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Watch 150 Years of Asian American History Unfold in This New Documentary

The five-part PBS series chronicles the community’s story through archival footage, interviews

During World War II, the United States government incarcerated some 120,000 Japanese Americans, including the Uno family spotlighted in the documentary series. (PBS)
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Now through June, viewers can watch the landmark documentary series “Asian Americans” for free. Available to stream via PBS’ website, the five-part series premiered this week in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

Producer Renee Tajima-Peña, whose previous credits include documentaries No Más Bebés and Who Killed Vincent Chin?, collaborated with a team of other Asian American filmmakers to bring the show to life. As Tajima-Peña tells NBC News’ Agnes Constante, “Asian Americans” is the first documentary series about the community to air on commercial television.

Per a PBS statement, the series begins with the arrival of the country’s first wave of Asian immigrants in the 1850s and continues through modern times, exploring such issues as “identity politics during the social and cultural turmoil” of the 20th century and ongoing refugee crises.

In the series’ five chapters, filmmakers weave together archival footage, photos, interviews and expert commentary. Spanning the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad, the United States’ incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II, the work of student activists in 1968 and the role of Asian Americans in Silicon Valley, the documentary covers significant historical ground. Interviewees include author Viet Thanh Nguyen, comedian Hari Kondabolu, actor Randall Park, professor Laureen Chew and many others.

“Asian Americans” shows how its subjects have profoundly shaped their country’s history—contributions that are rarely taught in schools, as Jen Yamato points out for the Los Angeles Times.

The series takes a “people-centered and character-driven” approach to history, writes Marina Fang for the Huffington Post. Viewers learn the stories of Bhagat Singh Thind, an immigrant from Punjab, India, who went to the Supreme Court to defend his right to citizenship in the 1920s; Patsy Mink, a senator from Hawaii and the first Asian American woman to serve in Congress; and Hollywood film star Anna May Wong, among others.

San Francisco Chinatown market
San Francisco Chinatown meat and vegetable market storefront, as seen in 1895 (Courtesy of the University of Washington, Special Collections, via PBS)

“These are American stories: stories of resilience in the face of racism, of overcoming challenges as refugees from war and strife, of making contributions in all sectors of society: business, technology, military service, and the arts,” says Stephen Gong, executive director of the Center for Asian American Media, in the statement. “These Asian American experiences and voices provide a vital foundation for a future fast approaching, in which no single ethnic or racial group defines America, in which shared principles will define who we are as Americans.”

Actors Daniel Dae Kim (of “Lost” and “Hawaii Five-0” fame) and Tamlyn Tomita (known for The Day After Tomorrow, “The Good Doctor” and “The Man in the High Castle”) narrate the documentary.

“For Asian Americans, I would hope that we can see that we belong here as much as anyone else, and that we can take pride in our contributions to this country’s history,” Kim tells Brandon Yu of the New York Times.

The series arrives at a moment when Asian Americans are facing a surge in physical and verbal attacks “simply because they remind their attackers of a dangerous virus, a biological entity incapable of distinguishing the race or ethnicity of its host,” wrote Katherine J. Wu for Smithsonian magazine in April. Following COVID-19’s initial identification in Wuhan, China, Asian Americans throughout the country have reported a rising number of racist attacks, some of them life-threatening. Incidents cited by Time magazine’s Andrew R. Chow include the stabbing of a family of three outside of a store in Midland, Texas, and a woman who had acid thrown in her face while she was taking out the trash in Brooklyn.

Sikh patriots
Sikh patriots (Courtesy of Corky Lee / PBS)

As Chow notes, “Asian Americans” illuminates the historical roots of contemporary hate crimes. The series documents a long, fraught struggle by Asian Americans to overcome discrimination and violence: During the 18th century, mobs committed mass murder of Chinese immigrants on the West Coast; after the 9/11 attacks, many South Asians faced racism in their own country.

The show’s second episode details the story of the Uno family—Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II in what some today describe as “American concentration camps.” Over the course of the conflict, the United States government forced around 120,000 Japanese Americans into these so-called “relocation centers.”

“You see these fault lines of racism and xenophobia in relation to immigrants that have always been there,” Tajima-Peña tells Chow. “In times of crisis, they erupt. They erupted during World War II; they erupted after 9/11. And they’re erupting now.”

About Nora McGreevy

Nora McGreevy is a freelance journalist based in South Bend, Indiana. Her work has appeared in Wired, Washingtonian, the Boston Globe, South Bend Tribune, the New York Times and more. She can be reached through her website, noramcgreevy.com.

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