PBS ‘Asian Americans’ Episode 3: ‘Good Americans’

The Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival Virtual Showcase kicks off today with a world premiere of two episodes from the upcoming PBS Documentary Series“Asian Americans,” Episodes 3 and 4, “Good Americans” and “Generation Rising,” respectively. Both episodes will be available from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. PT  in the LAAPFF Virtual Showcase for personal viewing.

At 5 p.m. PT (8 p.m. ET), there will be a special online Q&A with the filmmakers to discuss the film and current issues with series producer Renee Tajima-Peña and episode producers S. Leo Chiang (Episode 3) and Grace Lee (Episode 4). The PBS five-part series will stream on May 11 and 12 (check local listings).

Narrated by Daniel Jae Kim, “Good Americans” looks at the “model minority” stereotype, beginning in the post-World War II.

Political activist and journalist Helen Zia remembers that there were so few Asian Americans on television that when one was, it was an Asian American sighting event. The television show “Bonanza” (1959-1973) had cook, Hop Sing (Victor Sen Yang).  “Bonanza” was a western set in Virginia City, Nevada, starring Lorne Green, Pernell Roberts (who left the series in 1965), Dan Blocker and Michael Landon as the wealthy and upstanding Cartwright family in a post-Civil War West.

Comedian and actor Randall Park (“Fresh Off the Boat”) remembers, “You think of yourself as a Cartwright and you grow up and your realize everyone sees you as a Hop Sing.”

Zia, born and raised in New Jersey–the only Asian family in the third Levittown (the first two were all white), but eventually moved to Detroit, at one time working in the auto industry where she was at the time of Vincent Chin’s murder in 1982, an incident covered in Episode 5. Growing up, Zia remembers how Asian and Asian American women were portrayed as “compliant, passive women whose only purpose in life was to please a man.” She rejected that stereotype, but wondered, if she couldn’t be that, then “where do I really belong?”

You might be surprised to learn that in 1952, Toy Len Goon, a Chinese-born widow of a World War I vet and mother of eight children was selected to be Maine’s Mother of the Year after being nominated by Clara L. Soule, a former elementary school supervisor and director of reading at Portland Public School. Her husband Dogan Goon died in 1941, leaving her with children who were 3 to 16. Her family in many ways represented the model minority success story.

The episode characterizes the 1950s as a “decade of conformity and contradiction” where there were “enemies outside and enemies within,” most notably, Communism.

An black and white archival news reel shows the famed 442nd combat team returning and the narration explains, “Americanism is not and never was a matter of race or ethnicity; Americanism is a matter of the mind and heart.”

Besides the Japanese American soldiers of the 442nd, there were other Asian American soldiers, such as the Filipinos, including Alex Fabros’ father. The end of World War II also brought a generation of war brides.

Historically, Mao Zedong, chairman of the Communist Party of China defeated the Chiang Kai-shek led Nationalist government which fled to Taiwan. The Korean War between the Communist China and Soviet Union supported North Korea and the US and United Nations supported South Korea began in 1950 (ending in 1953).  Communists (and homosexuals) were seen as enemies of US democracy and the Chinese American communities came under intense FBI scrutiny.

The Chinese Daily News, which was originally begun as a newsletter for the New York Chinese Hand Laundry Alliance, came under criticism. Printed in Chinese, the newspaper included news of China as well as things like poetry.

The daughter of poet Lai Bing Chen who had entered the US as a paper son named Tung Pok Chin remembers, “We were proud that he (Mao) kicked out all the Westerners because we got our land back” but “it did not make us communists.”  Yet subscribers to the newspaper were all under suspicion, particularly because most of its subscribers and most Chinese Americans sent money back to China before and after its fall to Mao. Under the Red Scare, such remittances were considered trading with the enemy.  The newspaper’s editor Eugene Moy was convicted and sent to prison for one year.

The Paper Son practice came under scrutiny, giving rise to the Chinese Confession Program, run by the Immigration and Naturalization Service (1956-1965). The Paper Sons was a reaction to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act (covered more fully in Episode 1) which was only partially repealed with the Magnuson Act of 1943 when China was a World War II ally.

Despite what Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang characterizes as “terrorism” towards Chinese Americans, the 1950s also marked the rise of Asian Americans as a political force when Hawaii became the 50th state in 1959. The documentary characterizes Hawaii as being under rule of white Americans (haoles), a haole aristocracy, generations of Asian Americans working together brought about  strikes and a political revolution where for the first time Asian Americans had “a decisive voice.”

From an Asian American point of view, Hawaii becoming a state was a victory, but for the Native Hawaiians, it meant a failure to “return to the state of independence.” Hawaii had been a sovereign nation.

While the first Asian American in Congress was Indian American Sikh Dalip Saund (1899-1973) from California who served 1957-1963, Hawaii became a source of Asian American in both the House and the Senate, including decorated World War II veteran Daniel Inouye (1924-2012), a Democrat who served in the House (1959-1963) and the moved to the Senate (1963-2012).  Hiram Fong (1906-2004), another World War II vet,  was a Republican in the Senate (1959-1977). Spark Matsunaga (1916-1990) served in the House (1963-1977) and also moved to the Senate (1977-1990). Hawaii not only had a majority Asian American delegation, but also had the first woman of color, Patsy Mink (1927-2002) who entered the House (1965-1977) when there were only 11 women in Congress.

The episode ends with the 1965 Hart-Celler Act (Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965) which removed the discrimination against Southern and Easter Europeans, Asians and other non-Northwestern European ethnic groups from the US immigration policy, and the rise of Chinese American Bruce Lee (1940-1973) who was, according to writer Jeff Chang, “somebody who embodies the power we know we are capable of.” Lee’s 1971 “The Big Boss” and 1972 “Fist of Fury” bring us into the 1970s.

The documentary series uses historians and person commentary from the same people throughout the five episodes, however, it tends to identify its featured speakers in general terms. Featured historians include Jane Hong, Erika Lee, Nayan Shah  and Alex Faros.

Hong is an assistant professor of history at Occidental College, specializing in 20th-century US immigration and engagement with the world, focusing on Asia. She wrote the 2019 “Opening the Gates to Asia: A Transpacific History of How America Repealed Asian Exclusion.”

Erika Lee is the Director of the Immigration History Research Center, Regents Professor, Distinguished McKnight University Professor, and the Rudolph J. Vecoli Chair in Immigration History at the University of Minnesota. In 2015, she published “The Making of Asian America: A History,” the 2003 “At America’s Gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943,”  and co-authored (with Judy Tung of Oxford University) the 2010 “Angel Island: Immigrate Gateway to America.”

Nayan Shah is a professor of American Studies and Ethnicity and History at the University of Southern California. Shah wrote “Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality and the Law in the North American West” (University of California Press, 2011) and “Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown” (University of California Press, 2001).

In other cases, the PBS documentary, “Asian Americans,” seems to assume that viewers will know who certain people are such as Amy Chen, David Henry Hwang and Jeff Chang.

Director of the 2001 documentary “Chinatown Files,” Amy Chen is also featured. Chen’s documentary looks at how the McCarthy era witch hunts targeted over ten thousand Chinese Americans as an alleged risk to national security, presenting first-hand accounts of several people’s experiences.

Jeff Chang who was born and raised in Hawaii, was a student organizer at UC Berkeley and a music critic of the early hip hop music scene. He wrote the 2014 “Who We Be: A Cultural History of Race in Post-Civil Rights America” and the 2016 “We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation.”

David Henry Hwang, a theater professor at Columbia University, was the first Asian American to win a Tony Award (for “M. Butterfly”).

The LAAPFF Virtual Showcase is a digital showcase of films and panels to unite with audiences during this unprecedented time of the COVID-19 Pandemic and the current wave of increasing violence and anti-Asian racism. The event begins this Friday, May 1st and will run through May 29 as part of the Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

The LAAPFF was slated to launch its 36th edition on April 30th, 2020 in theaters in Los Angeles until local and state health authorities COVID-19 advised against large gatherings. As a result,  Visual Communications, presenter of LAAPFF, postponed  physical, in-theater screening events and developed an online virtual experience, enabling the landmark festival to reach a national audience and all communities.

PBS will premiere the five-part series on May 11 and 12. Episodes 1 (“Breaking Ground”) and 2 (“A Question of Loyalty”) air on May 11 at 8 p.m. (Check local listings). Episodes, 3, 4 and 5 (“Breaking Through”)  air on May 12 at 8 p.m.


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