PBS has been putting out some amazing documentaries over the last few years looking at the state of race and identity. Their latest is the five-part doc, “Asian Americans,” looking at the myriad and diverse groups of people who fall under that category and their struggles in the country for acceptance and recognition. The first two episodes premiered on May 11 — in the middle of Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month. These are the most striking facts from the series that should compel you to watch, honor, and remember:
The first example of discrimination in America against Asians goes all the way back to the creation of the Transcontinental Railroad. Told during a tribute to the 150th anniversary of the driving in of the golden spike at Promontory, Utah, the documentary discusses how the railroad was built by both the Irish and Chinese. Yet when the time came to take the famous picture showing the completion of the railroad, the Asian laborers were told they couldn’t be in the picture. It’s one of many ironies the documentary examines: the descendents of those laborers are the ones left to tell others about their exclusion.
Bhagat Singh Thind is a person I’m surprised Hollywood hasn’t made a movie about (though, maybe that’s for the best.) Thind was an Indian American writer who served in the U.S. Army during WWI. Despite his service, he was denied U.S. citizenship as only white or black men were eligible. Thind took his case to the U.S. Supreme Court, which opened up a can of worms over the nature of anthropology and what deemed a person “Caucasian.” Thind would become a U.S. citizen in 1936, but his fight would continue, as Asian Americans continued to be defined based on the darkness of their skin.
Anna May Wong is the name on everyone’s lips this month, between her appearance in this documentary and the Netflix series “Hollywood.” Her story is told alongside that of fellow silent film star and Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa. Both performers hit the “bamboo ceiling,” as the documentary discusses, wherein they were relegated to playing villains. Hayakawa, who had matinee idol good looks, struggled just as much as Wong with the added caveat of his movies often involved the defilement of white women. Neither actor got their due in Hollywood and the documentary goes into Wong’s bitterness at losing “The Good Earth”; much of Hayakawa’s features are lost.
A large portion of Episode 2 follows the story of the Uno family and their eldest son, Buddy. Buddy Uno was part of the “nisei generation” of Asian-Americans, the second-generation immigrants who only knew American ways of living in the 1940s. Buddy Uno had dreams of being a foreign correspondent, but despite his education, he wasn’t able to accomplish this because of his race. So he went to Japan to get his dream job — and from there it would unleash a powder keg that would see Uno branded a traitor and his family struggling through Japanese internment. The Uno story, which exhibits the depressing sadness of internment and the patriotic victory of two sons serving the U.S., brings up questions of loyalty, containment, and oppression we’re still seeing shades of today.
The term “Asian Americans” is broad and the documentary understand it needs to do its utmost to look at every ethnicity that falls into that. Alongside the story of the Japanese-American Unos, the documentary also looks at the life of Korean-Americans who, when the Japanese were being interned in the U.S., were striving to separate themselves as much as possible. Many Korean-Americans felt the Japanese were terrible and supported the U.S. wholeheartedly. A key element of this looks at actor Philip Ahn, a Korean actor who often starred as the Japanese villains of prominent American propaganda pictures. Like any ethnicity, not every single member of a group agrees and it’s interesting to see how Korean-Americans lived under the same umbrella of being Asian-American — yet felt distinctly different than the Japanese.
Asian Americans, often deemed the model minority, end up in a liminal threshold of having to be perfect. We see that with Korean and Chinese-Americans trying to set themselves up as the most patriotic Americans, but the documentary also looks at how Asian American women had to be considered perfect. In 1954, Toy Len Goon, a Chinese immigrant, was deemed America’s Mother of the Year. As the documentary explains, there was certainly a political reason for giving Goon the role but, more importantly, it created a double-edged sword: letting Asian women be perceived as no different than the Donna Reeds of the 1950s, but bringing on added pressure they were already bearing.
The goal of the documentary is to educate, remember, honor, and inspire. This last part is at the heart of Episode 4, focusing on the rise of Asian American politicians, particularly in the fight for statehood of Hawaii. Patsy Mink, Hiram Fong, and Daniel Inouye are names you should know because they truly changed the dynamic of what a politician could look like. Mink, especially, has a poignant story. She fought to be a member of Congress, the first Asian American woman, but was told she couldn’t win. Instead, those who supported her ended up putting money on Inouye, believing an Asian male had a better chance. Sound familiar?
“Asian Americans” airs tonight on PBS.
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