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  • Holly Kaplan Reflects on the Bittersweetness of Youth in 'Sunflower Girl' (2023)

    Skateboard wheels on asphalt and a mellow, pulsing instrumental ease us into “Sunflower Girl” (2023), a tender yet poignant coming-of-age short film. Rosie (Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja), the narrator and protagonist, is a girl on the cusp of teenhood, her pale yellow shirt a nod to her true name, Kui — which means sunflower. Rosie has a crush on a boy in her neighborhood, which leads her to make some hasty decisions that she may or may not end up regretting in the long run. It’s this awkwardly desperate, gentle spirit of early adolescence that director Holly Kaplan taps into in her nostalgic short film. “So, COVID happened, and I moved back home [to New York City],” Kaplan explains. “Being in my childhood neighborhood and everything, old stomping grounds and the school I went to…it was really desolate. The city was completely dead. So [I] was just doing these walks to go outside and by myself and just be in these old environments. That kind of sparked this idea, these memories I had.” “I was remembering all these people from school,” she continues. “All of these things kind of just started coming into my head, and that’s when I think the wheels started turning.” There’s a warm haze that blankets every shot of the film, bathing the screen in a vintage summer glow. It’s not just aesthetic; it’s a thin veil cast over the past that both softens the edges and intensifies the emotions. It’s evocative, luminous, and absolutely gorgeous. This visual poetry complements Rosie’s journey in a time when the character’s world seems both expansive and suffocating. “I owe it to working with my incredible DP, Michael Cong,” Kaplan says. “We ended up choosing an older camera with vintage lenses. It helped sell that look, that [the film] was nostalgic.” Beyond her age, Rosie’s identity contains another layer that the film makes space to examine. She’s a second-generation Chinese-American, lending a specificity to the character’s perspective and filtering how she moves through the world and the choices that she makes. “I hope [this story] resonates with Asian-American femmes,” Kaplan says. “Or Asian diasporic people who have the experience of feeling like they are an outlier in their family. Sometimes it’s lonely to be [that] one person. You’re kind of going against the grain and you’re doing what you like. That’s really the whole story of the film. It’s okay to be human.” “Sunflower Girl” has been selected for and screened in film festivals worldwide, from India to Sweden to the U.K. and Canada, a promising triumph for Kaplan. “We’re finishing up our last year of festival [submissions],” she says. “We’re waiting to hear back. Hopefully it’ll get into even more and we’ll be all around the world and still in the U.S. and all that.” “I think this honestly just taught me to believe in myself,” Kaplan concludes. “That’s the biggest lesson, I think.” “Sunflower Girl” will be screening this June in Singapore, Poland, and Canada. About the filmmaker: Holly M. Kaplan is a Chinese-American filmmaker, born and raised in New York City. Inspired and driven by ties to her mixed Cantonese heritage, Holly is invested in bringing narratives about the Asian diaspora and diversity to the forefront. She earned her BA in Film & Media Arts at American University and completed a filmmaking program at FAMU International Prague, where she filmed her first short, “THE LESSON.” A former apprentice to the late Independent Director/Producer Ben Barenholtz, Holly served as Director’s Assistant to Executive Producer/Director Lisa Soper and Director Alex Pillai on “PRETTY LITTLE LIARS: ORIGINAL SIN” (HBO Max). In 2022, Holly was selected for NALIP’s Latino Lens: Narrative Short Film Incubator for Women of Color sponsored by Netflix to write, direct, and produce “SUNFLOWER GIRL.” About the film: When a 13-year-old Chinese-American girl has the opportunity to go skateboarding with her crush, it comes at the cost of abandoning her little sister. Cover photo: Malea Emma Tjandrawidjaja as Rosie. Photo by Luna Cristales. Courtesy of NALIP.

  • An #importedAsians POV: Tim Thornton

    Tim Thornton is an adoptee, and identifies as a Korean-American adoptee (KAD). After becoming more curious about his Korean heritage, he discovered he was eligible for South Korean citizenship and decided to apply at the Seattle Embassy. The Universal Asian spoke to Tim to learn more about his KAD story, his experience applying for citizenship, and how he got in touch with his Korean roots. Tim’s origin story begins in 1953 when he was born as a Korean war orphan, who was adopted at 5 ½ years old to parents in Washington. It was here that he grew up in what Tim calls a “white bubble.” As a result, he said, “Most of my whole life, I didn’t really have any curiosity about my Korean roots because, looking back, a lot of it was because I thought I would never know.” It wasn’t until he was in his late 40s that he became curious and “tried to contact the orphanage in Seoul.” The orphanage revealed that all of Tim’s records were given to his adoptive parents, and so he stopped pursuing his journey to find out more about his Korean heritage. However, it was when his wife encouraged him to get a DNA test that he decided to have another go at seeking his Korean roots. “The DNA results didn’t show anything on my Korean side, but they did find my biological father, who passed away about 10 years ago,” Tim shared. From there, he discovered that he has six biological sisters on his father’s side, living on the East coast. “We’re all pretty close now. We have a lot of chats and FaceTimes and other ways to talk, and we visited them,” he said. While he is happy to have met his biological sisters, he still holds, what he calls “this really strong desire that just keeps snowballing” to find more information about his Korean heritage. This strong passion of his started when he joined the Air Force at 23. Being stationed in the Philippines meant he often saw military personnel and their families from Thailand, Japan, and Korea, which enabled him to get to “know more and more [about] Asian culture from that.” His desire to tune into his Asian roots grows “stronger [with] the more information I get, the more excited I get about trying to find the rest of the story.” This led to Tim finding out about South Korean citizenship, which he learned about from various Korean Adoptee Facebook groups. “[I saw] some links to stories, so I started following the stories. Then, I started researching myself, and then I contacted the Korean consulate,” he explained. For many, this may be a daunting process, yet for Tim it was the opposite. He said, “It’s not near as complicated as I thought [it would be].” Instead, the hardest part was “getting somebody to get the papers supplied translated into Korean.” Otherwise, this is something that Tim encourages other adoptees to pursue in the hopes that it may help them to get in touch with their Korean roots. He tries to “encourage the ones that are thinking about going [to Korea]. Sometimes it’s good just to get the information and know, because parents at my age level or generation aren’t around forever.” While he recognizes that not everyone wants to pursue their background, for those that do, he shared: “You have a clock that you might regret later if you waited too long,” and he encourages folk to use different resources to find out about their heritage. For Tim, Facebook groups have served as a lifeline for him to find a lead in regards to his family. Networking with other adoptees so that they can share their stories and give advice to each other has also helped him, which is something he didn’t always have. “I would say there was [a] lack of support for me growing up, [but] with the addition of social media…it’s helped a lot because the Facebook group is how I connected with 325KAMRA,” he said. 325KAMRA (Korean American Mixed Race Adoptees) is an organization that helps adoptees search for their families through DNA tests, which is something Tim used to help him find his biological siblings. The organization has also been instrumental in highlighting KAD stories, as Tim was part of a book by 325KAMRA that sheds light on adoptees. “I helped just write my story only, and then we had people that were brought together in that book,” he explained. Tim contributed to "Together At Last: Stories of Adoption and Reunion in the Age of DNA" so that he could “give back, because [325KAMRA] were so instrumental in helping me find everything I never would have done without them,” and is happy to be a part of the book. Though he has been able to find some of his biological family, he is still keen to search for his Korean mother, which he has a lead on. A friend of Tim’s took his records back to Korea who, via various online genealogy groups, was able to reach out to various members of the Woo clans and one of them said, “He [Tim] is one of ours.” Excited that he may have a paper trail of his family, Tim hopes to pursue that by visiting Korea in October. Tim will collaborating with us in the event "Korean Citizenship Restoration with Tim Thornton" that will be held on May 26, 2021. Click here for details to register to join this free event.

  • Justinian Huang: Breaking barriers with queer-led romance novel

    The Universal Asian got to speak with Justinian Huang, author of "The Emperor and the Endless Palace." Lockdown in 2020 was a massive change for all of us, and we had to find our own ways to cope with the isolation. Many people used the now-empty slots in the day for reading books, finally crossing titles off of lists that had been abandoned for years, maybe decades. Some people might have even tried their hand at writing a book. That’s what newly-published author Justinian Huang did. And he didn’t just write a book. Inspired by personal heartbreak, he wrote a breathtakingly large, unapologetically spicy queer Asian love story that spans three lives and a total of two thousand years. Justinian Huang didn’t start out as a writer. Before publishing “The Emperor and the Endless Palace,” he was a career film executive. “To be honest,” he admits, “I really miss being a film exec.” (His most recent position in the film industry was VP of Creative at Sony Pictures Animation, citing the wonderful team there as his main reason.) “Being in that seat as an executive, being a gatekeeper, you can really enact a lot of change,” he continues. “When it comes to my projects, I need to make sure that at least one of the directors in every project is a woman, is a person of color, or is queer. And that was my directive.” Before Sony, Huang worked as the head of development at Dreamworks Pearl in Shanghai. It was there that the first sparks of what would become “The Emperor and the Endless Palace” were lit. “When I was young and I came out to my family, I was told by other Asian folks that me being queer doesn’t work because Asian people aren’t gay,” he says. “That’s not a thing for us. So when I heard about this Ancient Chinese emperor and his lover, Dong Xian, and how their epic love story brought down the first Han dynasty, I was just like, holy shit. We queer Asians have been fucking up shit for a while. And not just that; it means that, as a queer Asian person, I’m descended from the most noble of lineages.” “I knew then,” he continues. “I was like, I need to write something about these two boys—because they were boys. They were 19 and 20 when they met. It’s just so epic. It’s the greatest love story never told.” It wasn’t just their love story in Huang’s mind when he wrote the book. It was also his own. “During that time [in Shanghai], I fell in love with two men. One of them was born in China, the other one was born in Taipei. And when I came back home because of the pandemic in 2020, I wasn’t thinking about my career. I was thinking about them. And I realized, what if they are the inspiration, finally, for this book? I want to write about this emperor and his lover. What if I can put their personalities into this?” Dong Xian and Emperor Ai are among the most notable queer figures in history (at least in Asia) despite the lack of records about the details of their individual lives. “There’s not much known,” Huang says. “The most famous story is called ‘The Passion of the Cut Sleeve,’ in which the emperor and his lover were taking a nap. The lover was asleep on the emperor’s shoulder, and instead of waking his lover up, the emperor cut off his own sleeve.” Ultimately, in blending the emperor’s love story with his own, Justinian Huang was able to put the major pieces together for his book. “When [I’m] writing historical fiction, I focus more on the fiction and less on the historical,” he says. “What will create the most compelling story for my reader is what I focus on.” “I wrote the first draft in two months during the pandemic lockdown of summer 2020, and it just spilled out,” he recalls. “I didn’t sleep for like four weeks. My mom came to visit me at one point, and she thought I was dying because I was so thin and haggard. It [was] just one of those things where you wait and wait and wait, and it just explodes out of you.” Now, after publishing “The Emperor and the Endless Palace,” Justinian Huang is still processing what it means to have broken that glass ceiling in publishing a romance novel with two queer Asians as the leads. Being a queer Asian himself, he’s also stepping into the spotlight as an identifiable voice in both the queer and romantic literature spaces. It can be rewarding: “I’ve been getting complaints that people have been losing sleep,” he laughs. “Three times, I’ve gotten messages on Instagram from people, at 4 a.m. in their region, being like ‘damn you, I didn’t sleep last night because of your book.’ And that’s such a great compliment! I also get so many messages from queer Asian folks saying that they felt so seen by this book and that they’re so happy it’s out there.” It can also mean more challenges to overcome: “In the book community, there is a lot of gatekeeping that happens. There’s been some resistance to my book by people who, for whatever reason, don’t think it’s valid and don’t think that it deserves to be stacked alongside other romance books.” However, that’s about to put Huang off. “I worked in the film industry a long time,” he shrugs. “I like shepherding projects of huge scopes and then seeing how people respond to it. I’m actually well-trained in it, and it’s easy for me to sort of dust it off my shoulder. Ultimately, when I think about the last couple of weeks since my book came out, I just have enormous gratitude.” “[The experience] has been very humbling, and I’m very proud,” he finishes. “When I first started writing this book and I told people I was writing a book about queer Asian folks—a romance between queer Asian folks, I was told all the time that none of the big publishers will ever touch this book because [it’s] way too niche. But we got a deal with HarperCollins, and they really believe in this book. And so I’m just very appreciative that the people that matter are embracing this book.” “The Emperor and the Endless Palace” is Justinian Huang’s debut novel. It will not be his last. “Similar to how my first novel is about the Eastern concept of reincarnation, my second book is about the Eastern concept of superstition, but told in the context of an epic family drama,” he shares. “So I’m very excited. I’m working on that right now. I like to call the tone of ‘Endless Palace’ romantic anguish. The tone of my second book is bitchy gay brunch.” About the Book: “A sweeping triumph in queer romance.” - Booklist “What if I told you that the feeling we call love is actually the feeling of metaphysical recognition, when your soul remembers someone from a previous life?” In the year 4 BCE, an ambitious courtier is called upon to seduce the young emperor—but quickly discovers they are both ruled by blood, sex, and intrigue. In 1740, a lonely innkeeper agrees to help a mysterious visitor procure a rare medicine, only to unleash an otherworldly terror instead. And in present-day Los Angeles, a college student meets a beautiful stranger and cannot shake the feeling they’ve met before. Across these seemingly unrelated timelines woven together only by the twists and turns of fate, two men are reborn, lifetime after lifetime. Within the treacherous walls of an ancient palace and the boundless forests of the Asian wilderness to the heart-pounding cement floors of underground rave scenes, our lovers are inexplicably drawn to each other, constantly tested by the worlds around them. As their many lives intertwine, they begin to realize the power of their undying love—a power that transcends time itself…but one that might consume them both. An unpredictable roller coaster of a debut novel, “The Emperor and the Endless Palace” is a genre-bending spicy romantasy that challenges everything we think we know about true love. Author’s Note: “The Emperor and the Endless Palace” is a heart-pounding romantasy, full of shocking twists, morally shifty characters, and erotic thrills. When it comes to the romance within this novel, you can expect equal parts mess and swoon, but its central thread is an epic tale of true love against all the odds. About the Author: Born to immigrants in Monterey Park, California, Justinian Huang studied English at Pomona College and screenwriting at Oxford. He now lives in Los Angeles with Swagger, a Shanghainese rescue dog he adopted during his five years living in China. “The Emperor and the Endless Palace” is his debut novel. Before becoming a novelist, Huang was a career film executive, most currently as the VP of Creative at Sony Pictures Animation. Prior to Sony, Huang was the head of development at Dreamworks Pearl in Shanghai where he worked on “Kung Fu Panda 3,” “Abominable,” and Academy Award–nominated “Over the Moon.”

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  • Heather Lewis

    < Back Heather Lewis Contributor Heather Lewis, or 노 영 미 as her biological sisters have named her, was born in Seoul, South Korea and raised in the U.S. at six months old. Heather has had many professions: waitress, ballroom dance instructor, middle school English teacher, and her current role in operations. She has a master’s in English, a master’s in Critical Studies of Teaching English, and a master’s in business administration. She is a proud KAD (Korean ADoptee) and likes to explore identity through writing. She loves being married to “fake Dave Grohl” and raising her only daughter. Despite still not knowing her birthday, she’s sure she is a Capricorn. Instagram:

  • Essay | The Universal Asian

    Essay Heather Lewis Essay Musings of a Middle-aged Matriarch: Finding my tribe There’s a sea of different people in this world. While everyone is unique and different, there are enough commonalities between us all to... Vanessa Nguyen Essay What It Means To Be Asian in America: Recognizing and breaking the cycle of trauma The rise in hate crimes against the AAPI community has left many of us questioning not just our identity as Asian-Americans, but how we... Cynthia Landesberg Essay Artificial Habitat Growing up, I lived in one of those unremarkable suburban neighborhoods everyone has seen and no one remembers. Two-story houses.... Heather Lewis Essay Musings of a Middle-aged Matriarch: How do you find joy? As adoptees, many of us have had to create our own joy. We have to work at joy because it doesn’t come naturally to us. We are too busy... Cynthia Landesberg Lifestyle Choosing Parenthood “I think, maybe, we should talk about starting a family,” my husband said one day, as we sat on the back porch of a winery north of our... Heather Lewis Essay Musings of a Middle-aged Matriarch: Looking exotic sitting at Cracker Barrel I was adopted into a small farming community with one blinking stop light. For all my life, I was surrounded by people who did not look... 1 2 3 4 5

  • Cynthia Landesburg

    < Back Cynthia Landesburg Contributor Born in Busan, South Korea, Cynthia spent seven weeks with her birth family and the next four months in an orphanage and foster home before being flown to Washington, D.C., to her Jewish adoptive family as an #importedAsian. As a recovering perfectionist and overachiever, she left her legal career in favor of caring for her two sons, both adopted from Korea, and her biological daughter. She currently spends her day homeschooling her sons, chasing her baby daughter around the house, and spoiling her dog with a lot of walks to clear her head. And in the moments in between, she writes. Cynthia looks forward to exploring issues around parenting, adoption as an adoptee, and the overall adoptee experience. You can find more of her writing at her website, .

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