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An Episode Guide to ‘Asian Americans’

Storefront of Chinatown meat and vegetable market, San Francisco, California, 1895 | University of Washington, Special Collections, Hester 11128
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As the country becomes even more diverse, how can our differences unite us? Discover the story of Asian Americans, the country’s fastest-growing demographic, through this five-part series spanning 150 years of immigration, racial politics, international relations and cultural innovation.

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.
Part 1: Breaking Ground & A Question of Loyalty

“I think all of us working on the series had a weird feeling of déjà vu, that we were tracing our own family journeys and the times they lived,” says series producer Renee Tajima-Peña, “My family’s been here since the turn of the 20th century, and I’d picture my grandfather arriving in L.A. around the same time as the Ahn’s. Maybe my uncles saw Philip Ahn and Anna May Wong’s movies downtown. I could imagine my mom’s shock as a teenager arriving at the Santa Anita race-track where they were first incarcerated during World War II. And I remember how exciting it was when I was a kid, discovering the Asian American movement art and music for the first time. Whether we were immigrants ourselves or our families went back generations in the U.S, there were so many moments of recognition.”

See how Asian Americans, long excluded or viewed with suspicion, pursued two visions of the American Dream: one of opportunity and a better life, but also the pursuit of ideals of equality and a more perfect union. Their stories are a celebration of the grit and resilience of a people that reflects the experience of all Americans.

Here’s what you can expect from each of the episodes narrated by Daniel Dae Kim and Tamlyn Tomita:

Episode One: Breaking Ground 

Storefront of Chinatown meat and vegetable market, San Francisco, California, 1895 | University of Washington, Special Collections, Hester 11128
Storefront of Chinatown meat and vegetable market, San Francisco, California, 1895 | University of Washington, Special Collections, Hester 11128

In an era of exclusion and U.S. empire, new immigrants arrive from China, India, Japan, the Philippines and beyond. Learn more about the lives of early migrants to the United States of America. Hear how Antero Cabrera, who was taken at 12 years old by anthropologist Albert Ernest Jenks as an interpreter, lived his life as part of an anthropological exhibition at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Understand the hardships of early Chinese migrants as they staked their lives and helped build the transcontinental railroad. Learn more about Joseph and Mary Tape, one of the earliest Chinese American families in San Francisco, and how they fought against the segregation of schools. 

See the rise of anti-Chinese sentiment and how the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 barred the country for other races for the first time in its history. Witness as well how the Asian American community, specifically the Chinese helped define what it means to be an American citizen by taking their fight for equality all the way to the U.S. Supreme court.

Then, travel to New Orleans to learn more about Moksad Ali who came from the Hooghly region of India and eventually settled down with an African American woman in the United States.

In Hollywood, learn how Anna May Wong and Sessue Hayakawa were some of the first Asian Americans to grace the silver screen and examine the complexities of representation in the early days of cinema.

Hear from writers Candy Gourlay, Vivek Bald and Sharmila Sen; historians Nayan Shah, Gordon Chang, Shirley Lim and descendants Connie Young Yu, Mia Abeya, Alisa Kim, Aklemia Dugue’ and Robin Burns.

Episode Two: A Question of Loyalty 

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

An American-born generation straddles their country of birth and their parents’ homelands in Asia. Those loyalties are tested during World War II, when families are imprisoned in detention camps, and brothers find themselves on opposite sides of the battle lines.

Wade into the story of the Uno clan, a Japanese family torn apart by questions of loyalty. As World War II rages on, Japanese American families are separated and lives are torn apart because of mass incarceration. As suspicion falls over anyone with Asian features, the Uno family has its own problems. Its eldest son, Buddy, moves to Japan to pursue his dreams of journalism and eventually finds himself part of the Japanese propaganda machine, while his three brothers enlist to fight this World War as Americans. Learn more about Susan Ahn, the first female gunnery officer in the United States Navy and the eldest daughter of Korean independence activist Ahn Chang-ho and Helen Ahn, the first married Korean couple to emigrate to the United States in 1902. Learn about her brother Philip who played Japanese villains in wartime Hollywood movies.  See how Asian Americans, Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Filipinos answer the call of the nation. Listen to the stories of descendants Satsuki Ina, Tamiko Ishidate, Philip Cuddy and Roberta Uno; writer Brian Niiya and historian Jane Hong.

Episode Three: Good Americans 

Learn more about the first woman of color in Congress, Patsy Mink, in this video
Patsy Mink: The First Woman of Color in the U.S. Congress

During the Cold War years, Asian Americans are simultaneously heralded as a model minority and targeted as a perpetual foreigner. See how Japanese and Chinese Americans slowly overcome adversity to become part of the model minority and the pressures such demands have put on a new generation of immigrants. Learn about Toy Len Goon, voted American Mother of the Year in 1952, the first Asian American to be honored. 

On the other hand, learn more about how Chinese hand laundries, groceries and small businesses have frequently become the only recourse for even the most educated Asian Americans because of rampant discrimination. Imagine the harsh realities for new immigrants to the U.S. as they struggle to live the American dream while navigating the Chinese Exclusion Act, often resorting to falsifying their birth information and living new identities in the United States.

But it is also a time of bold ambition, as Asian Americans aspire for the first time to national political office and a coming culture-quake simmers beneath the surface. Travel to Hawaii, where Asian Americans have become a major political force. See the rise of politicians such as Patsy Mink, Daniel Inouye and Hiram Fong. In Hollywood, catch a glimpse of Bruce Lee’s rising star. 

Hear from celebrity Randall Park; historians Alex Fabros and Erika Lee; journalists Helen Zia and Jeff Chang; playwright David Henry Hwang; filmmaker Amy Chen, politician Tammy Duckworth and descendants Doris Wong, Andrea Louie, Winifred Chin and Wendy Mink.

Episode Four: Generation Rising – May 12, Tuesday, 9 p.m. PT

Larry Itliong | Courtesy of “Asian Americans”
Larry Itliong | Courtesy of “Asian Americans”

During a time of war in Korea and Vietnam, a young generation fights for equality in the fields, on campuses and in the culture and claims a new identity: Asian Americans. The war’s aftermath brings new immigrants and refugees who expand the population and the definition of Asian America.

Learn about Larry Itliong and how the farm labor movement began with Filipino farmworkers. They worked with their Mexican counterparts to start the West Coast equivalent of the civil rights movement brewing on the other side of the country. Step into the shoes of the migrant farmworkers who live grueling lives on the farms with little or no protections afforded to them.

Then, join Asian Americans who are off to the Korean and Vietnam Wars, in a fight that would have them confront their Asian identities. See how Scott Shimabukuro, Mike Nakayama and Lily Lee Adams handle discrimination against Asian Americans during a time of war in the East. 

Step into the San Francisco State University campus where the fight to learn more about Asian cultures finds resonance in the African American communities who are struggling to define their place in American society. Join Dan Gonzales, Penny Nakatsu and Laureen Chew who speak out and work toward creating Ethnic Studies programs on their campus, a movement that would echo across the country. 

Hear from writer Viet Thanh Nguyen, filmmaker Ham Tran, historian Alex Fabros (who worked alongside the Filipino manongs of Delano in his teenage years), descendant Lorraine Agtang, and activists Jan and Brenda Sunoo.

Episode Five: Breaking Through

See how 9/11 changed the experience of South Asians in America in this clip.
Hari Kondabolu Recalls the Perilous Days After 9/11

At the turn of the new millennium, the country tackles conflicts over immigration, race, economic disparity and a shifting world order.  A new generation of Asian Americans are empowered by growing numbers and rising influence, but face a reckoning of what it means to be an American in an increasingly polarized society. 

As Hollywood is finally seeing more Asian Americans on-screen with the likes of Margaret Cho, the United States continues to struggle with interracial tensions. See how Vincent Chin’s death with a baseball bat at the hands of White Americans affected Asian Americans across the country and defined what a hate crime means judicially, as the country grapples with unemployment and the drastic drop in demand for American-made cars. Then, walk the tumultuous streets of 1990s Los Angeles where the Rodney King beating and the killing of Latasha Harlins ignites tensions across racial lines. While in Northern California, see how Silicon Valley was born partially through the efforts of Asian Americans such as Yahoo! founder Jerry Yang. 

Then, as Asian Americans continue with their role in the United States, see how Tereza Lee becomes one of the first DREAMers, and how her dreams of legitimate citizenship were derailed by the tragic events of 9/11. See how 9/11 affected the nation’s perception of brown-skinned men and its double-edged sword for Asian American communities. 

Hear from civil rights leader Mee Moua; writers Viet Thanh Nguyen and Brenda Stevenson; entrepreneur Jerry Yang; lawyer Angela Oh; filmmaker Alex Ko; historian AnnaLee Saxenian; journalists Helen Zia, Jeff Chang and K. Oanh Ha; celebrities Randall Park and Hari Kondabolu.

Top Image: Storefront of Chinatown meat and vegetable market, San Francisco, California, 1895 | University of Washington, Special Collections, Hester 11128

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