Ten Things I Learned from Watching ‘Asian Americans’

This May, PBS presents “Asian Americans,” an ambitious five-part series that covers 150 years of Asian American history. Here are some of the few compelling things I’ve picked up on while watching.

The Asian American demographic is the fastest-growing in the nation. Between 2000 and 2015, its population grew a staggering 72%, yet this influx isn’t new news. To borrow from author Ronald Takaki’s seminal book, Asian Americans have been “strangers from a different shore” for a long time now and have helped shape America into the country it is today.

This May, PBS presents “Asian Americans,” an ambitious five-part series that covers 150 years of Asian American history.

Watch “Asian Americans,” a five-hour film series that delivers a bold, fresh perspective on the history of the fastest-growing demographic in the country today. Stream now.

While other documentaries tackle key moments that Asian Americans have played in history, this is the first that offers a long view of Asian Americans’ roots and their futures in the nation. The series is a new, bold look at the remarkable history of struggle and resilience Asian Americans have displayed through time. Here are some of the few compelling things I’ve picked up on while watching: 

Asian Americans have been here longer than you’d expect. 

It’s often easy to think of Asian Americans as perpetual new immigrants, but some have been here since this nation’s infancy, when the country’s status as a world power was still being solidified. People like Antero Cabrera, an Ifugao man from the Philippines, were brought over as part of a grandiose anthropological exhibition during the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis (yes, people were exhibits. Gasp!). From as early as 1864, some 15,000 to 20,000 Chinese immigrants staked their lives on helping build the transcontinental railroad that helped knit Eastern United States to the West.

Black and White photo of Antero Cabrera (Ba-Long-Long) and weapon as Igorot villager in the “Living Exhibits” at 1904 St Louis World’s Fair. | Courtesy of “Asian Americans”

Anna May Wong was an international Chinese American star and Sessue Hakayawa could have given Rudolph Valentino a run for his money.

Long before Randall Park (“Fresh Off the Boat”) and Awkwafina (“The Farewell”) broke into the scene, Hollywood has featured Asian Americans on the silver screen, albeit in not the most flattering of ways. Anna May Wong was a native Angeleno and got into Hollywood playing stereotypical Asian roles where “happily-ever-afters” don’t seem to exist. Historian Shirley Lim states in the documentary that Anna May Wong has joked that her tombstone should note that she died a thousand deaths because in her movies she either commits suicide, gets shot or dies. Sessue Hayakawa discovered his love for acting in L.A.’s Little Tokyo and is perhaps one of the earliest sex symbols to grace the screen. He’s on par with the Rudolph Valentinos of the time, yet has little to none of the name recognition.

Anna May Wong considered to be the first Chinese American Hollywood movie star. | Photograph by Carl Van Vechten and used with permission of the Van Vechten Trust

A Filipino, Larry Itliong, started the Delana Grape Strike that eventually kickstarted the Farmworker’s movement

Larry Itliong only finished a 6th-grade elementary education and he lived a difficult life. He wanted to become an attorney, but financial difficulties and racism barred him from that dream. Instead, he continued to fight for the rights of laborers. On September 7, 1965, he convinced grape workers at the Filipino Town Hall to go on strike. It would soon lead him to contact Cesar Chavez to ask that Mexican farmworkers also go on strike. The merging of their two groups created the United Farm Workers (UFW). Their cause was so strong that it is often seen as a parallel to the Civil Rights Movements happening on the East Coast. 

Larry Itliong | Courtesy of “Asian Americans”

Race is a social construct.

We use the terms Black, White and Brown, but these are just mere proxies that hide humanity’s true genetic diversity. Scientists have long called for racial categories to be phased out, but as early as 1923, Indian American Bhagat Singh Thind was already challenging the term “White.” After all, he was Indian with an arguably White background. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court ruled against him, essentially declaring him not White enough. Their declaration opened a tricky conversation: What does it mean to be a White man?

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 their military uniform. Courtesy of the Dr. Bhagat Singh Thind Spiritual Science Foundation

American wars waged in Asian territories were a double-edged sword for Asian Americans.

Ahn siblings during World War II
Ahn siblings during World War II | Courtesy of “Asian Americans”

Asian Americans wear their race on their face. No matter what, they can’t hide their ancestry. This made the Korean and Vietnam wars especially difficult for those who enlisted. Often, Asian Americans soldiers had no inkling that they would be treated as the “face of the enemy” even by their comrades. Despite all of this, Asian Americans did serve as soldiers. The documentary notes that half the Filipino male population in California signed up to fight, creating two all-Filipino regiments during World War II. That same war also saw Japanese-American soldiers risking their lives while their families were ironically incarcerated in far-flung parts of the United States, torn from the lives they had built in the United States.

There’s a reason why laundries are so strongly associated with Chinese people.

Asian Americans like Chinese were often seen as a source of cheap labor. Because of this, they were also viewed with suspicion by those who saw them as competitors for jobs. This helped bring about the stereotype of Chinese laundries. At one time, there were over 3,500 Chinese hand laundries in New York. Why? Chinese men were often shut out of jobs and during the 1950s, one of the few establishments that would offer work were hand laundries. This involved menial work like washing and ironing for little pay, but the positions weren’t viewed as threats to White male labor. Those Chinese hand laundries in New York formed their own alliance and even began their own paper, the China Daily News, which became branded as a communist paper because of its reports on mainland China.

Hawaii was an early look at the rise of the Asian American in politics.

1972 campaign poster image from the Patsy Mink for President Committee
1972 campaign poster image from the Patsy Mink for President Committee | Patsy T. Mink Papers at the Library of Congress

By the early part of the 19th century, Hawaii had a majority population of Asian and Native Hawaiians. It had an incredible diversity of people who hailed from China, Portugal, Samoa and the Philippines who had generations of experience working with each other. It is unsurprising that by the 1950s, Asian American political voices were first heard here, such as the one of Patsy Mink, the first woman of color in Congress. United States senator Daniel Inouye grew up in the slums of Honolulu. Hiram Fong, one of the first Chinese Americans to be elected to Congress, was the seventh child of plantation workers and made his way to Harvard law school. 

Ethnic studies programs first began in California and owe their existence to Asian Americans.

To know one’s history is crucial knowledge, especially when navigating such a diverse nation, but only 50 years ago, there was no such venue to learn about one’s identity and place in history because there were no ethnic studies to speak of. Fueled by increasing dissatisfaction during the Vietnam war era and the 1965 Immigration Act, which brought an even more diverse group of people into the country, Dan Gonzales, Penny Nakatsu and Laureen Chew became one of a handful of Asian American students who organized the 1968-69 student strikes at San Francisco State University. With help from the Black Student Union, they advocated for more faculty of color and an ethnic studies program. Working with Black students, they waged the longest student strike in U.S. history. Their efforts won them not “just a department, but a complete school within the university that encompassed the full panoply of diverse students, including Black, Latino and Asian.”

Asian Americans occupy both the upper and lower echelons of society. 

While Asian Americans like Yahoo! founder Jerry Yang helped found the Silicon Valley we know today, these industries also used cheap labor from Asian immigrant workers who were struggling to make ends meet.

The first DREAMer was an Asian American. 

The DREAM Act is strongly associated with the Latino American community, but it was Tereza Lee’s story, along with others like it, that inspired U.S. Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois to work on what would become the DREAM Act. Lee was an undocumented immigrant of Korean origin, born in Brazil. If it weren’t for the attacks on 9/11, the day before the Senate hearing to vote on the DREAM Act was supposed to occur, the nation might well have seen its first version of the landmark legislation passed. Until today, Lee continues to champion the rights of the undocumented, state by state.

See how Tereza Lee inspired the DREAM Act in this video.

These are but a few of the fascinating things one can see while watching “Asian Americans.” As each episode drew to a close, I realized that this documentary isn’t just about one segment of the population, it is a story that affects all Americans. 

Stream all episodes of “Asian Americans.” Click to watch part one, part two and the finale.