Temple University Press authors reflect on making PBS’s Asian Americans

This week in North Philly Notes, Shirley Jennifer Lim, author of Anna May Wong, and Winifred C. Chin, author of Paper Sonrecount their experiences making the 5-part PBS documentary series Asian Americans.

Anna May Wong is having a moment, by Shirley Jennifer Lim

Anna May Wong is having a moment. In 2020 she has been featured in numerous documentaries, television shows (Netflix’s Hollywood), and, as a Google doodle. The landmark PBS documentary series, Asian Americans, tells Wong’s story at the end of Episode 1. Wong epitomizes someone who fought racial stereotypes and sought to improve the lot of Asian Americans.

Anna May Wong_smOne of the pleasures of the Asian Americans Episode 1 is that it contains rare archival footage of Wong’s performances. On screen, her expressive talents shine. When you watch the documentary, compare Luise Rainer’s flat affect as she says “I am with child” (The Good Earth) with Wong’s face when she says “Perhaps the white girl had better be looking out!” (One likes to think this is a not so hidden message to all of the white actresses who won Asian roles instead of her). There is almost no need to hear her words for her face says it all. Or the clip of Wong saying “No love now. No jealousy. Just merciless vengeance.” Her intonation is priceless and makes the viewer almost believe that words can kill. Rainer, as the documentary makes clear, won the leading role in the Good Earth over Wong and an Academy Award for playing the role (in yellowface). Never daunted, after The Good Earth casting rejection, Wong hired her own cinematographer and made her own film about China. Although Asian Americans does not have time to discuss Wong’s self-directed and produced film, but moments from the film are on screen at the end of the segment. (For my discussion of this film read Anna May Wong: Performing the Modern Chapter 5 and Epilogue). You see footage of Wong holding the camera up to her eye as she films Chinese street scenes. It would be wonderful if this interest in Wong translated into more of her films being made widely available.

Paper Son in the filming of Asian Americans, by Winifred C. Chin

When I was first approached by the PBS Asian Americans research team, I did not anticipate the key role that Paper Son, One Man’s Story would have in Episode 3: “Good Americans,” in which Asian Americans are heralded as the “model minority” while simultaneously living as “perpetual foreigners.”

PAPERSON_Certificate of Identity of Tong Pok Chin (Front) (1) (1)

Tung Pok Chin age 19 arrival in US.jpg Paper Son is the story of how my father, Tung Pok Chin, entered the United States in 1934 with false papers that declared him the “son of [a] native.” Due to restrictions of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943) this method was the only way he and others could escape dire poverty in China and come to the U.S. But China had turned to communism by 1949, and Tung Pok Chin was writing for a Chinese newspaper that the FBI branded as pro-communist. Our family soon came under federal investigation with the McCarthy Era.

Episode 3 is entitled “Good Americans” for a reason. Living in the United States, Tung Pok Chin gave his best to assimilate into American society; he learned English and served in the U.S. Navy during WWII; after the war he married and raised a family; he became a member in good standing at True Light Lutheran Church; and he wrote poetry to record his sentiments about the Chinese homeland — all while working in a laundry to support his family. In spite of all this, Tung Pok Chin remained the “perpetual foreigner” due to his status as a paper son and his writings in a newspaper that did not sit well with the U.S. Government.

In working with my father on Paper Son our aspiration for the text was simple: that the previously unknown “paper” method of entry into the United States and the effects of McCarthyism on the Chinese American community would be recognized and studied as a part of American history. Yet it was in filming Episode 3 that I started seeing Paper Son on a grander scale.

The questions that filmmaker S. Leo Chiang asked were thought-provoking and prodded me to dig into my own childhood to reflect on growing up Chinese in America. I soon realized that my experiences were not limited to myself, just as Paper Son is not limited to the experiences of Tung Pok Chin alone. Instead, my father’s experiences and those of my own speak for numerous other “paper sons” and for the generations of Chinese Americans and Asian Americans who rest precariously on the edge of a country where we try our best to be “Good Americans” yet can never fit in — because looking like the enemy in a time of crisis, be it during WWII, McCarthyism or the World Trade Center attack, will always arouse suspicion, distrust and hence rejection, no matter how “Good” we are.

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