Harkness in Hollywood

Janet Yang '74 and Christina Kim '95 connect over growing Asian representation in film and TV.

Sarah Pruitt '95
February 1, 2023
An illustration of two Asian women in front of the Hollywood sign.

Janet Yang ’74 entered the ranks of Hollywood’s power players in the 1980s, when she brokered the first sales of American studio films to the Chinese market. She confirmed her star status by producing The Joy Luck Club (1993) — the groundbreaking adaptation of Amy Tan’s best-selling novel — and a multitude of other acclaimed films, from The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996) to Over the Moon (2020). In 2022, she was elected president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Yang is the first Asian person, and only the fourth woman, to hold that position in the academy’s 95-year history.

We recently invited her to sit down for a conversation with fellow alumna Christina Kim ’95, an award-winning TV writer and creator, show runner and executive producer of the network drama Kung Fu. Yang and Kim met virtually for a wide-ranging discussion that covered their respective experiences at Exeter, the evolution of Asian representation in film and TV and the impact of Yang’s inspiring new role.

What was it like arriving at Exeter for the first time?

Janet Yang: I grew up in a Jewish neighborhood on Long Island and we were the only Asian family in the area. But my mother worked at the United Nations so I was used to visiting her at work and seeing people from all over the world. New York City is an incredible microcosm, with a mix of everything. To arrive at Exeter and see Asians, Blacks, people from all over the world and with different levels of socioeconomic class … that felt so good.

Christina Kim: I was born in Chicago in a very white suburb. When I was 10, I moved to Korea. That was a bit of a culture shock. [When I] came to Exeter as a lower, I knew nothing about boarding school life. Like you said, Janet, it felt like a perfect microcosm of what the world should be. Educationwise, too — I look back and wish I could do it again and really appreciate it.

Yang: We’re sometimes too immature to truly appreciate what we’re given. Later in life you realize, I’ll probably never be in such a diverse, inclusive group of people again. Those words didn’t exist back then, by the way. One didn’t talk about diversity and inclusion, it just was.

Did Exeter help prepare you for your roles in Hollywood?

Kim: My first job as a staff writer was on Lost … and it was exactly the Harkness table system. Ten to 12 people sitting around a table and just throwing out ideas, and the best ideas win and get to go up on the board. I remember  sitting there thinking: This is literally Exeter, but in a professional setting. It felt strangely comforting because it wasn’t new to me.

Yang: I can relate that to sitting in boardrooms now, or when pitching to an executive and sitting around a big table. That model repeats itself again and again in our lives.

The Joy Luck Club made history as one of the first major Hollywood films to feature a mostly Asian cast. Could you both talk about the changes you’ve seen during your careers in terms of Asian representation in film and TV?

Yang: [Before The Joy Luck Club] I was so new to Hollywood, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I kept thinking, I want to do something with Asians; I didn’t quite know how near impossible it was. That kind of naiveté was helpful because if I had been a seasoned executive, I would’ve instantly put the notion out of my mind. I don’t think [the movie] would’ve been made today in the same way. The studios took more chances, and … they don’t do that anymore. A movie with no stars, a third of it in a non-English language, a lot of flashbacks. All of it broke so many rules.

Kim: That is still one of my favorite movies. It’s an incredible accomplishment, and it influenced so many people.

Yang: Thank you. My parents were extras in the movie, so they could finally brag about what I did, as opposed to being embarrassed. [laughs]

Kim: It’s interesting to see how much the business has changed even in my shortish career. When I first started, I was one of two women in the writers’ room, and it was very racist. Things were said that would be on the cover of Variety now, with people getting canceled, but it was just the way it was. In retrospect, that first experience helped me, because it made me figure out what kind of person and writer I wanted to be. [When] I started developing my own material, I wrote a Korean American soapy drama and sold it to NBC. It ultimately didn’t get made … but the studio really liked it and said: “We have Kung Fu the property. You’re Asian, what do you think?” I was like — I’m not Chinese, I’m Korean.

Yang: [laughs] Close enough.

Kim: But I thought, if there’s an opportunity to make this and I’m the person that’s closest to being able to make it, then I should try. I did a lot of research to make sure I got the details right. When we sold the show [in 2020], the executives told us this was the first network drama with a predominantly Asian cast. That was just crazy to think about, and it’s something I’m really proud of. I remember sitting at Warner Bros., and the head of casting said to me, “I’ve never seen the hallway look like this.” The entire hallway was full of Asian American actors. After starting on a show where I was the minority, and felt ostracized many times, to create an environment where that’s not the case makes me happy.

Yang: I think we both feel that responsibility to keep pushing the envelope because we know that’s what it takes. We still have to prove ourselves.

Speaking of pushing the envelope, what are you hoping to do as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to further its evolution?

Yang: I got more involved with the academy after the 2016 Oscars and #OscarsSoWhite. I remember the conversations we were having as an industry that year, and I remember seeing a skit early in the 2016 show that played into Asian sterotypes — and honestly, that was a punch to the gut for us as a community.

 I’d been a member for over 20 years. I got my DVDs and I voted. That was the full extent of my involvement, but I was moved to do something. I signed a group letter with some very high-profile people, like Ang Lee, Sandra Oh and George Takei. [The academy] did listen, and they had already started to think about diversifying membership. They started the A2020 committee [which set the goal of doubling the number of women and people of color in the academy’s membership] and put me on it. One thing led to another, and I just got more and more involved.

I think the prior leaders, and certainly [current academy CEO] Bill Kramer and I, feel like we have to be ahead of the curve. We’re talking to all the studios and distribution companies and trying to get everyone aligned. How do we create guidelines? How do we find diverse members? How do we keep encouraging people to think about this? There are so many efforts on so many levels that are happening as we speak.

Kim: I just wanted to say thank you, Janet, because taking on these roles is a job on top of a job. I know that it’s coming from a place of real passion. Because of you, there are people like me, and a show on TV like Kung Fu with an almost entirely Asian cast. Thank you for being a trailblazer. You’re inspiring me to get more involved.

Yang: Thank you, Christina. I’ve admired you from afar, so we’re mutually fan girling.


Editor's Note: This article first appeared in the winter 2023 issue of The Exeter Bulletin.