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If You Know History, You Know Yourself

An Interview with Renee Tajima-Peña—Series Producer of ASIAN AMERICANS

ASIAN AMERICANS is a five-hour film series that chronicles the contributions, and challenges of Asian Americans, the fastest-growing ethnic group in America. Personal histories and new academic research cast a fresh lens on U.S. history and the role Asian Americans have played in it. The series premiered nationally on PBS in May and can currently be streamed for free at https://www.pbs.org/weta/asian-americans/watch/.

We recently interviewed California Humanities grantee and the series producer, Renee Tajima-Peña, about making ASIAN AMERICANS. Tajima-Peña is Professor of Asian American Studies, Director of the UCLA’s Center for EthnoCommunication, and an Academy Award-nominated documentary filmmaker.

Where did the inspiration for the ASIAN AMERICANS series come from?
Many years ago, Loni Ding made the film “Ancestors in America,” which she intended to be a series on Asian American history. She was never able to complete the whole thing. But many of us on the team were influenced by Loni’s mentorship and friendship, and her seminal films on the Asian American experience. Episode producer Grace Lee and executive producer Don Young had their first jobs on “Ancestors in America.” Duc Nguyen, an archival producer on the series, was taught by her at UC Berkeley. All of these people have been California Humanities grantees and review panelists I think! Loni and other “ancestors” in Asian American scholarship and filmmaking inspired us. The series itself happened because WETA (a public television station in Washington, DC) approached the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) and me about finally making an Asian American series. I say finally, because it’s something many of us have wanted to do, and even tried, ever since “Ancestors in America.” But WETA and CAAM made it a reality.

What do you hope people will take away from the series?
Toni Morrison has said that there is a master narrative, but we (the subjects) didn’t write it. There is a deeply embedded idea that Asian Americans are either the Model Minority or the perpetual foreigner. We wanted to tell the American story from an Asian American point of view.

For example, what does the American Dream mean? The conventional view is the dream of economic opportunity and a better life for yourself and your family. But there is another side of the American Dream—the pursuit of justice and equality. If the arc of the moral universe bends towards justice, we wanted to follow the trajectory of Asian Americans on that journey.

From the earliest eras of migration to America there are people like Wong Kim Ark, a San Francisco-born restaurant worker in the late 1800s who was denied re-entry to his home, the U.S. He took his case to the highest court in the land, the U.S. Supreme Court, and won the precedent for birthright citizenship. That’s how my parents became citizens, despite the fact that they were born to Japanese immigrants who were considered “aliens ineligible for citizenship.” Babies are being born right now to immigrants, documented or undocumented, and they are U.S. citizens because of Wong Kim Ark.

Here in California, Filipino Americans such as Larry Itliong were a driving force in the farm labor movement. They launched the Grape Strike and convinced Cesar Chavez to unite Mexican and Filipino workers in the movement. A few years later, Asian American students were part of the San Francisco State College strike that resulted in the first school of ethnic studies. We wanted to look at the role that Asian Americans have played in tipping points in the larger American story.

What is the importance of telling a story like this right now?
One thing we did in the series is look at the fault lines of race, immigration, and xenophobia in the U.S. At times of crisis those fault lines erupt. For Asian Americans it happened after Pearl Harbor when Japanese Americans were rounded up and incarcerated. During the Cold War, Chinese Americans were swept up by Red Scare investigations and harassment. Hari Kondabolu, a comedian who also happens to have a masters degree in human rights from the London School of Economics remembers being a student during 9/11. He was born and raised in Queens, New York and as a South Asian, he remembers getting it from both sides. On the one hand, he was as scared of terrorism as anyone else in the country. On the other hand, he felt like his own country hated him.

Right now Asian Americans are getting it from both sides. We’re all afraid of getting sick. But at the same time, some of our fellow Americans see us as the virus.

History helps us understand what we’re living through today. I’m not talking about re-narrating a cycle of grievances, but understanding the roots of anti-Asian hate, how it is tied to racism against other people of color and looking to models of solidarity in the past to think about ways to move forward together in the future.

As a filmmaker and Professor of Asian American Studies at UCLA, what role did scholarship play in producing the series?
ASIAN AMERICANS is built upon the work of Asian American scholars, and we had their guidance all along the way. From the beginning, our lead scholar David K. Yoo and our advisors urged us to think beyond conventional narratives of Asian migration and settlement and look at how empire and race shaped Asian America. We also drew from the seminal research of scholars of Asian American history, such as Gordon H. Chang’s research on the Chinese railroad workers, Vivek Bald’s “Bengali Harlem,” and the big picture analysis of such texts as Erika Lee’s “The Making of Asian America.”

At the same time, as filmmakers we don’t believe that history has to be told from above. We wanted to hear from people who shaped or witnessed the history, and descendants who have learned these stories passed down through generations. A good example is the story of Antero Cabrera, a young boy from the Bontoc region of the Philippines, who was one of the over 1,000 Filipinos brought to the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair to be displayed in an anthropological exhibit. Basically, a human zoo. His granddaughter Mia Abeya, along with the historian Nayan Shah, made clear Antero’s agency in finding a way to challenge a profoundly demeaning and racist experience by carving his own future.

Why do you think documentary film is an effective way of telling history?
Documentary is effective at telling emotional stories and humanizing history. It doesn’t have the same theoretical rigor and depth of an academic text, that’s not our audience, and it’s not realistic given the limitations of the medium. When we talk about a television hour, it’s really around 52 to 57 minutes of time to pack in content. It’s visual storytelling, and we think about character development, story and conflict, dramatic arc, sound design, and the like.

We were lucky that our advisors understood the difference between communicating knowledge in a TV show versus an academic text. Not all academics do understand that difference and they sometimes find films frustrating. But I believe there are multiple entry points into history. If personal stories can get a viewer interested in thinking critically about broader themes or exploring a moment or a movement in greater depth, documentary can also be a conduit to other platforms for knowledge.

What are two or three specific stories from the series that particularly resonate with you?
So much of the narrative of Asian Americans in relation to other people of color focuses on tension and conflict. And in truth, a lot of tension and conflict exists. But there has always been solidarity, and a shared history along the fault lines of race and representation. I think those stories from the series are really important because, in the end, we want to look at this history to figure out how we move forward in the current moment and in the future.

One story of Moksad Ali and Ella Blackman really captures how these fault lines shape our daily lives. Moksad was a Muslim South Asian silk trader who arrived in the late 1800s. ­­Like other Asian immigrants, he faced segregation and anti-miscegenation laws. But he settled in New Orleans, and married an African American woman from the Treme, Ella Blackman, and they started a multi-racial family in an era of anti-Asian exclusion and Jim Crow. The scholar/filmmaker Vivek Bald has been researching the family and took the episode producer Leo Chiang to film Ella and Moksad’s descendants.

Another is the story of the birth of the first school of ethnic studies at San Francisco State College in 1969, which Grace Lee produced. The strike was launched by African Americans, and Asian American and other students were galvanized by their call for change at the university. The story is told through the eyes of young people like Dan Gonzales and Laureen Chew, who had arrived at SF State a sheltered Chinatown kid but was transformed by the strike. It was a time when young Asian Americans were beginning to learn about how the movement for black equality had shaped their own lives, and opened doors to their own freedoms. Both Laureen and Dan eventually became faculty of ethnic studies at SFSU and have passed that ethos down to new generations.

In the same episode, Grace filmed right across the bay from San Francisco State College at San Quentin prison. Asian American studies is taught in the ROOTS – Restoring Our Original True Selves program. Their graduation is really emotional and sums up what the series itself meant for all of us, just like the ROOTS motto: “If you know history, you know yourself.”

ASIAN AMERICANS was supported by California Humanities through the California Documentary Project grant program.

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