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Becoming American: The Chinese Experience

Becoming American: The Chinese Experience

On DVD: 
Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Bonus Features:

Bonus Program: Personal Journeys with Bill Moyers, 16 page Viewers Guide, Biography of Bill Moyers, Internet link

Growing up I was told, when relating my opinion that history class was a waste of my time, that we need to become educated in history so that future generations do not repeat the mistakes of our past. Boy was my history teacher wrong, all of them.

Becoming American: The Chinese Experience is a three part series from Bill Moyer that begins, well, at the beginning. Americans, who had never seen a Chinese person before, could come to the Barnum and Bailey Circus and pay to see a Chinese Family as part of the Freak Show tent. No tricks or spectacles, just a Chinese family sitting around being viewed.

Later the Chinese began to come to America on their own. They had come to work and send money back home to their families so that they could one day return to their country wealthier. When the gold rush hit in California all men and women saw this as an opportunity to seek great fortune and word from the Chinese in America flew back to China inciting a mass migration. Though the Chinese had been welcomed before to the hard labor jobs, American’s were reluctant to allow them a shot at fortune, and things really got ugly leading to murder and intimidations of all sorts.

As time went on the Chinese became outcasts, allowed only to work as farmers or house servants. The anti-Chinese movement even lobbied the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1884. The bill was to stop Chinese immigration for a span of ten years, but the bill outlasted it’s purpose carrying on as a tool for hate groups and crooked politicians all the way into 1943 when it was finally written off.

As I watched this program I couldn’t help but think of immigration reform now. It’s impossible not to. The Chinese were allowed to be in this country “illegally” (as per the Chinese Exclusion Act) as long as they helped build America. Railroads, agriculture, house servants, and at a fraction of what what legal help would have cost. They were tolerated, but not loved. They were hired on as cheap labor by crooked businessmen who escaped blame when Americans became outraged because it was easier to blame a disliked people for taking jobs when it would have been easier to blame a corrupt businessman who hired people, who by law, were not even allowed to be in the country. Sounds awfully familiar.

I’m just brushing the surface of what this program was about, this reference coming only from the first program, but it’s still extremely sad that we are repeating the almost exact same behaviors with our version of immigration reform as our ancestors. It’s simply eerie how similar it is.

Later we meet Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American film star who starred in over 50 films, appeared on stage, on the radio and saw her career span through the silent era into sound, black and white into Technicolor. She was the most popular and widely know Chinese American actress who was unable to grasp a leading role because the majority of actors who would have starred opposite her were whites who were made to look Asian and intimacy between the two races was prohibited. She would later proclaim herself to be the woman who died a thousand deaths, being trapped inside of the same role as the rejected woman whose man would eventually run to his leading lady. Though she represented herself and her culture by succeeding two major hurdles; 1. Being a Chinese American and 2. Being a woman, later in life when she attempted to return to China she was all but ousted by the Chinese for the roles she took during her career. A sad revelation to a lifetime of struggle for her art.

Though I usually go into documentaries with an edge of anticipation at expanding my mind with other cultures and being able to see things I may never see in my life, I do admit I also feel a sense of anxiety. Is this going to be good? Is this going to be boring? I hope it’s not just a dry educational tool better suited for students in grade school. There’s always that lingering sense of laziness where I just don’t want to watch a documentary about history. Fortunately I’m pretty well acquainted with the Bill Moyers, having covered several of his releases, and I was instantly captivated by this program. It’s dated but sadly timeless and current. Though I would have hoped to see that we, as a people, would have grown up and learned our lessons, today it’s more clear then ever, history class is a waste of time.

AJ Garcia
Review by AJ Garcia
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