We’ve all heard of Bruce Lee, or if you might’ve learned about Anna May Wong from Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood. But what do we really know about these famous faces, besides that they were good at martial arts or acting and were Asian American?
That’s one of the lessons from PBS’ Asian Americans, the documentary series premiering Monday during Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. In five parts, the wide-ranging program will celebrate the contributions made by Asian Americans that helped shape our country today. The story begins in the 1850s when immigrants from China, Japan, the Philippines, and more came to the U.S., all the way to the present, when America has never been as diverse — or as divided.
Produced by filmmaker and Oscar nominee Renee Tajima-Peña (Who Killed Vincent Chin?), the series is narrated by actors Daniel Dae Kim and Tamlyn Tomita, with interviews from Randall Park, Hari Kondabolu, and more. It is made in collaboration with WETA, Center for Asian American Media, and more.
In EW's exclusive clip from the series, journalist Jeff Chang and Park talk about the influence Lee had on other Asian Americans in the country.
Tajima-Peña stresses that she included celebrities like Lee and Wong not simply because “they were just there or they did things first, but they resisted.”
Wong, who’s considered the first Chinese-American Hollywood movie star, was vocal about the lack of opportunity for minorities in the industry. She refused to appear in the film adaptation of Pearl S. Buck's The Good Earth after the studio only offered her a small role as a villain and cast white actors as the main Chinese leads. Tajima-Peña says Lee was also outspoken against playing the sidekick and wanted audiences to see a different side of Asian American men.
Another notable story explored in the series comes from Sessue Hayakawa, a Japanese American actor, one of the first Asian American sex symbols in film, who founded his own production company because he was sick of seeing the way Asians were depicted.
“You come fast forward to all the new filmmakers of the 1970s to today, and it's the same story of ‘I don't accept the way we're shown on screen and I want to define who I am. I want to define my culture and I'm gonna do it myself,’” Tajima-Peña tells EW. “We didn't just look at people who were celebrities. We looked at people who were mavericks, and they had a real deep consciousness of who they were as Asian Americans.”
Beyond entertainment, of course, the docuseries explores Asian Americans’ impact on all areas of society. Wong Kim Ark, a U.S.-born restaurant worker in the late 1800s, took his case to the Supreme Court after being denied re-entry into the country. He won his case and the ruling effectively ensured that all individuals born in the U.S. received automatic citizenship, regardless of their parents’ citizenship. Ark is the reason her own parents have U.S. citizenship, Tajima-Peña says.
“That's the takeaway after going through producing all five episodes, is all those fights are our fight. It's not just what happens to Asian Americans,” the filmmaker adds. “In terms of contributions, at all these tipping points, Asian Americans have stood up and showed up.”
Having first conceived the series in the 1980s, before starting to seriously work on it in 2013, Tajima-Peña has witnessed momentous strides in Asian American representation. From Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell, to Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever, she cherishes them all.
For her, it’s a huge step up from growing up with Bonanza and only having the docile Hop Sing to look up to.
“You look in the screen like looking in the mirror and nothing is staring back. I mean, it's really being invisible,” she says.
Now Asians are starring in content and executive producing them, like Dae Kim with The Good Doctor through his own production company, 3AD. She notices that when people of color, like Kim or Jordan Peele with Amazon’s Hunters, serve as EPs, the casts are often more diverse, she says.
“That means that we're infiltrating the culture in a real deep way, and not just as the clowns and the simpering model minorities,” Tajima-Peña says, “not just as the Long Duk Dongs or the Geisha girls, but as fully realized human beings with flaws and tragedies and joys and loves and humor and everything.”
Tajima-Peña recognizes that many people have a wrong idea about history docs and see them as dull textbooks come to life. Instead, she says the series focuses on fascinating, personal stories that connect us from the past to the present. There would be no Awkwafina or Ali Wong, she says, without the giants of yesteryear.
“It’s just drawing that arc, that line, from Sessue Hayakawa to Randall Park to people in The Joy Luck Club, to all the artists today,” she says. “That’s what’s really meaningful. The fun part of the series. It’s like yesterday, today, and the future.”
Asian Americans will premiere episodes 1 and 2 on PBS at 8 p.m. ET on Monday, while episodes 3-5 will air Tuesday beginning at 8 p.m ET.