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How a New Show Tears Down the Myths of Asian American History


The series doesn’t start with Chinese or Japanese laborers on the massive plantations of Hawaiʻi or in the gold mines of California’s Sierra Nevada foothills. These are the places traditionally thought of as launch points for Asian American history. Instead, you begin in St. Louis, Missouri, at the 1904 World’s Fair.

When we consulted with Asian American historians and explored the way they have been theorizing and looking at the Asian American story, it made sense to start with the legacy of U.S. empire in the Philippines.

Starting at the beginning of time is not the most engaging way to start. Even if we just looked at 100 years of history, it would be massive. [Ken Burns’] “Country Music” got 13 hours on television, we had five hours to tell a story that spans over 170 years. For many reasons, the story of Filipino orphan Antero Cabrera (who was put on view in a replica village at the World’s Fair) made sense. It’s the story of empire. It establishes the idea of racial hierarchy and racial science and how that shaped the construction of race during the early 1900s. We thought that was fundamental not only to that episode, but to the whole history.

We wanted to shift the narrative of Asian Americans because outside of Asian American studies, I think most American people think the story starts when many arrive after the 1960s.

The second thing we wanted to challenge is this deeply embedded idea that [Asian Americans] are a model minority. And I think there was an assumption that, if you take the Irish American story or German American story and just, paint Asian faces on it, it would be the same story. And that's not true because of the marker of race. That’s never been true. We want to shift that perception of who Asian Americans are.


Read entire article at Smithsonian Magazine