SAINT LOUIS, Mo. — Julia Riew wasn't looking for fame, but she did want people to know about her senior thesis project at Harvard – a musical she wrote based on Korean folklore.
She downloaded TikTok a few weeks ago and posted one of the 15 songs she composed for her Disney-inspired musical with the caption, "There was no Korean Disney princess so I decided to make my own."
She then used a cartoon filter to transform herself into an animated princess singing a very catchy tune called "Dive."
"I posted on a Friday evening," said Riew. "My first two followers were my parents, and I helped them download the account and show them how to view videos."
The next day, Riew and her parents went for a walk. As she was explaining to her mom how TikTok worked, she noticed that her video views jumped from 200 to 300. As they continued on their walk, the views kept doubling.
"From there, it just really kind of spiraled," said Riew. "By the end of the second day, I had 10,000 followers."
The college senior is calling the musical "Shimcheong: A Folktale" and it is inspired by her own experience exploring identity and culture as an Asian American.
"It is inspired by my own personal journey in searching for belonging as a Korean-American," said Riew. "Shimcheong dives into the ocean as a very young girl and then sort of grows up in the Dragon Kingdom. The story is really about her returning home and trying to reclaim this identity that she's lost. And that, for me, comes from a lot of my own personal story of growing up in Missouri and then going to Korea for the first time when I was 18 years old."
Riew was born and raised in St. Louis, where she attended Forsyth Middle School and John Burroughs High School. She said she didn't have a lot of exposure to other Korean American families, and when she went to Korea, she realized she didn't exactly fit in there, either.
"When I arrived, I think I was really surprised at how much of a foreigner I felt when I arrived in Korea," said Riew. "There were so many things that were so exciting about finally getting to visit the place where my grandparents had grown up, but it was sort of bittersweet because I realized, 'Oh, wow, this actually isn't the home that I always anticipated coming back to,’ even though I had never really been."
Since then, Riew has been intentional about learning Korean culture, including taking language classes at school. The process of writing a musical has made her realize the value of representation.
"I think that's one of the most important things about just having a diverse spectrum of stories that we're telling," said Riew. "Because there is really no one way to be anything, including being Asian."
Riew said it's always been her dream to write for Disney, though in the end, her musical could get picked up by someone else.
"I've been getting a lot of messages and emails," said Riew. "Some of them are producers – either in theater, film, or other places. And so, it definitely looks like the project is going to have a home somewhere in the future. We're not quite sure when, but a lot of conversations are being had, which is really exciting."
Until then, Riew is working on developing the musical at Harvard and making the presentation for her senior thesis. And even though she said her dream job would be to write for Disney, she is actually living out many of her dreams right now.
"I was telling my mom how one of my dreams was to just be walking down the street and to hear a little kid singing my song," said Riew. "Now I have parents messaging me videos of their children, listening to the song and singing the song or dressing up as characters. Things that would only ever be dreams now feel like they might be possible."