From Asian Americans (all images courtesy PBS)

Bearing in mind that the new miniseries Asian Americans is a PBS documentary offers a clear sense of how (and why) the series looks, sounds, and moves the way it does. There’s an instantly recognizable house style to these films, mostly unchanged since Ken Burns set many of its principles in place in the early ’90s. We know all of the tools: pans across old photographs, a mixture of archival and contemporary interviews from both witnesses to history and modern-day experts, a narrator speaking in a soothing yet authoritative voice.

Only the subject matter differs between such documentaries — in this case, over the course of five episodes, filmmakers S. Leo Chiang, Geeta Gandbhir, and Grace Lee survey the history of people of Asian descent in the US, from the late 1800s through today. It’s easy to dismiss (and even easier to parody) such work as aesthetically simplistic or overly academic. But while such critiques may be fair on purely formal grounds, they miss the ongoing value of projects like this.

From Asian Americans

If you are a reasonably well-informed person, or have done a good share of independent reading and research on any of the topics at hand — which range from the Chinese Exclusion Act to the emergence of the first Asian actors of Hollywood’s Golden Age, to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, to the emergence of “Asian American” as a coherent identity group out of ’60s political activism — then the series won’t teach you much new. But considering a documentary solely in terms of its educational utility is misguided, even with one that will generally be viewed in an educational context. Asian Americans draws out this history through personal, often deeply emotional testimony. (A good deal of its narrative, after all, remains living history.)

Often, these points of view illustrate the contradictions of the experiences of marginalized groups in the US. The final episode, “Breaking Through,” extensively covers the climate which produced the Rodney King uprising in Los Angeles during the early ’90s, and how racial tensions of the time were not just between white and Black citizens but also Black and Korean communities, stoked greatly by Soon Ja Du’s killing of Latasha Harlins. Events like these produce no easy narratives, only ambivalence or anger about the tangled prejudices and privileges with US society. (One illuminating anecdote relates how Black protesters attacked Korean shops, while white police did nothing to protect them.) That’s to say nothing of the ways that the mainstream perceptions (that is, perceptions dictated by white people) of how “white,” or white-adjacent, Asians are or aren’t have shifted over the decades.

From Asian Americans

Most vitally, Asian Americans is not afraid to note the parallels between the events it covers and contemporary issues. Most obvious is how the history of anti-Asian xenophobia during the late 1800s and early 1900s dovetails neatly with today’s prejudice against migrants from Central America and West Asia, and how the Japanese American internment camps presage the modern US refugee detention centers. While the show was produced too late to address the issue at length, the new wave of vitriol directed at Asians stoked by the current COVID-19 pandemic has its predecessors in the film as well. As history recurs, we should take heed of resources such as this.

All five episodes of Asian Americans are available to stream on PBS.

Dan Schindel is a freelance writer and copy editor living in Brooklyn, and a former associate editor at Hyperallergic. His portfolio and links are here.

One reply on “The Timely Resonance of PBS’s Asian Americans

  1. ASIAN AMERICANS, PBS, 2020: Our stories and voices are finally getting heard even through public television. Looking at the bigger picture, this landmark three-part film series has leveled-up from the habitual preference for East Asians to control the narrative and disproportionately leave out the same heroic treatment towards Brown Asians.

    It did, but not enough. For all Asians to be equally recognized as American heroes, their stories have to first be heroic.

    Only three stories are given the luxury of time and space on each of the episodes: Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans and Korean Americans. The closing words also came from these three communities, ignoring the fact that Filipino Americans are the second largest in population size and the earliest settlers from Asia to this country.

    Two significant aspects of the Filipino American Story was left out: the first one was the Watsonville Anti-Filipino Riots (January 19-23,1930) which produced a martyr (Fermin Tobera) and which significantly galvanized the Filipino community to begin organizing labor unions throughout the West Coast (in keeping with the ongoing narrative of martyrs in the series), peaking with the Filipino-initiated merger of Larry Itliong’s AWOC (Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee) and Cesar Chavez/ Dolores Huerta’s NFWA (National Farm Workers of America) to form the United Farm Workers Organizing Committee (UFWOC) in 1965/1966.

    UFWOC was the second important part of the story that was erased in this series. The same tactic utilized by Chicano nationalists to erase the Filipino legacy of the American Farm Labor Movement ignited by Filipino Americans. The UFW did not exist until after 1970, and after Larry Itliong and Cesar Chavez jointly signed the historic contract with all the growers of California, which ended the 5-year strike.

    UFW was the union that Larry Itliong submitted his resignation papers to. Because according to him, unlike UFWOC (which had two Mexicans and four Filipinos in the top leadership), UFW gave all decision-making powers to Chavez, unlike the UFWOC which was truly democratic.

    It was under the UFWOC banner and never through UFW which won the historic contract with the growers during the 1965-1970 Delano Grape Strike.

    Until that distinction is made clear, the legacy of Filipino Americans to this country will never be completely understood as truly heroic, and remain to be a footnote or a side-story— thus denying them that ‘lofty seat at the table’ and their well-earned and exalted place as American heroes.

    The fight for equality and justice continues even within our very own Asian American community who habitually only allocates Brown Asians and Filipino Americans a spot at the bottom of the staircase leading up to being regarded as 1st Class Citizens of the United States.


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