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‘We wrestle with our identities’: Chinese American family explores roots in ‘Far East Deep South’

Baldwin Chiu, producer and lead subject in “Far East Deep South.” (Courtesy of Larissa Lam)

The journey for Chinese Americans has been long and often forgotten.

Filmmaker Larissa Lam’s journey in making “Far East Deep South” came about while doing family research.

Lam was along for the ride when her husband, Baldwin Chiu, and his relatives began chronicling their family’s history in the Deep South.

“We were making our first trip down there, and this series of events began to unfold,” Lam says. “We went to Mississippi, and what I captured was a short film. With a big response to that, we decided to make it feature film.”

Baldwin Chiu, Charles Chiu and Edwin Chiu in “Far East Deep South” pay their respects to Charles’ father, KC Lou, and his grandfather, Chas J. Lou, at the New Cleveland Cemetery in Cleveland, Mississippi. (Courtesy of Larissa Lam)

“Far East Deep South” will be broadcast as part of PBS’ “America ReFramed” series. It will air at 6 a.m. Wednesday, May 5, and at 9 p.m. Thursday, May 6, on New Mexico PBS’ World Channel 9.1.

The film also was part of the Chinese American Film Festival in Albuquerque a few years ago.

Lam and Chiu say that as America deals with an increase in anti-Asian sentiment, the documentary is a deeply moving story that offers a poignant perspective on race relations, immigration and the deep roots of Chinese Americans in our national identity.

Charles Chiu in “Far East Deep South” learns about the impact of Jim Crow laws on the Chinese community at the Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum in Cleveland, Mississippi. (Courtesy of Larissa Lam)

The documentary follows Charles Chiu and his family – including his son, producer Baldwin Chiu, and daughter-in-law, director Larissa Lam – as they travel from California to Mississippi to find answers about Charles’ father, K.C. Lou.

A retired Air Force reservist, Charles Chiu was reluctant to discuss his family’s complicated past with his sons, Baldwin and Edwin.

The family’s emotional journey to a place they’ve never seen leads to stunning revelations and a crash course on the surprising history of Chinese immigrants in the segregated South.

Through encounters with local residents who remember K.C., as well as interviews with historians, U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., and others, the family’s trip becomes a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for discovery and healing.

Baldwin Chiu in “Far East Deep South” visits the grave of his grandfather and great-grandfather in Cleveland, Mississippi. (Courtesy of Larissa Lam)

“As Asians living in America, we wrestle with our identity and sense of belonging, no matter how long our families have been here,” Lam says. “Our struggles and contributions have been a significant part of American history yet have been largely invisible in media and rarely taught in schools. As a result, we are treated as the perpetual foreigner and outsider. That is largely why I felt compelled to make this film. After seeing our film, I hope more people realize Asian American families have a long legacy in this country. I also hope that American history lessons will be more inclusive of the Asian American experience, especially as it pertains to learning about the American South.”

From left, Jason Rochelle, Coop Cooper and Larissa Lam filming on location in Cleveland, Mississippi. (Courtesy of Larissa Lam)

Baldwin Chiu says he is saddened and angered by the racism today in the United States.

“My family has been in the U.S. for generations, and yet I’m often treated as someone who is not American,” he says. “Our film clearly shows we ARE American and we really want everyone in America to finally embrace that.”

The couple began the journey in 2014 and are excited to have it air on PBS.

Baldwin Chiu meets Levon Jackson, mayor of Pace, Mississippi, in a scene from “Far East Deep South.” (Courtesy of Larissa Lam)

Lam says the goal has always been to educate viewers on Chinese Americans and their legacy.

“They have been important to the framework of society,” Lam says.

Baldwin Chiu echoes the sentiment.

“The Chinese Exclusion Act (of 1882) didn’t just work on excluding Chinese Americans from many liberties,” he says. “It also kept our story out of the history books. This film is our chance to make our story known. There are more of these stories in the world.”

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