Ancestors in the Americas

Series Overview

Ancestors in America is designed as the first major television series to offer the general public an in-depth historical understanding of one of the fastest growing -- and least known groups of immigrants in the U.S.-- Asian Americans. We take as our point of departure, that the diversity of Asian groups in America - Chinese, Filipinos, Koreans, Japanese, Asian Indians, and Southeast Asians - all have fundamental historical experiences in common, both in Asia and in America.

To launch Ancestors we start with a 3 part series focusing on the Chinese as the first large Asian immigrant subgroup to settle in the United States.

Program 1: Coolies, Sailors, Settlers:Voyage to the New World (completed)

Program 2: Chinese in the Frontier West:An American Story

Program 3: Crossing the Continent; Crossing the Pacific

Designed as an open ended 3-part series, additional programs which foreground the other Asian American groups, also within a comparative Asian American perspective, will be produced as funding and support becomes available. A comparative perspective underlies the series as a whole with a variety of questions posed, all of which begin with the fateful fact that Asian Americans were distinctively both immigrant and a racial minority:

As immigrants, can the experiences of Asian immigrants be considered just a variant on those of Euro-immigrants? (i.e., do Asian American immigrants follow the familiar formula of initial hardship and social discrimination, yielding to acceptance/assimilation within a lifetime, generation or two, and ultimately, mobility , earned success, and integration as Americans?

At the same time as a racial minority, how are we to understand who Asians are as compared to other racial minorities ?
If the dominant Black /White racial paradigm is applied (as is done all the time), are Asians to be positioned Black or White - a shade of White...a shade of Black... neither? Historically speaking, what has been their institutional experience and assigned identity?

Historically speaking, what is the meaning of "model minority"? And how have Asians - collectively and individually - dealt with such issues in their work, their political strategies, internal community discourse, and subjective consciousness?

HISTORICAL APPROACHES: Asian American history presented as quintessential American history; and Asian American history as a prism for examining American history.

The series fuses two basic approaches for understanding the history of Chinese Americans in the United States: the familiar, more conventional approach is to place them within the central story of American history - showing the ways Asian Americans also participated in, and "contributed" to, or are adjuncts to the master narrative. i.e., all the ways that Asian American history is quintessentially American history.

In the light of the fundamental legal precedents they pursued in the more than 170 U.S. Supreme court cases alone, it is clear how Asian American history becomes American history in this sense.

The other approach seeks to use Asian American history as a critical stance, as a prism for interrogating and examining American history itself, to see it anew. For example, from the Asian American experience how do we look at the idea of America as a :"melting pot" for immigrants?

Distinctiveness of Asian Immigrants as Compared to Other Immigrants

The argument is: Chinese immigrants need to be seen as fundamentally different from the Europeans who poured into Ellis Island because they were the first major immigrant group appearing on the American scene who were non-white. Their presence raised questions for a developing nation never yet posed.

Their significance was further magnified by the fact that the Chinese immediately occupied a strategic economic position by virtue of their crucial labor in the development of the American West: their undeniable sheer demographic presence in the western states (one fourth of 1850s California Gold Miners, one third of the population of 1860s Idaho), combined with their strategic economic function (75% of California's agricultural labor force, 90% of the Central Pacific building of Transcontinental).

It meant that the central questions raised by their presence- "white versus non-white", "Christian" versus "Heathen," "free labor" versus "coolie, slave labor", "Organized labor" versus "rapacious Capital" and "foreigner" versus "white native" - could reach crises proportions.

Asian Minorities as Compared to Other Minorities

A further major ramification of the Asian American immigrant racially is that no other major racial minorities of 19th c. America were immigrant in origin. Native Americans, of course, were not immigrant; African Americans had been enslaved and forcibly imported; and Mexicans were already present in American Southwest, only later becoming "immigrants" by virtue of having their national boundary redefined by American conquest in 1848. Accordingly, for example, when California tax collectors attempted to collect the "foreign miner's" tax, whereas the Chinese would pay, Mexican gold miners adamantly refused and slipped back over the border, asserting - not unreasonably - "We are not foreigners."

To the extent also that the Chinese sought to stay as possible settlers and not merely as temporary sojourners, they raised the ante on how America would have to define who could or would be considered an American: what rights and exclusions, what kinds of participation- social, political or economic- would be allowed, restricted or prohibited.

The distinctiveness of the Chinese as combined immigrants and racial minorities posed an major national challenge in which Asians would find themselves repeatedly at the center of some pivotal historical episodes by which America was evolving its institutions and definitions regarding race, class, and nationality.

Far from being a marginal sidebar the Asian American experience becomes central to aspects of the American story. Examining the lives of the early Chinese Americans raises in the most fundamental way, the central question of who or what an American was, and is still presumed to be. It relates to the question of whether American identity is viewed as something primarily unchanging or it is primarily evolving.

Asians as Perpetual Foreigners and "Unassimilable" Aliens

The centuries-long presence of Asians in the Americas and specifically in the United States is not common public knowledge. To some extent we are working against the grain.

Who would guess, for example, Filipino sailors jumping ship from the 17th century Acapulco -Manila trade and creating fishing villages in the Louisiana Bayou in the 1760s- Cajun Manilamen -predating even the founding of the American Republic; or Chinese and Asian Indian sailors on the crews of the Pacific/Atlantic sea routes, settling into the Port cities of the American East coast as early as 1800s, intermarrying Asian Indians with African Americans in Philadelphia, and Chinese men with Irish women in New York?

Yet all of these East and Gulf coast developments happened well before the better known histories of California's Gold mining/railroad building Chinese immigrants coming to the American West in the 1850s to 70s. Chinese immigrants were indeed the critical laborers who created the infrastructure of roads, canals, swamp drainage, landfills for the frontier western states, and pioneered as well the fishing industry and crop diversification of California, etc.

During this same time Chinese immigrants had organized remarkably efficient networks of information and kinship support, supply systems, and planted settlements in America with groves of trees and temples which became the sites of their "homes", capable of sustaining cultural continuity, generation upon generation, even within a 27: 1 gender ratio, making it overwhelmingly a "bachelor society".

At the same time all of the foregoing was achieved while living in the midst of unprecedented immigration exclusion laws, widespread harassment, continuous discrimination, arbitrary, inexplicable and often violent expulsions.

The organized Chinese community never ceased in trying to assuage or overcome these vexations in their lives by: accommodating, outwitting, outlasting, circumventing, resisting, and/or pooling their money to mount class action suits to confront inequality and seek justice at all levels of the American legal system. And when they won some US Supreme court cases reaffirming the 14th Amendment "equality before the law" (Yick Wo Vs. Hopkins, 1886), or the fundamental "right to citizenship by right of birth" (In re: Look Tin Sing, 1884, and Wong Kim Ark, 1898), they had won it not only for themselves, but achieved it for all persons in this country.

Without valorizing unduly we are late in seeking to set this record straight, countering long entrenched and destructive misconceptions of the early Chinese immigrant as passive/stoical in philosophy and personal behavior, unknowledgeable about American institutions, uninterested, and uninvolved. The members of the Asian American communities, no less than the general public have had little exposure to this kind of "invisible" historical record.

Given their long historical presence and many sites in diverse regions of America - south, east and west- that they called home, it is remarkable that there should persist the tendency to treat Asian Americans as "foreigners"( "you speak such good English..."), or as "unassimilable aliens"- "Why do they have to have foreign signs, Chinatowns and Koreatowns. Why can't they just be Americans, like anybody else.."?

The question is begged of how does "being American" look and sound? How would you know when you've seen one?

Comparisons Among Asian American Groups

In looking comparatively among the Asian American communities certain historical events are natural sites of comparison. For example, looking at the W.W.II period and the experiences of Asian Americans how should we understand the political and identity issues of Chinese Americans perceived as "America's Valiant wartime Ally," as compared to the forced relocation and internment suffered by Japanese Americans seen as "America's Sneaky Enemy"? Were their separate experiences fundamentally different, or might we better analyze and understand them as opposite sides of the same coin?

Stereotyped as groups who are "nose- to- the grindstone" workaholics indifferent to politics, how will the series explore the significance of historical episodes of the nationalistic fervor of some Asians in America: For example, it notes the "patriotism" of Chinese Americans rallying to the cause of Revolution against the Monarchy in 1900s China, and then in the 1930’s, Chinese Americans learning to be pilots for the biplanes they purchased in China’s defense against war bent imperial Japan.

We view this Chinese American activism side by side with the activism of passionate Korean American nationalists in 1920s America fundraising and mobilizing to act against Japan's occupation of their Korean homeland; and with Sikh farmers in the California valley putting aside their hoes to form the Ghadar Party in San Francisco, and speeding "homeward" to armed struggle -and certain martyrdom - against the British in "their" India.

Why did all these surging nationalist impulses find their origins and homebase in America? At the same time why have the last three major involvements of America in wars - W.W.II, Korea, Vietnam - all been in Asia? What is the meaning of the "special bond" that Asians have, or are assumed to have, or are pressured to have, to their ancestral countries?

The Perspective of a Global and Transnational approach

The following conclusion has been realized in creating this series: American history must be examined as something not confined to national borders, but must adopt a global, transnational perspective.

In Program #1, for example, when project advisor, Professor Gary Okihiro thematically asserts that "Asia was always on the Western mind," he allows us to span globally from Columbus launching himself upon the ocean, searching for the "riches of Cathay"... to Lewis and Clark in the American northwest 300 years later, still looking for a fast route to Asia seeking the wealth for America of global trade in Indian textiles, spices and Chinese porcelains/silk/tea... to Asian sailors as the first settlers in America by arriving on Spanish galleons in the New World along with their Asian goods.

When African slaves were outlawed in the British Empire in the 1830s, we see that the same slave traders then went to China and India to recruit/kidnap "coolies" to replace Black slaves who had been working the remote sugar/cotton plantations and guano pits of the New World, oceans away from home.

Voyaging by different ships and different routes both Chinese and Indian coolies arrive in South America and the Caribbean; they met in the plantations and mines of the Guianas, Trinidad and Jamaica.

Almost a half million Asian Indians
were shipped to the South America/
West Indies within a short 30 year period (sugar, cotton)...a quarter million Chinese to Cuba, and 100,000 Chinese to Peru (Guano fertilizer, Cotton, railroads).

In the light of the bitterness of how these two Asian groups experienced the system of indentured labor, which historian, Hugh Tinker simply called, the "new system of slavery".- how, again, shall we judge where yellow stands between white and black? More black than white; more white than black... Does this paradigm make sense at all ?

In terms of a global perspective on Asian American immigration, we see how the descendants of coolies and mariners ultimately reach into North America when they re-migrate from Central America/South America and the Caribbean northward to the gulf states and to the Atlantic coast cities (e.g., Filipinos in Louisiana, Indians in Miami/Philadelphia, Chinese Cubans/Dominicans/Panamanians,etc. in Manhattan, Indo-Guyanese in Queens).

We then come to understand the global dynamics that generated the diverse ways by which the very earliest of Asian voyagers - Chinese, Filipinos and Asian Indians - as well as how their descendants came to be part of the American landscape in the 18th,19th century and 20th century. In this new millennium, how shall we understand the implications of who Asians are in the Americas now?

Within the same global perspective Okihiro also lays out for us the lineage of America 's role in the world scene, in which Asia became the ever advancing outermost edge of America's still expanding western frontier: that the 19th c. impulse toward Manifest Destiny is found in the U.S. in the Philippines, Korea, Vietnam, and other potential involvements in Asia - political and economic - to this day.


The filmic format of Ancestors in America is an experimental stretching of the documentary genre in order to expressively represent a remote and relatively inaccessible past.

The series pursues a filmic approach called documemoir: on one hand meticulously researching and faithfully replicating/representing the historical record and the analyses of scholars, and on the other hand, taking expressive liberties, conjuring up first person voices, when faced with granite silence.

In show #1, for example, we created a "time traveler narrator" as a key voice, in order to give narrative film structure to "memories as remembered history." We search out the shards of period material culture such as found in archaeological artifacts, historical sites and buildings, institutional documents, newspapers,household goods, clothing, personal mementos, etc.

We also interweave the imagination and interpretations in the visual renderings, songs, folklore, cultural rituals,and the literary writings of artists who are telling /performing their "vision" of history.


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