roles that the pioneers were forced to play that the young people resent. Whatever went on in the past is still how young Asian actors got their chances today, good or evil. It's history, and they should respect it. Most young people in the industry are not as trained or committed as the old timers like Philip Ahn. Most of them are predisposed to cry victimization instead of owning up to lack of preparation or absence of basic talent.
In 1976 Philip Ahn participated with many Asian/Pacific Americans and non-Asian individuals and organizations to have Asian/Pacific Americans considered fairly for all roles. His name was listed in an advertisement stating: "WE ARE NOT ALL ALIKE . . . Sinister Villains China Dolls Waiters Laundrymen! The motion picture and television industry must catch up with the times in the portrayal of Asian/Pacific Americans on the screen. Since our people participate in all aspects of the mainstream of American life, we should also be considered and cast in such roles as lawyers, doctors, and next-door neighbors." Ahn, who had been acting for almost fifty years, was not speaking for himself so much as for the next generations. It has taken almost twenty years for this younger generation to make a difference in discriminatory casting practices.
Although he was born in the United States and was one of America's great citizens, Philip Ahn was a true son of Korea. He upheld his Confucian role of filial piety. He honorably upheld his father's dignity and dedication to bring independence to Korea. He cared for his mother and family. He never denied his Korean heritage. He worked for the Korean people and helped them throughout his life.
Every house Philip Ahn called home was open to all kinds of people. The Victorian houses, the house above the Hollywood Bowl, the beautiful Northridge home. . . . The pioneer Korean American community was centered on the Ahn family's residences in the early 1900s. And, many of the Koreans coming from Korea in the 1960s and early 1970s came to Philip and his mother for advice and assistance. Once, an entire crew from a Korean navy ship docked in Long Beach came for dinner. Korean businessmen and politicians came to Philip's home for support and introductions. American politicians sought Philip's fame to enhance their campaigns and raise funds. American businessmen sought his endorsements of their products and contacts in Korea. And the Hollywood crowd made their appearances as well. The Ahn family always gathered here for the holidays. If only the walls could tell the great things we don't know.
One of Philip's greatest projects was the building of a memorial park and burial site for his father and mother. Philip's father had been buried in the hills far from Seoul under orders of the Japanese, who wanted Koreans to forget the greatness of their nationalist leader. After years of planning and many trips to Korea, Philip Ahn's dream came true in November 1973. Dosan Ahn Chang Ho Park was dedicated and opened in Seoul, Korea. Philip brought his mother from Los Angeles to be buried next to Dosan at their final resting place. Dosan had left America in 1926 for the last time. He never saw his family again and never had the chance to see or hold his youngest son, Ralph. Helen Lee, Philip's mother, had only returned to Korea once, in 1963, after leaving in 1902. Philip convinced President Park Chung Hee and others that this was the right thing to do. And it was. Today, twenty-six years later, the park is one of the most beautiful spots in Seoul. The ten acres are covered with beautiful foliage and monuments. Each weekend hundreds of brides and grooms take their wedding photos there. Children play, lovers walk, and people exercise. In a sense, Dosan Ahn Chang Ho and Helen Lee still give their home to others. This was one of Philip's greatest acts.
Philip Ahn died on February 28, 1978. He died from complications of a biopsy for lung cancer which led to pneumonia. He went to the hospital thinking he would be out in a few days. He knew he had problems from his daily smoking of cigarettes for most of his life. But he did not feel like he would not make it through this simple operation. He had many noble plans in the works. There was a documentary film about his father to be made and the memorial hall at the park in Seoul to be finished. He never married. Maybe it was the toll of raising his brothers and sisters in place of his father. Or, maybe his heart never overcame his love for Anna May Wong. His life was filled with fame and accomplishment, but he did have his full share of difficulty and tragedy. He had no will and left no instructions to the family bout what to do with their great legacy. It was an untimely death and a painful one. Philip Ahn was honestly one of the best, a shining star.
Such a great man and still Philip appears to be a forgotten man. He did receive a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame. On November 14, 1984, family members and about 400 people gathered to pay their tribute to one of the most famous Asian actors in the history of motion pictures. His star found its place at 6211 Hollywood boulevard near Argyle Avenue. Mayor Tom Bradley proclaimed November 14th Philip Ahn Day and Korean Day for the City of Los Angeles.
The first Korean American born in the United States became quite a citizen. Thinking about all of his accomplishments, he earned and deserved more recognition than one star. And Philip Ahn is definitely a tough act to follow.
Copyright © 1996 Philip Ahn Cuddy