In the 1980s, Altadena resident Renee Tajima-Peña documented a tragedy that galvanized the Asian American community. By January of 1989, she was caught up in the excitement of the Academy Awards as co-director (with Christine Choy) of the Oscar-nominated documentary, “Who Killed Vincent Chin?”
Fast forward to last January. Tajima-Peña was anticipating a celebratory week in May as one of the producers of the five-part PBS limited series “Asian Americans,” but recent events have raised anti-Asian sentiments and most events for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month have been canceled. The series she produced for PBS, “Asian Americans,” now becomes the focal point of attention as Asian Americans contend with fear.
In a recent phone conversation, Tajima-Peña noted, “We wanted to look at tipping points of American history, not just Asian-American history, and what role Asian Americans played during those moments.” In the series, she explained, “we look at history through people’s stories.”
The series is in some ways a follow up to the PBS “American Experience” film “The Chinese Exclusion Act,” which was first broadcast in 2018 and is currently available to stream. Recent events have given more meaning to Tajima-Peña’s Vincent Chin documentary, and the series is a whirlwind tour through Asian American history.
The first two episodes of the series, “Breaking Ground” and “A Question of Loyalty,” air on Monday, May 11, and then will be available to stream. The remaining three episodes air on Tuesday, May 12, and are titled “Good Americans,” “Generation Rising” and “Breaking Through.” Check local listings. Episodes “Good Americans” and “Generation Rising” have already premiered as part of the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival Virtual Showcase last week.
Tajima-Peña appeared on a special panel which streamed and is still available on the showcase’s Facebook page.
Although the series begins with the St. Louis World’s Fair and Chinese laborers building the western half of the Transcontinental Railroad (“Breaking Ground”), the first Asians came to the US much earlier. Most infamously, the the Siamese (Thai) American conjoined twins Chang and Eng Bunker, who first toured from 1829 to 1839, settled down in North Carolina and had kids — some of whom fought in the American Civil War. They weren’t the only people of Asian descent fighting during that conflict.
The series reminds viewers that Asian Pacific Islanders like Filipinos were brought to the World’s Fair to demonstrate degrees of civilization, an illustration of the stratification proposed by Social Darwinism. Despite their hard work and high rate of death, Chinese railroad workers were barred from the ritual joining of the rails at Promontory Summit, Utah and were not in any of the commemorative photos. Instead of Ellis Island, immigrants entering the US on the West Coast were processed through Angel Island, in San Francisco Bay, and as the entrants were predominately nonwhite they faced racism, making Angel Island a place to fear.
Yet, despite this racism, people like Los Angeles-born Anna Mae Wong and Japanese immigrant Sessue Hayakawa had limited success in the newly created Hollywood. As talkies came in during the late 1920s, and “Yellow Peril”-ism increased, “yellow face” had become the solution, resulting in two Europeans (Paul Muni and Luise Rainer) playing the leads as Chinese peasants who suddenly rise to wealth and position in the 1937 “The Good Earth.” Yellow face became a common way of depicting Asians on film.
“A Question of Loyalty” focuses on how the anti-Japanese sentiments led to the Japanese-American internment and caused a fissure in one large Japanese-American family, with the eldest son deciding to live in Japan. Korean, Chinese, Filipino and other Japanese Americans contributed to the war effort, even as they were facing anti-Asian prejudice.
“Good Americans” looks at the rise of the “model minority” stereotype with the return of the Nisei (Japanese American) 442nd combat troop. In 1952, Maine selected a widowed Chinese woman, Toy Len Goon, whose husband had been a World War I army vet, as their Mother of the Year. McCarthyism (1950-54), however, would lead to scrutiny, surveillance and even deportation of Chinese Americans after Mao Zedong expelled Chiang Kai-shek and formed the People’s Republic of China in 1949.
“Generation Rising” looks at how Asian Americans were involved in important civil rights protests in California (Larry Itliong and the Delano Farm Workers Strike, the Third World Liberation Front at San Francisco State University and UC Berkeley) and how three Asian Americans felt during their service in the Vietnam War.
“Breaking Through” begins with the murder of a Chinese-American man, Vincent Chin, during a time of high anti-Japanese sentiment in Detroit. That 1982 slaying again made it clear that all ethnic Asian Americans suffered; when one ethnic group was targeted, all suffered. Asian Americans have contributed to the rise of technology in California, notably in Silicon Valley. Yet, as the panel was able to note, anti-Chinese feeling is on the rise and Asian Americans are again made to feel like forever foreigners.
Like any survey documentary, these five hours only provide a glimpse into Asian-American history and the collective experience of those people. There are some factual errors, such as the claim that both Muni and Rainer won Academy Awards. Muni was not even nominated, but won a Best Actor in 1936 playing Louis Pasteur in “The Story of Louis Pasteur.” Additionally, in a brief animation segment which seems to represent Chinatown, there seems to be Japanese writing in the background. For the most part, West Asians are largely ignored. And talking heads are too often identified generically as “writer” or “historian,” without providing the Asian-American history neophyte insight to their areas of authority, although some of them have personal connections to the stories told.
Still, after covering Asian-American issues for over a decade, I still learned something new about important people and incidents. With the current level of xenophobia toward ethnic Asians and the considerable Asian-American population in the San Gabriel Valley, “Asian Americans” is a must-see.
“Asian Americans” airs at 8 p.m. Monday, May 11, and 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 12. https://www.pbs.org/show/asian-americans/