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A 150-Year Movement: 'Asian Americans' Tells America's Story

By Frako Loden

Americans are planning their exit strategy from weeks of coronavirus hibernation, but there's still a compelling reason to stay home on the evenings of May 11 and 12: the new documentary series Asian Americans, a five-episode saga of the fastest-growing racial/ethnic group in American history. Asian Americans is a production of WETA Washington, DC and the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) for PBS, in association with the Independent Television Service (ITVS), Flash Cuts and Tajima-Peña Productions. It's a vast subject, years in the making, at last realized by the finest Asian American documentarians, historians and storytellers active today. Documentary sat for Zoom interviews with series producer Renee Tajima-Peña and episode directors S. Leo Chiang (Eps 1, 3), Grace Lee (Eps 2, 4) and Geeta Gandbhir (Ep 5).

DOCUMENTARY: Do you think this series will get higher viewership because of shelter-in-place orders?

GEETA GANDBHIR: I do. As people are stuck at home, the demand, the viewership in general on everything, has gone up. So even though I'm incredibly sorry that we are releasing in the middle of a pandemic and we were not able to have screenings in person and meets, at the same time I hope that it gives people a moment of respite. It's a very informative, entertaining series, which helps.

GRACE LEE: What has changed are the opportunities to present the series to people in person, like the [now-virtual] CAAMFest film festival in May. It's always been a big community event, and this is such a landmark series for Asian Americans. But people are pivoting to digital—they're at home and looking for stuff to consume.

D: We'll be watching Asian Americans through the lens of the coronavirus outbreak.

RENEE TAJIMA-PEÑA: There are fault lines of race and class that you can trace back all these years in American history. In times of crisis like now, the fault lines erupt and different groups take the heat. And for Asian Americans, it's happened over and over again. It happened to my family during World War II. I'm Japanese American and after the attack on Pearl Harbor, my family was rounded up and put into camps for three years behind barbed wire. Talk about sheltering at home! And now it's being called the "Chinese virus," just as AIDS was called a "gay virus." It's scapegoating—we've seen it before. So in this series, we try to unpack all that stuff.

S. LEO CHIANG: As an immigrant, I have very strong feelings about what Trump has been trying to do. I think what he's doing is so short-sighted and based on a bunch of xenophobic misconceptions and stereotypes just feeding into the fear of people. He's just exploiting this coronavirus opportunity to please his base. I mean, the way that Chinese Americans and Asian Americans are yelled at, spat on and beaten up—it's shocking, but at the same time it's not, because of the way history repeats itself. We feel the series is timely because of that, because we have stories to tell and lessons to offer for folks who are interested in seeing how history is repeating itself in a way it might not, had people learned its lessons by knowing this history.

D: How far back have you been planning this?

RTP: Around 2013. It took a long, long time to raise the money. When we started putting the team together, we'd all worked together in different capacities for so many years, so we knew each other, knew each other's work. For me, it was really important to work with an Asian American-led creative team who knows the Asian American story, who have told that story in their own work.

All these stories are so interesting because that span of [Asian] American history was really a tough time. My family started coming here in the middle of anti-Asian Exclusion. Then there was the Great Depression, and these four wars, including US wars fought in Asia, which brought about the whole refugee experience. But in each one of those stories, the Asian Americans respond. They go to the Supreme Court or they run for office or they take to the streets, to the fields, start a union, and they start making their own art and films and poetry and literature, against all odds. They just do it.

D: Why did you choose the Antero Cabrera story for your Episode One opening? [Cabrera was an American anthropologist's assistant who agreed to pose as an Igorot "savage" and perform dances and dog-barbequing at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair.]

SLC: I think that most people come to an Asian American history series expecting the [1849] California Gold Rush to kick off the whole thing. But we thought the Antero Cabrera story was so interesting. It examines race in such a unique, surprising way.

RTP: Different people of color were exhibited in human zoos at those world fairs, and they were always seen as being victimized by the times, which they were. But the way Leo tells it, he found Cabrera's granddaughter in Maryland, who said, "Hey look, the Filipinos weren't stupid. They figured out how to use that experience for their own ends. Antero Cabrera figured out how to get an education for himself and his descendants." It's a kind of origin story for a family in both the Philippines and the US.

D: You found a remarkable story about Joseph and Mary Tape, immigrants who started one of the first middle-class Chinese American families in racist, post-Gold Rush San Francisco.

SLC: It's based on Mae Ngai's book The Lucky Ones, a fabulously entertaining multigenerational soap opera. Joseph Tape is fascinating. He does exploit his own community in order to get ahead, but at the same time he's stuck in the middle: trying to become fully American but not allowed to, and he has to find a way to survive and prosper within the context of the times. I think that for folks who are coming into a totally foreign environment that they have every intention of making their home, if the people already there are resistant, what can you do but try to find a way to break through, to find that crack in the door? That's a fascinating way to look at immigration in the US. When you have to do that, you're in a gray area, and that's what makes Joseph Tape so interesting.

D: Some of your strongest images in both episodes are non-archival home movies and present-day footage of Bengali immigrant Moksad Ali's mixed-race descendants in New Orleans. How did you find the home movies?

SLC: CAAM had started an initiative to collect Asian American home movies, and that's where a lot of that material came from. Beyond that, we actively reached out.

D: A major theme in Episode Two is families torn apart: the Ahns, the Inas. The Uno family saga was very moving: a tragically divided family.

GL: The Uno family deserves its own miniseries! I studied history in college, I'm interested in Asian American stuff, I've made films about Asian America—but most of this stuff was completely new to me. I knew about the incarceration of Japanese Americans, I knew about the 442nd, but I didn’t know about people like Buddy Uno. I didn’t know about kibei, US citizens who were sent back to Japan because of all the racism. There's so much. It's like a dream for someone like me who cares about history.

D: You're fortunate to have a subject like Ina Satsuki [filmmaker, psychotherapist and activist who was born in the maximum-security Tule Lake camp].

GL: Not only that, she did the historical work of tracking down all her family's documentation. She was fortunate to discover, years after they died, her parents’ documents, this whole treasure trove. I just find that so inspiring. It's like she said: She opens up the metal box at the beginning of Episode Two, and she said it was like her mom left her this trail of breadcrumbs to find and tell the story.

D: I love how Episode Four gallops from one topic to another.

GL: Yeah, I think Episode Four—Asian American Studies, Vietnam, the 1990s—that's my generation. I really was excited to do the Asian American Movement episode—that one I just loved, it was so fun. Also the people are alive still, which makes it a lot easier. There's a way that we can connect the history with today and different generations, because I think that's what Asian American studies does. Episode Four helps encapsulate how we think about Asian American history.

Five hours for 150 years of American history is not enough. I jokingly say this series is kind of an appetizer, you know. Here you can get an introduction to some broad themes.

One thing that I found really cool about this project was that almost the entire staff was Asian American, from the executive producers on down to research and production assistants. I feel like with this series, being made by Asian Americans, it makes a difference who’s telling this story. My being part of A-Doc, the Asian American Documentary Network, as someone who talks about this stuff a lot in terms of the documentary field, it really shows when the people making the films come from the communities that they're about.

D: The segment on the 1982 Detroit murder of Vincent Chin is a centerpiece of this series. It's the beginning of integrated Asian American civil rights activism and it flows all the way to the final episode.

RTP: Two things are really important about the Vincent Chin case. One is that it created this pan-Asian American movement beyond Japanese and Chinese Americans. It's a fresh approach to start by focusing on Mee Moua, because she realized that she had also been a target of anti-Asian hate as a Hmong refugee in Wisconsin. Secondly, I think the Chin case being followed by the 1992 Los Angeles uprising story was important. In both cases, Asian Americans were building this pan-Asian American movement and protecting our own rights. When LA '92 happened, it was a real reckoning. Those of us who came out of the Asian American movement realized we had to build our connections with immigrant communities. And then we also had to address these fractures and divisions with the Black community.

GG: What was really important for me was to talk about things that make people uncomfortable. To make sure we talk about race in all its complexity, and that we talk about, dare I say, white supremacy. We talk about things that TV executives worry will alienate certain viewers. It was really important to me that there be an honest discourse, and that it be from the perspective of Asian Americans.

D: Angela Oh says that Korean America was born in 1992. That's controversial.

GG: The 1992 LA uprising: that section is one of my favorites because it shows the intersection of so many different things. The intersection of structural racism and economic policies really come together in that episode, and two different communities that have been oppressed and manipulated are then pitted against each other. I thought it was brave of Alex Ko to talk about the perspective of his family, which I think has often been neglected, maligned, misrepresented. I think Korean Americans were made out to be the bad guys in that. Yet it’s a far more complicated story.

The Korean American community was abandoned by everyone. Obviously the African American community in LA was also and has long been abandoned, and has been struggling with systemic racism since the country was built. But I think for Korean Americans, what Angela Oh says about when Korean America was born, it’s really that this was their trial by fire. This was their initiation into the systemic racist policies that shaped America. Suddenly it was their turn.

I think for a lot of South Asians like myself, our turn was 9/11. Everyone has their turn at being targeted, and when it happens to you, a consciousness is born. I think for us as Asian Americans, what’s been really important is to recognize all boats rise together. We can all rise together, but if you treat your neighbor poorly, you’re next.

D: Also interesting is your segment on Tereza Lee as a DREAM Act student, showing that Asian Americans are a huge percentage of undocumented people.

GG: Tereza, a Korean American, was the first DREAMer. She doesn’t want people to think that she started the movement, which is collective. But it was important to us to show her, because we have to disrupt the idea of Asian Americans as always the model minority and now privileged class.

D: Bookending the final episode with comedian Hari Kondabolu and his theme of the future is smart—and funny.

GG: Being able to interview Hari was one of the highlights of the episode. To be able to laugh about some of this stuff makes it so much better.

D: If you could add another 20 minutes to your final episode and you could address what Trump is doing right now with "canceling" immigration, what would you say?

GG: I think that what’s happening now, unfortunately, is not new. It’s a repetition. When you look at the events that led up to the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), it’s absolutely familiar. And this is what we learn about history: Unless you address it, unless you dismantle it, unless you put laws in place that are preventative, it repeats itself.


Frako Loden is adjunct lecturer in film and ethnic studies at California State University East Bay and Diablo Valley College.