In the fall of 1949, as the leaves bristle into their persimmon hues, Ji-Ah, a young nurse, makes her way through the cobbled streets of Daegu, South Korea. On her arm, a gentleman caller. She beckons him into her home with a smile, leads him into her bedroom, turns to him slowly and—"well, she's a kumiho, so she abuses him and then kills him,” Jamie Chung tells me matter-of-factly, sitting across from me in a sun-dappled courtyard in the year 2021. Jamie is describing the storyline of her recent role in HBO’s Sag Award-nominated show, Lovecraft Country, a horror-drama series set in 1950s Jim Crow era America. Her guest-starring episode, Meet Me in Daegu, takes place during the Korean War and feels like a mini-film in itself as it slowly unravels Ji-Ah’s darkest secret—that she is not an ordinary woman, but a kumiho, a nine-tailed fox spirit who seduces, kills, and takes the souls of men.
Present day Jamie, unlike Ji-Ah, wears her hair in a loose ponytail instead of '50s ringlets and arrives to our lunch in a fuzzy, baby-pink sweater and slide sandals. We're sitting outside, both slightly giddy about the unseasonably warm weather, which is always celebratory for New Yorkers who have suffered through months of sleet, snow, and bone-chilling temps (it was, as usual, a false promise—the temperatures would dip to the 30s again the following weekend). But for now, we’re relishing the sunshine with a requisite glass of natural wine, highly recommended by our server, and Jamie is telling me she—or rather, Ji-Ah—is not to be crossed. “No, really, like, I will fuck up your world and take your soul and suck the living life out of you and your memories and make you implode," she says, brown eyes widening. "You know what I mean?" Her intensity reverberates across the table like a soundwave.
But let’s back up a moment. If you know Jamie Chung, you’ve probably followed her unique career trajectory from Real World: San Diego contestant to Hollywood actress. Perhaps you've noticed her supporting roles in blockbuster films like The Hangover franchise, or watched her portray a grimly determined Mulan in ABC’s hit show Once Upon a Time; or maybe you're a more recent fan and Ji-Ah was your first introduction to her acting prowess. Regardless, you should settle in, because you're witnessing the start of a brand new chapter in Jamie's life. If her career was split into two parts, it would be Before Ji-Ah and After Ji-Ah (and not just because it was the first role that required her to spend six months brushing up on her Korean). Rather, portraying Ji-Ah marked a paradigm shift that has set Jamie off on a new trajectory.
A few months ago on set, she asked executive producer and creator Misha Green how her ideas for Ji-Ah could support main character Attticus’s story arc, to which Green responded: "No, no, no. How does it serve your character’s story?" It was a simple question that changed everything; a catalyst that jolted her future from black and white to Technicolor. "I never thought of putting myself first until that moment," Jamie says, sipping her orange wine thoughtfully. "And it's such a simple thing to do, but it just required confidence…something I think I lacked in my entire career."
This summer, Jamie is channeling her newfound confidence into Showtime’s long-awaited Dexter series continuation, in which she portrays Molly Park, an amateur sleuth and host of a true crime podcast ("It's not great for Dexter, but it’s great for everyone else," she laughs). But her most exciting project is one she never saw as a possibility until very recently, in the A.J. (After Ji-Ah) era: a television show she conceptualized herself, pitched and sold entirely over Zoom. It's something she is cautiously tightlipped about for the moment—because "even though we sold the show, we know there's like 10 steps before it actually gets made."
It's not lost on Jamie she has been working as an actress for over 15 years, and, at 38 years-old, this is the first time she’s realized her own perspective could be the lens through which a story was told; that her own voice was important enough to be heard. I ask her if, perhaps, she thinks being Asian American has to do with this. "Oh, I think that has everything to do with it," she says without hesitating. What she may be referring to is the fact that Asians, up until very recently, have not had it easy when it comes to "making it" in Hollywood. As an Asian actress, the industry has simply not offered her the same opportunities as her white or white-passing peers.
But times are changing. The positive response to 2018’s Crazy Rich Asians marked a landmark time in Hollywood history: Suddenly, there was proof—$238 million dollars grossed worldwide, to be exact—that Asian faces should be on movie screens, that Asian stories should be told; that Asians stories, in fact, need not be subjugated to stereotypes but can be richly nuanced and full of romance and intrigue, too. Parasite, a half-humorous, half-bleak thriller by Korean director Bong Joon-ho, won four Oscars in 2020 and received universal acclaim. Marvel just released the trailer for its first Asian superhero movie, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the 10 Rings. And as society finally starts embracing Asian faces on television and theater screens, Asian American celebrities like Jamie have to get comfortable with finally stepping into the spotlight. It's not a shift that happens overnight, however, especially when you've been told your whole life the sidelines are just fine. "I think we're conditioned culturally by our parents and upbringing not to get in trouble, not to be outspoken, to be easy going," Jamie says. "Like this whole model minority bullshit, you know?"
The model minority myth—that Asian Americans have somehow escaped the persecution experienced by other minorities by keeping our heads down and working hard—has been ripped apart in our current fraught social landscape. It’s a heavy, difficult time to be Asian in America right now, as Asian people are getting harmed and murdered in broad daylight and a growing wave of anti-Asian sentiment swells in the wake of the pandemic (Jamie's quick to point out our former administration only made things exponentially worse: "If you specifically blame a virus on a specific community of people, there's going to be repercussions—violent repercussions," she notes). And then, just a week before Jamie and I are to meet, eight people are murdered in a mass shooting in Atlanta, Georgia, six were Asian women. The cause was deemed as a "sex addiction," but most people, Chung included, call it like it is: a vicious hate crime targeting Asian women. "I think it’s been really hard to articulate why we're so upset by this," she says slowly. "It really triggered a lot of dark, deep personal feelings and we're trying to figure out why it touched us in this way; why we feel so helpless and why we feel targeted. It's been a slow burning...like unraveling."
This unraveling feeling has led many Asian Americans—amidst the pain and grieving and shock—to an emotion they haven't allowed themselves to feel in a long time: anger. "I'm fucking furious," Jamie says, when we start talking about the recent hate crimes, spewing each word like one of Ji-Ah’s deadly tentacles. "It's lit something in me that I've never felt before." But her fury is not a new emotion; rather it’s one that’s been quieted for years, piling up like water against a dam, until the dam finally folds and the thundering waves come rushing forward like a torrent.
Chung's upbringing was not dissimilar to many Asians growing up in America in the '90s and early 2000s. Her parents, first-generation Korean immigrants, opened a hamburger shop in North Beach, a suburb of San Francisco, which she describes as a "melting pot of the world." Her middle school and high school were predominantly made up of Asian students, and most of her close inner circle to this day are Asian, or "hapa" (a term meaning "half" in native Hawaiian, usually referring to half-Asians). But even surrounded by Asians in her daily life, she still recalls experiencing racism over and over again, both blatantly and in less obvious ways (like the constant question from strangers, asked like they are owed an answer: "Where are you from?").
"I've been told multiple times to 'go back to your country,'" she recalls. "Or when a white person is screaming, like, gibberish to you and making fun of your language." Even an innocent dinner or trip with girlfriends was an opportunity to invite unwanted attention and outward acts of racism. "I was really insecure about that, because I knew my friends and I were going to be targeted," she says. "I always had that fear—it's a bunch of Asian girls and people are just going to holler or make fun or tell us to 'go back to China.' And it's happened multiple times." She states this like an ordinary fact, the same way she would tell me she didn’t bake bread during quarantine (she did), or her dog's name is Ewok (it is).
And then of course, the world of Hollywood, though perhaps not as outwardly hostile, is complicit too. The roles and stories offered to Asian actors are few and far between, and the ones that do exist often adhere to harmful stereotypes. It is in Hollywood, after all, where it has been acceptable to mock Asian characters (Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles), whitewash them (Scarlett Johanssen as Major in Ghost in a Shell, Emma Stone as Allison Ng in Aloha, Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One in Dr. Strange)—or simply erase them completely for years. It's part of the reason, though Jamie has been acting for over 15 years, she’s only recently started taking on roles like Ji-Ah, which allow her to convey the depth of her acting ability—to oscillate between pain, grief, fragility, and fury. Ironically, though she describes her earlier smaller roles as "nothing roles," for many young Asian Americans, those roles meant everything; her supporting characters were often the sole moment of representation we saw on our screens.
It's why, though some may say Jamie is currently on the brink of becoming a household name, to most Asian Americans, she's already been one for years. And to anyone who might criticize any previous roles she or any Asian actresses of the early aughts—Lucy Liu, Sandra Oh, Brenda Song, we can list them all on one hand—may have taken that fed into stereotypes about Asian women as hypersexualized or "dragon ladies," perhaps consider the fact that these women never had a choice and, as Jamie says, did the "best they fucking could." "Maybe instead of blaming these people, blame the system," she challenges. "That's what put us there." The system, in case it isn’t obvious, is white supremacy—and it's something Jamie wants to dismantle with Ji-Ah’s visible fury. "I know it's uncomfortable, and I know people hate saying 'white supremacy,' but it's a fucking thing."
As she continues, 38 years of pent-up frustration flows out of her, unraveling like a ball of yarn down a hill. When I ask her how allies can stand with the Asian community during this time, her answer is simple: know our history (she recommends reading The Making of Asian America by Erika Lee). Without taking a breath, she rattles off the long history of racism towards Asians in America, starting with the migrant workers who helped build the railroads during the Gold Rush, treated like vermin with hundreds losing their lives, yet never acknowledged in Western history books. She talks about the horrendous live exhibit featuring Filipino men, women and children during the 1904 St. Louis World Fair, and Afong Moy, the first Chinese female immigrant in American who became a public spectacle because her feet were bound (a common traditional practice in China during the time).
She dives into the Chinese Exclusion Act and the ‘92 riots, the violent unrest that happened because Korean shop owners were forced to only open businesses in predominantly Black neighborhoods. And on the matter of Black Lives Matter, she makes it very clear where she stands: "Absolute solidarity," she says. "Our civil rights rode on the same wave as Black civil rights. We need to put a stop to anti-Blackness in the Asian community, or anti-anything that isn't your own. Any kind of injustice to any race is an injustice for all of us. The whole model minority myth is also put in place to further divide us, instead of coming together. We have to remember we are powerful in numbers."
As we discuss stopping Asian hate, Black and Asian solidarity, and dismantling white supremacy, Jamie's anger at the system is palpable—and it feels and looks similar to my own. And similar to my own, it also has an equal and opposite force, like Newton’s Third Law, swirling just as powerfully under its fiery surface: exhaustion. When I ask her how she's felt since the Atlanta shooting, she slumps a bit, like a balloon slowly deflating. "I'm literally numb," she replies flatly. Since it's happened, she stays offline and sleeps a lot, anesthetizing her brain with the hum of reality TV. She recognizes it's not a long-lasting solution—that soon, very soon, she will have to bring herself out of this, to use her platform again to continue rallying and fighting for equality. "But I just don't have that energy right now," she sighs, her previous anger settling in like a rippling current.
Where does one find hope in hopelessness, power in powerless, strength in exhaustion? For Jamie, it's moments like these she turns into her craft. A story born from personal pain can inspire others, make their lives—however overlooked they are in history books, in media, in Hollywood—feel seen. And the more those stories are shared, the more their power grows. "I ask myself, how do I use this energy in a productive way?" she says. "And it's honestly shifting that energy—like, let's really think about why I'm feeling how I'm feeling and like, let's fucking use that. How can I use this to tell a story, or help amplify other voices, you know? You just have to turn it. It's like jiu-jitsu—you take that shit, and then you flip it."
These days, she’s jiu-jitsuing her career and celebrating small victories, like having earned enough clout in the industry to pursue stories that interest her, and to be able to turn down roles that don’t. She encourages all aspiring Asian American actors to take a proactive approach to the stories they want to tell; instead of waiting for the perfect role to tell a story, why not write it into existence yourself? It’s that paradigm shift that many Asian Americans still have to experience, after years of being told they are meant for the sidelines.
"It just takes recognizing our value," she notes. "Because we were always here. Recognize the value of our storytelling and our personal stories, instead of letting them be told through the lens of a cisgender white person." She’s also jiu-jitsuing the anger she feels, towards the racists she's encountered in her life and the closed doors she's experienced in her career, by focusing on her deep, grounding pride for her heritage. "I can never hide my Asianness," she says, referencing some of her peers who have been able to achieve more mainstream success because they are white-passing, or have chosen Anglo-sounding last names. "But nor would I want to. I've been married for five years and I won't even change my last name! I’ll never do it. I love my husband, but it’s just my identity. I’m never gonna change it."
And when things feel particularly bleak, it can always be helpful to take back control in the small ways you can. It’s part of the reason Jamie recently went through the process of freezing her eggs, and why she and her husband are actively trying to have a baby. "I'm a huge advocate of taking control of your future and your biological clock," she says. "Freezing your eggs is not a guarantee, but it’s one step hopefully, to securing your choices." After all, she has an ulterior motive for wanting children, beyond just becoming a mother.
"I have a bigger purpose, and I think that bigger purpose is to raise good little humans," she laughs, her anger slipping away like the tide. She hopes her children will grow up in a society that does not discriminate or judge them by their race, sexual orientation, or gender; she hopes this society will encourage them to step out from the shadows and speak their truth long before they turn 38 years-old. "Hopefully, in five years, I'll be one of those families with a stroller you see in the park," she says with a smile. "And hopefully, I'll have my own show, and I'll have career opportunities that I never dreamed I would have had a few years ago."
At times, progress can feel like two steps forward, three steps back; a warm weekend that feels like spring, then a bitter cold surge. We surge forward, then snap back like a slingshot in the face of yet another hate crime, shooting, or racist remark; forward and backward, swelling and regressing like the tide. But every time the tide takes us under, we pick ourselves up and keep pressing forward; like Jamie, we dig deep within ourselves for our spark—our power, our rage, whatever you want to call it—and use it to fuel our dreams; to light our hopes on fire. Fury, after all, is a double-edged sword: sometimes, its blazing, ragged splendor blinds us from making progress; and other times, it’s the only thing that will.
Talent: Jamie Chung
Photographer: Ruo Bing Li
Creative Director: Hillary Comstock
Beauty Direction: Hallie Gould
Makeup Artist: Ayami Nishimura
Hairstylist: Kiyonori Sudo
Manicurist: Maki Sakamoto
Stylist: Abby Qi
Production Assistant: Asafe Pereira
Video Editor: WesFilms
Cinematographer: Jon Cortizo
Booking: Talent Connect Group