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Stories of perseverance: Documentary looks at the Asian American influence in the US

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Storefront of Chinatown meat and vegetable market, San Francisco, 1895. (Courtesy of University Of Washington, Special Collections)

Journal Arts Editor

Asian American history in the United States is often overlooked in history books.

This is the exact reason there has been an effort to tell their story.

The five-hour documentary, “Asian Americans” premieres at 7 p.m. Monday, May 11, and continues at 7 and 9 p.m. Tuesday, May 12, on New Mexico PBS.

The series is narrated by Daniel Dae Kim and Tamlyn Tomita.

This five-part series examines what the 2010 U.S. Census identified as the fastest-growing racial/ethnic group in the United States.

Told through individual lives and personal histories, “Asian Americans” explores the impact of this group on the country’s past, present and future.

George Uno at home in Japan, looking through archives (Buddy Uno story).

Accompanied by robust educational, engagement, and digital components, this groundbreaking initiative brings a new perspective to the American experience.

The series tracks the first new immigrants to the United States and their efforts for equality in an era of exclusion and empire. It also provides insight into a generation whose loyalties are tested during World War II; and takes a more prominent look at a new generation’s role in political and cultural issues in both the recent past and present.

Men and woman (siblings, Philip & Susan Anh) in uniform facing camera.

It follows the stories of trailblazers, both prominent and forgotten, who had an impact on representation and what it means to be Asian American today.

Interviews in the film include Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, activist Helen Zia, actor Randall Park, comedian Hari Kondabolu and academic expert Erika Lee.

Filmmaker Leo Chiang directed the first episode, which begins with the story of Chinese working on the railroad system.

Filmmaker Grace Lee

Chiang says helming the first episode was a little more difficult because he had the least amount of footage, yet had to find a way to make the history exciting.

This was also the reason he became a filmmaker – for the storytelling.

“I was really fascinated by the salvation story in Episode 1,” he says in an interview from Taiwan. “Depending on the year a Chinese person came to the United States, they were seen as white or non-white. Basically, race is a social construct and was kind of regulatory. Having grown up in Asia and moving to the U.S. later in life, it gives me a whole different outlook.”

Chiang says the timing of the series premiere is great. He says that with COVID-19 around the world, Asians are being treated badly.

“In the documentary, we learn about the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882,” he says. “Those things seem to be happening in some version today.”

Pins from Lorraine Agtang’s private collection re: Delano Strike and more. (Courtesy of The Film, Asian Americans)

The Chinese Exclusion Act was an immigration law passed in 1882 that prevented Chinese laborers from immigrating to the United States. It was the first immigration law that excluded an entire ethnic group. It also excluded Chinese nationals from eligibility for U.S. citizenship.

Leo Chiang (Courtesy of Flip Cuddy) 

Chiang also learned how Chinese workers worked with Native Americans on building the railroad system.

“To be able to see how Asian immigrants are such a defining part of the American experience,” he said. “Some of the Asians in the U.S. have been here longer than most. I really hope the story will promote a deeper understanding and educate people on our history.”

Bhagat Singh Thind as a young man in U.S. Army uniform with rifle, Camp Lewis 1918 (WWI). Thind, a Sikh American, was the first U.S. serviceman to be allowed for religious reasons to wear a turban as part of his military uniform. (Courtesy of Dr. Bhagat Singh Thind Spiritual Science Foundation)

Filmmaker Grace Lee was at the helm of the second and fourth parts of the

Antero Cabrera (Ba-Long-Long) and weapon as Igorot villager in the “Living Exhibits” at 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. (Courtesy of Public Domain Photograph)


“When you are talking about the Asian American movement, I wanted to show how the past connected to the present,” Lee says. “By the time I got to Episode 4, getting information became a lot easier, because many were still alive.”

Lee also got to learn about the Japanese internment camps in the United States.

From March 1942 to April 1946, the U.S. government incarcerated 4,555 men of Japanese ancestry in a camp near Santa Fe.

The Army operated a prisoner-of war camp in Lordsburg.

“The challenges were relying in first-person narratives,” Lee says.

Lee delved into farmworker union strikes, which were led by Filipinos.

“I wasn’t aware of the story,” Lee says. “It was eye

opening to me to learn how this group was helping leading the charge with Cesar Chávez and Dolores Huerta. Asians, Latino and Native Americans, the were all part of the Third World strike.”

Lee hopes the series will shed light on the Asian American history.

“These stories can easily get buried,” Lee says. “It’s important to continue the narrative and bring to light what has happened along the way. Hopefully, we can learn from these moments and not repeat them.”

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