Asian American History Gets its Due in Epic PBS Documentary

Comprehensive, hopeful, and profoundly patriotic

Last month, PBS aired a historic documentary about Asian American history. A camera crew interviewed me for this program, at the 150th anniversary commemoration of the Golden Spike ceremony last year at Promontory Point, Utah. That was where the transcontinental railroad had been finished, uniting the nation as ordained by “Manifest Destiny.” The western line had been built by Chinese laborers, at least 10,000 and as many as 20,000 of them blasting through sheer granite walls through the winter, laying track still in use. Yet the photographs documenting the occasion, which everyone appreciated as historic, omitted Chinese faces.

Although they left me the proverbial cutting room floor, that actually is a sign of progress. Asian American celebrities are available now, and they have ample appeal to mainstream audiences. Among the narrators are actors Daniel Dae Kim and Tamilyn Tomita. As this PBS documentary series validates, Asian Americans have arrived. It may have been two steps forward, one step backward, along a path trod by others before, but with unique obstacles.

The moment could not be more fraught. May was Asian American Heritage Month, but the festivities turned into training sessions on avoiding COVID-19 bias. A global pandemic with apparent Asian origins has led to people the world over looking with suspicion at individuals with straight black hair, almond eyes, and yellow skin. They blame us for an illness that has brought not just bodies to their knees but the economy to its brink. We cannot be loyal Americans. We are tourists at best, spies at worst.

This project is among the means to make amends. These episodes show how Asian immigrants have been in this diverse democracy, the “city upon a hill,” since the new world was settled by Europeans, well before anyone — Asians included — likely would be aware. (Affiliate stations broadcast all five segments as part of the recently- concluded Heritage Month. You can stream them, gratis, from the official website.)

A vast history of pride and shameful bigotry

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Everything is here. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Japanese American internment during World War II, South Asians who came as peddlers and settled in places such as New Orleans, Southeast Asians who were airlifted out of Saigon or took the chance as “boat people” and were taken in as refugees, are all represented.

The bigotry  was open and unashamed. Earliest agitators themselves included newcomers, angry about economic competition from another shore. The documentary describes the Vincent Chin case, a brutal murder in Detroit in 1982 apparently motivated by white autoworkers blaming the Chinese American (not Japanese, not foreign) victim for the success of cheap but high-quality imported cars, bludgeoning him to death with a baseball bat. It details 1992 events in Los Angeles, following the Rodney King verdict, in which Korean-owned business suffered, with the background neglected in mainstream press. It also points out American empire in the Philippines, as well as Hawaii.

The producers could not be more sympathetic to their subject. They take pains, for example, to explain the story of Buddy Uno, a native-born Japanese American disillusioned by racial prejudice. Before Pearl Harbor, he went to Japan to pursue opportunities his homeland denied him. While his brothers fought for the United States Army, one working directly for General Douglas MacArthur, he ended up a propagandist for Japanese imperial ambitions throughout Asia, a troubled soul caught up in events far beyond his experience. They also mention Chinese Americans enthusiastic about Mao expelling foreigners. They admired from afar the revolution he led.

Identity, but not identity politics

Asian American

The documentary also emphasizes the relationship of Asian Americans to other people of color. Japanese Americans worked with Mexican Americans in agricultural labor strikes. South Asian men intermarried with African American women. Jesse Jackson makes a cameo at a rally. It notes post 9/11 violence targeting Asian Americans assumed to be Middle Eastern . They profile youngsters as undocumented “Dreamers”; as are their forebears who were “paper sons,” the original “illegal” immigrants.

This series on Asian Americans is great, because it’s so American. Critics attempt to dismiss the concept “Asian American” as a form of identity politics. Yet it is an effort to form coalitions, for there are no Asians in Asia, each nation having fought total wars against its nearest neighbors. It also is an assertion of belonging, that the immigrants and their American born descendants are not sojourners or sleeper agents.

The narrative is old-school liberal-lefty. Asian Americans in this framing are people of color, not the model minority, not the perpetual foreigner, not honorary whites. Yet the enterprise is testament to the abiding power of the American Dream. Everyone involved radiates optimism, and, regardless of background, we very much need that feeling in this historic moment.

That might also be the basis of the tiniest quibble, not quarrel. The orientation of the producers is toward the 1960s protest movements that generated the term “Asian American.” They don’t depict the contemporary wave, expatriates from an ascendant Asia. Chinese Americans who love Donald Trump and want to emulate him, for example, are a real phenomenon, with rallies, t-shirts, and, above all, social media.

Contradictory, like all Americans

An academic might object about this and that. Like any social phenomenon, Asian America contains contradictions. The Third World Strike at San Francisco State University, after the Summer of Love, birthed “Asian American” as a term. The enemy of the rebellious students was the president of the institution, an assimilated Japanese American allied with law-and-order Governor Ronald Reagan. He later became a conservative United States Senator who served a single term.

Like Mee Moua, the first Hmong American woman elected to public office, who talks about childhood bullying, I wish I had known I was not alone when I was a kid. The kids who watch this may be able to realize that the abuses of teasing and taunting, which can lead to physical attacks, are not in their imagination, directed exclusively at them, or somehow brought on by their cultural differences.

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Again and again, the interviewees speak with utmost sincerity about how they yearn to be accepted. They are not the same as their Asian cousins. They might send money to families in an ancestral homeland. Nonetheless they are, like “ethnics” who became white over generations or African Americans, committed to their lives in this experiment of self-governance. Even as they strive to remember their heritage, their understanding of their own lives could not be anything but American, for they are individuals who value their liberty.

The voices could have been sentimental or complaining. They are, instead, as clear, loud, and proud as their neighbors and co-workers. This is America as a work in progress.

Frank Wu

Frank H. Wu is a law professor at University of California Hastings College of the Law and the President Designate of Queens College. He wrote Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White.

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