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Asian Americans Break Through in final episode of PBS documentary tonight

Hari Kondabolu

The last episode of the PBS Asian Americans is about Breaking Through and where we are today, although so much can be added now with the swell of COVID-19 related events. Breaking Through airs today, 12 May 2020 on PBS and is available to stream after. Check local listings.

At the beginning stand-up comedian Hari Kandabolu reminds viewers that it is predicted that White people will be the minority in a couple of decades. The last episode, Generation Rising, looked at Asian Americans as activists in the Delano Grape Strike and with others in the Third World Liberation Front striving to start Asian American studies programs. Viet Thanh Nguyen noted that the Vietnam War was portrayed through White protagonists in movies.

In Breaking Through, three events and a technological revolution are considered as they affected Asian Americans: Vincent Chin’s murder, the LA Riots of 1992, 9/11 and the rise of Silicon Valley.

Chin’s 1982 murder pushed Helen Zia and Mee Moua to become more vocal about the situation in Detroit. With the American auto industry under pressure as more people were turning to buy fuel efficient cars, animosity toward Japanese imports rose as did racism toward Asian Americans. Zia, who had worked for Chrysler as a large press operator, recalls, “Pretty soon the finger of blame ended up on Japan.” Chin was not Japanese or Japanese American. He was Chinese American, but he was beaten to death with a baseball bat and neither person, Ronald Ebens and his stepson Michael Nitz, received a jail sentence. They were fined $3,000.

Producer Renee Tajima-Peña was co-director for the Oscar-nominated documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin? but this documentary looks at how Zia and Moua and the Asian American community rose to protest. The off-hand comment that civil rights lawyers told Asian Americans that laws were meant for Blacks and not them hints at an underlying problem in for and between minorities.

In Los Angeles, there was friction between Latinos and African Americans, but also Asian Americans. As people moved out of Koreatown, liquor store owners clashed  with their African American customers. Newspapers like the LA Times had articles about the growing hostility between Blacks and Koreans. In March of 1991, 51-year-old Soon Ja Du shot 15-year-old Latasha Harlins and was convicted of voluntary manslaughter and time served (plus five years probation and 400 hours of community service, $500 restitution and funeral expenses). The full sentence isn’t made clear in the documentary. The court decision was made in November by a jury and affirmed in April of 1992, a week before the LA Riots.

While lawyer Angela Oh discusses the lack of cultural awareness of Korean immigrants regarding the Civil Rights Movement and African Americans, cultural differences are not discussed. Simple issues of body language as to when one looks another person in the eye were also part of the culture clash.

The Rodney King videotaped beating (3 March 1991) that occurred a little over two weeks prior overshadowed the Harlins case. The Harlins case appeals court decision came one week before the King decision and the beginning of the LA Riots that evening. It might have been a nice contrast to talk with African American actor Greg Alan-Williams who saved Japanese American Takao Hirata during the riots. Hirata was born in an internment camp. The internment camps (topic of Episode 2, A Question of Loyalty) is brought up in this episode when hate toward Muslims rises post-9/11. There is a reaction, but it is different.

The attacks of 9/11 also squelched legislation sponsored by Dick Durbin originally meant to help a Brazilian-born Korean American pianist, Tereza Lee. Lee was the original DREAMer. Hari Kondabolu comments that for some Asian Americans, after 9/11 they were “victimized twice.” First they lived in fear of terrorists and then they were the target of anti-Muslim or anti-Arab prejudices.

Jerry Yang
Jerry Yang

At the same time, Asian Americans are part of the revenge of the nerds as Silicon Valley and the Internet rise in influence. In that light, Jerry Yang talks about his widowed mother coming from Taiwan to the US and his development of Yahoo! As someone who once worked at Yahoo and successfully won a workers compensation case against them, Yang might not be the ideal person. He was, quite memorably, hauled in front of Congress for Yahoo’s actions in China (not Taiwan). Yahoo handed over email records to Chinese authorities that resulted in the imprisonment of journalist Shi Tao.

The documentary looks at the other end of the Silicon Valley tech miracle. K. Oanh Ha (with Miranda Ewell) wrote about High Tech’s Hidden Labor (San Jose Mercury-News, 27 June 1999) which looks at the piece work of other lower income immigrants. The documentary doesn’t discuss how tech companies like Yahoo! or Google use temp workers.

The series ends with a timely remark that “history has a way of moving in cycles” but that the American society needs to find a way to help civilization move forward. Asian Americans have been excluded, but are still here and “we’re not going away.”

Breaking Through airs today, 12 May 2020 on PBS and is available to stream after. Check local listings.


Jeff Chang is a Honolulu-born Chinese American with an MA in Asian American studies from UCLA. He has written about hip hop. Chang’s 2005 “Can’t Stop Won’t Stop”,  won the American Book Award and the Asian American Literary Award. In 2007, he edited the a compilation of different artists’ interviews and discussions called Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop. He also wrote: Who We Be: A Cultural History of Race in Post-Civil Rights America (2014) and We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation (2016). 

Margaret Cho (1968) is a Korean American stand-up comedian. Her ABC sitcom, All-American Girl, ran for one season with 19 episode. It was the first prime time sitcom about an Asian American family and included Jodi Long and Clyde Kusatsu as her bookstore-owning parents,  BD Wong  as her successful doctor brother and Amy Hill as her grandmother.

Dick Durbin (1944) was the US Senator from Illinois (D) who sponsored the personal bill for Tereza Lee that eventually became the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors (DREAM) Act.

K. Oanh Ha is a Vietnamese American who reports on Asian American issues and Asia. She previously wrote for the San Jose Mercury News as the Asia Pacific correspondent. She began as a business reporter covering technology and tech culture as well as small and minority businesses. The investigative series she co-authored about Asian immigrants illegally assembling computer products at home for Silicon Valley firms resulted in a federal investigation and compensation for workers.

Hari Kondabalou (1982) is a Queens-born Indian American who performs stand-up comedy and was living in New York at the time of 9/11. His standup special Warn Your Relatives was released on Netflix in 2018.

Alex Ko is a Korean American who made a film documentary short, Pok Dong, (2006).

Tereza Lee is a Brazilian born Korean American who was the original DREAMer. She is not a music teacher and concert pianist.

Ansar Mahmood was a pizza delivery man who was deported from the US although his hometown rallied in his support. Mahmoud had been arrested for trespassing at a water treatment plant, but he was deported because he helped two friends after their visas expired.

Mee Moua (1969) was born in Laos and came to the US as a refugee. She is the first Hmong American woman elected to a state legislature (Minnesota). She was a member of the state senate from 2002 to 2011. She is formerly the president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice.

Norman Mineta (1931) was born in San Jose and interned at heart Mountain. Mineta served in the US Army as an intelligence officer in Japan and Korea. He is the former mayor of San Jose (1971-1975). He served in Congress from 1975-1995. He was the Secretary of Commerce under President Bill Clinton from 2000-2001 and the Secretary of Transportation under President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2006.

Viet Thanh Nguyen is a Pullitzer Prize-winning author (“The Sympathizer”) and the Aerol Arnold Chair of English and Professor of English and American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. He also wrote  Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War from Harvard University Press (2016) and  Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America (Oxford University Press, 2002).

Randall Park (1974) is a Korean American Los Angeles-born comedy and writer who plays an American restaurant owner in Fresh Off the Boat. He appears in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as agent Jimmy Wood.

Angela Oh (1955) is an attorney who became the spokesperson for the Korean American community after the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. Oh was the Chair of U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer’s Federal Judicial Nominations Committee for two years and served as a member of the Federal Magistrate Judge Selection Panel in the Central District of California, for three years.

AnnaLee Saxenian is a professor in the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley who is a member of the Apple Academic Advisory Board, and has served as Chair of the Advisory Committee for the National Science Foundation Division of Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences (NSF-SBE). She wrote Regional Advantage: Culture and Competition in Silicon Valley and Route 128 (Harvard, 1994), The New Argonauts: Regional Advantage in a Global Economy (Harvard, 2006) and Silicon Valley’s New Immigrant Entrepreneurs  (Public Policy Institute of California, 1999).

Brenda Stevenson is a professor and Nickoll Family Endowed Chair in History at UCLA. Her book length publications include:  The Journals of Charlotte Forten Grimke (Oxford 1988); Life in Black and White:  Family and Community in the Slave South (Oxford 1996); The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins:  Justice, Gender and the Origins of the L.A. Riots (Oxford 2013)and, What is Slavery? (Polity 2015).

Jerry Yang (1968) was born in Taiwan and while at Stanford University, co-founded Yahoo! with David Film in 1994. Her served as CEO from 2007 to 2009 and left Yahoo! in 2012. He mentors technology startups through his firm AME Cloud Ventures and rejoined the board of Alibaba in 2014 (previously a board member from 2006-2012).

Helen Zia (1952) is a New Jersey-born Chinese American journalist and activist for Asian American and LGBTQ rights. She wrote Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People (2000) and co-authored with Wen Ho Lee My Country Versus Me.”


Vincent Chin (1955-1982) was a Chinese American draftsman who was murdered by Chrysler plant supervisor Ronald Ebens and his stepson, former autoworker Michael Nitz. The two were first tried on state criminal charges which ended with no jail time, three years’ probation, a fine of $3000 and court costs. Federal civil rights charges led to a 1984 decision that found Ebens guilty and Nitz was acquitted. On appeal, Ebens’ conviction was overturned in 1986 and the retrial was moved to Ohio. That jury cleared Ebens of all charges in 1987. The civil suit for unlawful death was settled out of court in 1987. The Chin estate renewed the civil suit in 1997. Ebens sought to vacate a lien against his house in 2015.

Rodney King (1965-2012) was beaten by LAPD officers on 3 March 1991. Four officers were charged with police brutality.  Three were acquitted and the jury did not reach a verdict on the fourth. The news of the acquittals sparked the 1992 Los Angeles Riots which lasted six days and resulted in the death of 63 people. The California Army National Guard, the US Army and the US Marine Corps came to Los Angeles to help police the streets and bring calm to the city. The federal government pursued a civil rights case and the trial found two officers guilty and acquitted the other two on April 16, 1993. The City of Los Angeles settled with King for $3.8 million in damages. King died of an accidental drowning.

Latasha Harlins (1975-1991) was a 15-year-old girl who had an altercation with  51-year-old Korean-born Soon Ja Du. Du fatally shot Harlins in the back of the head. The incident was caught on closed circuit television at a liquor store. The case received national attention. Last year a documentary was made about Harlins.


Episode 1: Breaking Ground

Episode 2: A Question of Loyalty

Episode 3: Good Americans

Episode 4: Generation Rising

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