When most people think of an Asian Disney princess, there's often one go-to: Mulan aka the Chinese heroine who doesn’t need saving but instead saves an entire country and is arguably the best Disney princess to date (alongside Aladdin’s Princess Jasmine… prove me wrong). There’s also Moana repping Pacific Islanders and, more recently, Raya for Southeast Asians. But Asians are not a monolith, and one princess does not a representation make, so Julia Riew, a 22-year-old musical theatre composer and lyricist, decided to create her own Disney princess based on her Korean heritage.
As part of her senior thesis project at Harvard University, Riew wrote and composed Shimcheong: A Folktale, a musical loosely based on the Korean story The Blind Man’s Daughter about a young girl who sacrifices herself for her father and is rewarded for her devotion to him. Riew shared the first of 15 original songs, “Dive,” on TikTok in early January. Since then, the clip has amassed 880,000 views — and viewers are calling upon Disney to turn this idea into reality ASAP.
“It’s honestly been astonishing,” Riew tells Refinery29 of the reaction. “Every day something new and crazy happens.” She has continued to tease songs from her musical, a labor of love a year-and-a-half in the making, and has asked followers to duet with her on TikTok. People have also volunteered to illustrate Shimcheong, she says. And while she didn’t expect her videos to go viral (she really only hoped that a few people would see them), she’s most excited about the responses she’s heard from people commenting that they wish they’d had this kind of meaningful representation when they were younger, or who send her videos of their young kids singing along to her songs.
“Even beyond all the producers and all the likes and comments, it's really the people who are reaching out who’ve said, ‘This is so meaningful to me.’ It's just so wonderful to feel like I'm really part of this community and that we're all going through the same struggles. We're all searching for belonging.” And, she says, it’s exciting to think that this is a story that could help other young Korean-American girls feel like they belong.
The idea for Shimcheong came, like many great ideas, because of a need for more representation. Growing up in Missouri, Riew didn’t know many Korean people outside her family. On screen, when she did see Asian characters — specifically Asian women — the roles were limited with actors frequently cast as the quirky sidekick. “As a young, impressionable kid, that’s how I grew up seeing myself even in my own life. I never really saw myself as being the kind of person that could be the main character.”
After her grandpa passed away early in the pandemic, Riew’s grandma moved in with her family and exposed her to aspects of her Korean heritage. “For the first time, I was experiencing Korean culture close up in my own home and practicing speaking Korean with her and sharing our stories, and I learned how disconnected I was to my culture.” She decided to tell a story really rooted in Korean legend as a way to get closer to both her grandma and her ancestry.
The Blind Man’s Daughter was the perfect fit. Riew was initially drawn to the folktale because of its emphasis on familial separation, a theme she says is familiar to many Koreans, with generations spread across the Korean diaspora and many families still split across the DMZ after the Korean War. While she drew from the characters and themes from the original folktale, her musical is largely inspired by her own experiences traveling to Korea for the first time when she was 18; Shimcheong’s own search for belonging is woven into Riew’s version of the tale. “I liked the idea in the original folktale of how she leaves home, but longs for home and returns to it. That's a really big part of my story as well.”
Reimagining the folktale and Shimcheong as a musical and Disney princess was a no-brainer for Riew because she grew up loving both genres. “What I love about Disney is that its stories are uplifting and accessible for all ages, but they're also really meaningful and dig into some really deep stories and deep values a lot of the time,” she says.
So, about that Disney thing — Riew hasn’t heard anything from the company directly, but she’s already been in meetings with a few film and theater producers to see when and where the musical would be a good fit.
As for who Riew can see starring in any on-stage or on-screen productions of her musical, the answer is pretty easy. “I’ve always been a really, really big fan of Ashley Park,” Riew says. “She’s such a role model because she’s one of the first Korean-American actresses that I ever saw on stage [in Mean Girls].” In fact, Riew remembers first seeing the cast photos for the hit broadway show starring the Emily In Paris actor. “I saw she had the same jaw structure as me — it’s a very specific Korean structure. I remember seeing her and saying, ‘Wow, she looks a bit like me.’ And for me, that was so impactful.” Riew says the pair have already DM’d since she first posted her TikTok and are planning to meet soon.
Which hopefully means it won’t be too long before audiences see Shimcheong off TikTok and on the big screen. Your move, Disney.