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LAAPFF Virtual Showcase: Recap of Good Americans, episode 3 of PBS documentary on Asians

Screen capture from PBS preview video of upcoming series Asian Americans

During the COVID-19 pandemic and amid a current wave of increasing violence and anti-Asian racism, the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival Virtual Showcase hopes to unite with audiences through a digital showcase running throughout the month of May, which is Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month.

The launch was originally meant to happen at an in-person gathering in Los Angeles on April 30, but was moved online due to health advisories against large gatherings.

Instead, LAAPFF kicked off today with a world premiere of the third and fourth episodes from the upcoming PBS documentary series Asian Americans, Good Americans and Generation Rising. Both are available for personal viewing on May 1 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. PT in the LAAPFF Virtual Showcase.

This serves as a sneak preview of the five-part series, which will stream on PBS on May 11 and 12. At 5 p.m. PT (8 p.m. ET), LAAPFF will hold a special online Q&A discussing the film and current issues with series producer Renee Tajima-Peña and episode producers S. Leo Chiang (Episode 3) and Grace Lee (Episode 4). 

Asian Americans uses commentary from historians and other people, often identified in general terms, throughout all five episodes. Featured historians include Jane Hong from Occidental College, Erika Lee from the University of Minnesota and Nayan Shah from the University of Southern California.

In other cases, the PBS series seems to assume that viewers will know who certain people are, including Amy Chen, the director of Chinatown Files, a documentary that explored McCarthy era witch hunts of Chinese Americans. Jeff Chang, a music critic and historian, is also shown, as well as David Henry Hwang, the first Asian American to win a Tony Award.

If you’re not able to catch the early preview through LAAPFF, here’s an overview of episode three, Good Americans, which is narrated by Daniel Dae Kim.


The episode looks at the “model minority” stereotype, beginning in the post-World War II era.

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.

Zia was 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 the final episode of the series. 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 a nomination from Clara L. Soule, a former elementary school supervisor and director of reading at Portland Public School. Goon’s husband Dogan died in 1941, leaving her with children who were 3 to 16. Her family in many ways represented the model minority success story.

Good Americans characterizes the 1950s as a “decade of conformity and contradiction” where there were “enemies outside and enemies within,” most notably in the form of communism.

A black and white archival news reel shows the famed 442nd combat team returning while 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).  Along with homosexuals, communists were seen as enemies of US democracy, and the Chinese American communities came under intense FBI scrutiny.

The Chinese Daily News, which was originally began 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). Paper sons were 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 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 one Asian American point of view, Hawaii becoming a state was a victory. But for 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 Americans 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.

Good Americans 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 Chang, “somebody who embodies the power we know we are capable of.” Lee’s 1971 The Big Boss and 1972 Fist of Fury bring viewers into the 1970s.


The first and second episodes (Breaking Ground, A Question of Loyalty) of Asian Americans will air on PBS on May 11 at 8 p.m. The next three episodes will air on May 12 at 8 p.m. Watch a series preview below:

PBS preview video of Asian Americans via KQED YouTube

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