Docuseries offers fresh look at Asian American experience

“Asian Americans,” a five-hour film series chronicling the contributions and challenges of the fastest-growing ethnic group in America, is being shown this month on PBS during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Personal histories and new academic research cast a fresh lens on U.S. history and the role Asian Americans have played in it.

Renee Tajima-Peña, professor of Asian American studies at the University of California, Los Angeles, is the series producer of “Asian Americans,” a five-part series on the Asian American experience that represents a collaboration of Asian American filmmakers, scholars, community and public media.

Renee Tajima-Peña, producer of the “Asian Americans” docuseries

“It’s the story of not how Asian Americans became Americans, but how Asian Americans helped shape America,” the filmmaker explains over the telephone. “If you’re Asian American, you can’t avoid racism and discrimination. My family always talked about the camps. When I was 10 years old, I did a school report based on interviews with my mother and grandmother, and my teacher accused me of lying about it. She accused my family of fabricating the story. She said nothing like that could ever happen in America. So, our whole family history was erased.”

Breaking Ground 

Chinese immigrants created their own history as railroad workers who built the tracks from the Pacific Coast to Utah to complete the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869, in Promontory, Utah. The railroad couldn’t have been built without the Chinese, who made up 80 to 90 percent of the western construction crew, according to the film. 

Connie Young Yu, historian and author, at Golden Spike National Historical Park (Utah) for the Sesquicentennial (150th) Celebration . courtesy of the film, “Asian Americans

Photos memorializing the celebration upon completion of the railroad omit the Chinese workers, despite their accomplishments, sacrifice and suffering.

The railroad now completed, thousands of Chinese decide to stay in America and go to San Francisco’s Chinatown, and some become entrepreneurs. After the Civil War, Chinese labor becomes important to America’s economy. 

Fears of the Chinese as a threat to American workers leads to the anti-Chinese movement, resulting in attacks on Chinese, up and down the Pacific Coast, with people getting murdered and lynched. The anti-Chinese campaign culminates in the U.S. Congress passing the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. 

Dazzle on the Screen

Anna May Wong, born in 1905 in Los Angeles just outside of Chinatown, became a prominent Hollywood actress, but not as a leading lady. Wong saw an opportunity for stardom if she could act in “The Good Earth,” a 1937 film that, according to historian Shirley Lim, “epitomized the height of Hollywood yellowface casting” — with white actors playing male Chinese peasants, and Luise Rainer, who would win an Academy Award, as the Chinese female lead. Wong learns the supporting role of Lotus is offered to a white actress.

The only other Asian silent screen star was Japanese immigrant Sessue Hayakawa, who acted in “The Cheat” in 1915, and that movie propelled him to superstardom, relates historian Nancy Wang Yuen. 

“‘The Cheat’ is a great example of the casting of Asian men as a sneaky, evil-doer who … has as his ambition to take over the United States, either through military occupation or economic control, and most certainly through the possession and defilement of white women,” notes Yuen. 

A Question of Loyalty 

According to the documentary, many Asian Americans, like the Uno family, are forced to make agonizing decisions during the war. Buddy Uno, the oldest son of Japanese immigrants, is humiliated by racial discrimination and frustrated at not being able to find a job. In 1937 he travels to Japan and works for the Japanese army. 

George Uno at home in Japan, looking through archives (Buddy Uno story. courtesy of the film, “Asian Americans.”

After Japan’s Pearl Harbor attack, the Uno family is incarcerated at a camp in Colorado, while Buddy is captured by American forces in the Philippines and placed in a POW camp, where his brother Howard, a U.S. soldier, visits him. Buddy never returns to the U.S. He dies of tuberculosis.

Japanese Americans joined the military to gain their freedom from concentration camps and prove their loyalty during World War II. The all-Nisei 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated unit in U.S. military history for its size, gains fame by rescuing the all-white Lost Battalion Texas soldiers in France.

Satsuki Ina, who was born at Tule Lake concentration camp, asks, “What does it mean to be a loyal American?” Her parents were born in the U.S., but partly educated in Japan. For resisting the government’s 1943 so-called loyalty questionnaire by answering “no,” her parents were incarcerated at Tule Lake Segregation Center, where they denounced their U.S. citizenship.

Asian American Hero

The 1950s was a decade where Asian Americans needed someone to stand up for them. That someone was Bruce Lee. 

“I first saw a Bruce Lee movie when I was a kid,” says actor Randall Park. “I remember being mesmerized by this guy. I don’t think it was because he was Asian. It was because he had so much charisma … For Asian Americans, there was a sense of someone on the screen who … embodies the power we know we’re capable of.”

Time of Bold Actions

During the Cold War years, Hawai‘i is heavily Asian, the documentary continues. Although whites had all the power, Asian Americans benefited after the U.S. stole Hawai‘i from the Native Hawaiians in the late 19th century and made it into a U.S. colony. 

In 1959, Maui-born Patsy Takemoto Mink leads the campaign for Hawai‘i’s statehood. Hiram Fong and Daniel Inouye become the first senators from Hawai‘i. Mink wins election to the House of Representatives, the first woman of color in Congress. 

In the 1980s, Japanese Americans mount a national campaign to win redress and reparations for the U.S. government’s wartime actions that incarcerated 120,000 Nikkei in concentration camps.

Edison Uno leads the JACL’s campaign in the 1970s and ‘80s seeking redress and reparations for Nikkei internees. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signs the Civil Liberties Act, which formally apologizes and pays reparations to all individuals incarcerated during the war. 

Generation Rising 

In the 1960s, in California’s Central Valley, Larry Itliong led Filipino farm workers in Delano to join César Chávez and Dolores Huerta and the Mexican farmworkers in a grape strike and created the United Farm Workers. They persuade the farmers to negotiate. What was happening in Delano becomes the West Coast civil rights movement, the docuseries adds.

A number of Asian Americans join the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, including Mike Nakayama, who joined the Marines and was sent to Vietnam in 1967. He recalls that a drill sergeant in training camp singled him out, telling recruits, “This is what a gook looks like.” 

Black students at San Francisco State University demand Black studies programs and Asian American students demand Asian American studies. Despite opposition from SFSU President S.I. Hayakawa, SFSU introduces ethnic studies programs. “Orientals” claim a new identity: Asian Americans.

Breaking Through 

At the turn of the new millennium, the national conversation turns to immigration, race, and economic disparity, the film articulates. As the U.S becomes more diverse, yet more divided, Asian Americans tackle the question, how do Americans move forward together?

Leading a group of Nikkei to Crystal City, Texas in support of immigrant Central American children separated from their families and jailed for months at a detention center, Satsuki Ina declares, “We are walking today to stand with people who are being targeted today, and not letting them feel their incarceration is justified and we’re not going to ignore it.” 

All of the series’ filmmakers are trying to determine how to fight the xenophobia and anti-Asian hate, noting the president called the coronavirus “the Chinese virus … It’s going to get worse, I’m sure, because of the … economic crisis,” Tajima-Peña says. “We’ll be using this series and new films to … attack the hate.”

An Asian American story through an Asian American lens is what audiences should take away from this docuseries, states the filmmaker, who was born in Chicago and grew up in Altadena in Los Angeles County. “And specifically, for those in the audience who are Asian American, I hope they come away with a real feeling of pride in their story, in their heritage.” 

Tajima-Peña is an Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker whose credits include “Who Killed Vincent Chin?,” “My America … or Honk if You Love Buddha,” and other films about immigration, race, ethnicity, gender and social justice.

“Asian Americans” is a production of WETA Washington, DC and the Center for Asian American Media for PBS, in association with the Independent Television Service, Flash Cuts and Tajima-Peña Productions. It premiered May 11-12. Check your local listings for additional screenings this month. Episodes from the docuseries are currently online at https://www.pbs.org/show/asian-americans/.

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