LOS ANGELES – Los Angeles is home to numerous Asian-American communities. Koreatown, Chinatown, Thai Town and Historic Filipinotown to name a few. Documentary filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña remembers visiting Little Tokyo with her grandfather who moved to the U.S. back in 1906.
“All these places are so meaningful to the people who, you know, can see themselves in these places,” said Tajima-Peña. “It's really our home. Even if we don't live in these neighborhoods, it's a cultural home, it's a spiritual home.”
After growing up in Altadena, Tajima-Peña was inspired to cover Asian-American issues and directed social justice documentaries such as Who Killed Vincent Chin? and My America... or Honk If You Love Buddha.
Now a professor of Asian American Studies at UCLA, she is constantly asked to dissect what it means to be Asian in America.
“Since we started coming here it seems, there's always been these two kinds of images of the Asian,” explained Tajima-Peña. “These two myths. One, that we’re the model minority. And second, that we’re the perpetual foreigner”
She has produced a new documentary series about Asian-Americans that will hopefully change those myths.
“The Asian American story in really surprising ways is really everybody’s story,” said Tajima-Peña.
Produced for PBS, the series explores over 150 years of Asian-American history from when the Chinese first worked on the railroads to today. Throughout her research, Tajima-Peña sees history repeating itself.
“Asian immigrants were accused of bringing disease as well as unfair labor competition. I mean, sound familiar?” said Tajima-Peña.
Despite the rise of racism against Asian-Americans in the age of COVID-19, the story of the immigrant has always been about overcoming obstacles.
“I think that's the story we need right now in this current moment of crisis and if you look at the Asian-American story, it’s really about how we move forward,” said Tajima-Peña.
The television broadcast of Asian Americans premieres on PBS on May 11.
May 11th at 8PM - Episodes 1 and 2 on PBS
May 12th at 8PM - Episodes 3, 4, and 5 on PBS