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ancestors in the americas

A Memoir of Ancestors in the Americas:

Loni Ding talks about her new television series

by Michael Jeung
Reprinted with permission from RELEASE PRINT,

the magazine of Film Arts Foundation; VOL. XIX No. 4, May 1996

Michael Jeung is a writer and media arts activist.

"If looked at carefully, American history is not quite what we think it is," says Loni Ding, executive producer of the new television series, Ancestors in the Americas. Ding, a documentarian with two [sic] decades of credits to her name, has always chosen history as her subject—and she usually chooses large. Ancestors is nothing less than a full history of Asians in the Americas. Part One: Coolies, Sailors, Settlers, which premiered in March at the San Francisco Asian American International Film Festival, begins with the imperial Spanish trade routs that first brought Asians from Manila to Acapulco 300 years ago and ends with the California Gold Rush. Part Two: Pioneers of the American West [sic], which Ding will complete later this year, looks beyond the image of the Chinese railroad worker to the many roles Asian-descended citizens have played in shaping the U.S.

Coolies, Sailors, Settlers shows May 30th [1998] at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. Other screenings are in the works for New York and Los Angeles, with PBS broadcast dates pending. Major funding for the series was provided by the recently gutted National Endowment for the Humanities.

Ding calls the series a "documemoir," hinting at both the struggle to present visually a history for which there are no living witnesses, and the attempt of a contemporary American to draw upon the memories of her ancestors. At a time when the public dialogue around history and identity is clogged with buzzwords and soundbites, Ding's work attempts to dig deeper, giving voice and vision to the past.

MJ: I loved the film. I thought it was well-crafted, in-depth, quite comprehensive. What was your most challenging moment technically or logistically?

The most challenging thing is to make what is a very large-scale piece of work be personal or intimate, and anchor it in a human voice and a human experience. When you're going across 300 years, starting with sixteenth-century Manila-to-Acapulco trade, you're dealing with at least three groups of people. Mainly the Chinese, but you've got Filipinos, you've got Asian Indians. You're dealing with Asian Indians going across the Indian Ocean, going around Africa, and landing in South America and the West Indies; Chinese going across the Pacific Ocean, around South America, and landing in the same place. It's very exciting to think you're talking about some large movement of people related to global trade and labor.

MJ: Can you speak more specifically about the logistics?

Well, you've got maps, but can you make the map move? Can you make the map interesting? Can you make it personal? That was the challenge. I dreaded it. When I was first introduced to this whole idea, the global approach, I said that's very interesting but I can't do a film on that, you know. I was going to have my hands full just telling the personal story of different groups of Asians as they are pushed by hard times at home, pulled by another opportunity or the only livelihood they could get. When the slave system ends, the British have these colonies, they need labor, they go to China and India. That sounds interesting, but it's kind of abstract. So we created this time traveler narrator. His task would be to project himself inside this existence. He has to be the man who's been the coolie, he has to be the sailor who's been on those ships. He has to be an old salt and a Chinese man who also was with Indian sailors and so on. That's a lot to ask of one person.

MJ: So creatively it was a major challenge for you?

[It was a] major challenge to get a human voice actually recounting the story, telling that information. The effort to make what is a history lesson not seem like a history lesson. So how do you do that without becoming didactic? A lot of it was solved by a really wonderfully capable editor who could layer the images for us, and be very creative and sometimes maybe over-the-top using images to achieve what we needed. Like using spinning clouds to talk about a mood of menace, of being persecuted—the massacre of the Chinese and the Filipinos, which we then tie to the hard times the Chinese had, and the riots and the expulsions that they suffered in the American West later. We also shot a lot of military barracks, not knowing how the footage was going to be used. But then later we used it to talk about the way the Spaniards treated the Chinese and dominated the "restless natives," massacring them because they were the potential challenge to power and authority. Having those barracks made it possible to tell that part of the account.

MJ: What would you say was your most challenging moment [in] making the film?

Personally, it was how to deal with my own voice because I use my own voice in there. I'd gotten used to playing all the roles, doing the scratch track in which I was the narrator, and what I needed to do was get back to my own contemporary present-day voice and have it contrast with the timeless narrator's voice. I had a hard time getting out of his voice and getting back into my own. A friend had told me, that doesn't sound like you, it sounds so stilted. I had to do a couple of recordings to bring it somewhat closer to what I think it ought to be. I still don't think it's there, but it's okay. It came a long distance, I'll say that. And I would say that was the hardest thing personally to do.

I think the most affecting thing for me in doing this work was reading the accounts of coolies in Cuba, who answered questions asked of them directly about their experiences being recruited or deceived or kidnapped in China. [They were] put onto these ships which were literally modeled after African slave ships and therefore had 20 to 24 inches width at the shoulder, packed together through what has been called in black slavery "the middle passage." The Chinese suffered the same middle passage. I found it very moving because there was a tone in how they said these things which was never exaggerated. They wanted to be accurate and careful about it, precise about exactly what had happened to them. Never, never a tone of self-pity. Very responsible in how they answered things. Even in saying things which would be horrifying, [there was] a certain dignity. I found that incredibly moving. This is only an English translation of what they said in Chinese.

MJ: Were these from letters?

This is the direct testimony to the commission that was sent by China to Cuba. They traveled all over the island, interrogating these men directly for three months. [The men] themselves wrote up petitions stating the facts and signed them collectively. The quality of these men is what comes across, and their courage, because as I said in the film, the commission would leave and they would stay behind, left to the tender mercies of these overlords. The deepest lament they really have is not even about how badly beaten they are or that they will never get home again, which obviously they fear, but that their children and grandchildren will never know what they have endured. That they will be removed from history, they will not be able to continue even in memory who they are in that family. And that is such a particularly human kind of concern. And very Chinese.

MJ: Could you briefly describe how you approached the research for this project compared to an earlier film like Color of Honor [which looked at Japanese American soldiers fighting for the U.S. in World War II]? What was different for you?

Color of Honor had living witnesses. The research on that was really to back up, to verify, and to give complexity and documentation to the stories that they told. This one is based on no living witnesses, just some very remote descendants like a fourth-generation Peruvian Chinese who says because her great-great or great-great-great grandfather came in the 1880s, it is very likely that he was one of those coolies who came to Peru and shoveled the poisonous toxic guano fertilizer onto the ships that became the fertilizer for the world's farms. But besides someone like her, or a man in China who could say, "My father and my great grandfather were on those ships to Cuba," there are no living witnesses, so the big job would be how to construct stories that are personal out of the historical facts. And that meant also a great deal of research still had to be done on visuals. A lot of people had to do research on this. There was a little team of people not always available. They were doing other things. They would give you a couple of hours a week or something like that. And they would go to libraries to find still pictures that could be used to visualize, for example, the opium war—a whole sequence of images that were in fact done by an American magazine in the 1870s. A U.S. magazine that actually had a series on a Chinese coolie mutiny on a ship.

MJ: Could you briefly encapsulate the primary mission or vision as you see it for the series?

I think the primary mission is to say that Asians have been part of the Americas, including North America, for hundreds of years. And they came here as part of the most fundamental economic development of the Americas. We know them to have been part of the basic building of the infrastructure, the economy of the American West—California of course, but also they spread out into Idaho, Oregon. They really had some important roles to play there as well. So one thing I would say primarily is that they are part of that American history. And if we look at exactly what their history was in this country, we will also get a new way of looking at American history. On one hand we want to say that Asian American history is related to history of the Americas. We also want to say that Asian American history is American history. And it's looked at very carefully, American history is not quite what we think it is. Who is an American? What is an American? The work I'm doing relates to those questions.

MJ: What was the primary message of the first part of Coolies, Sailors, Settlers for you?

I think the first part showed simply that Asians originated in many different parts of this country. They originated coming out of Mexico. They originate arriving in Louisiana. They originate in the port cities of the Atlantic coast as part of maritime activity. And then later they also originate by coming across the Pacific to go mining, and in railroad and agricultural work.

Another idea is that, when we talk about "Asian American" really that's grouping a variety of people almost like a census category. And it's also a self-identifying, self-naming political act to say, "I'm Asian American" and not just Chinese American, meaning I identify myself, I've assigned myself that commonality, with other Asians. But what is in this film is the beginning of pointing out the historical commonalities—they sailed on the same ships, worked on the same land, were used the same way by an economy. Those connections connect them with other Asian groups and connect them as a racial minority and connect them with African Americans.

MJ: There's one segment where you talk about the early presence of Chinese in the Philippines. I suppose from a strict Filipino activist point of view, this segment could be considered racist.

Or chauvinist.

MJ: Or chauvinist….What one could say is that it seemed that the value of Filipinos' contributions to their own livelihood at that time is omitted in that segment.

I think the ethnic politics in here are unavoidable. But I think that there is a legitimate question you ask and I have to find a way to constantly pay attention, be sensitive to that kind of balance and not to fall into chauvinism. It's always a problem. You try to give a sense of what is the distinctive signature of a group and find the ways to express that, but you're always in danger of leaving somebody else out or not properly acknowledging them. But I think that that's a tension I accept, and that I have to pay attention to that.

MJ: What advice as a veteran filmmaker would you give young historical research documentarians who are coming into film and video?

I would start with, what is it you really love? You start with that—a particular thing you find fascinating. And then you go and you research it and you research and research and research until you get a real feeling for it. A feeling of place. A feeling of, what would it mean to anybody else? Why would anyone care about this? Find a way to translate why you care about it into something that someone else would care about. And that always means you've got to have texture, specificity, details. That means more research until you get the details that would prick their imagination. That would connect to something personal, that has a feeling of coming from someone's experience. From some place in time, not abstract. I think you have to be just willing to do a great deal of research and not settle for what you think will get you by. For every little bit you see at the tip of the iceberg, there's a body underneath that you try to get to. Whatever it takes to get there. It's only partly library research. Some of it is what people tell you. And you follow up that lead with another series of phone calls. The point at which you're comfortable that you have enough information is when you can start to tell it properly. You'll find the visuals, you'll find the means.

MJ: What is your biggest motivation to continue making films?

I would say it's fascinating to me and it's hard. It's fascinating and I love this medium. I love what you can do with it. I love the challenge of finding more and different ways of doing it. I wish it weren't such a lone task. I mean, I have a crew I get to talk to, but it's always about the job. You don't get to be sociable. I think of other things to do other than making film. I mean I could get involved in political activity. We're living in very terrible times, very difficult times and this is the moment for a lot of things to happen. And I'd like to be a part of that. Instead I'm spending a lot of time looking at my footage and saying to myself, "Well, this is political too, you know? This will have its contribution to make to the whole set of issues about immigrants, the whole anti-immigrant state of mind that we're in right now." As I learn more and more about the whole immigrant experience, it makes me really angry. Knowledgeably angry that Gingrich and Buchanan can get away with saying what they say. I have my fantasy. I want to lock them in a room and force them to look at this show. Force them to see all the countless videos that counter everything they say. You know, I won't let them out of the room until they listen to it and watch it several times. Not that I think you can change people that much, but, you know, that's what you like to think, that there's a chance.

MJ: What else can you say about the connection of this history to modern day politics?

By the time we get into show two, I get much more directly into how the Chinese, for instance, were involved in over 170 Supreme Court cases, some of them extremely important for establishing civil rights. It's the Chinese who went to court and established the right of citizenship by birth. In other words if you're born here, you're entitled to citizenship. And right now Congress is flirting with coming up with a new law that will take away that right. There are other connections that I expect to make in the second show, when we start dealing with Asians as people settling in this country and fighting for justice. Fighting for fair treatment, going on strike as they did when they worked on the railroads and tried to get equal pay with the white workers. And demanding fairness is something that does not depend on whether you're an immigrant or not.

I think we need to tell those stories. We need to recover that, state that. In this first show, we pointed out that as the men were being recruited to be coolies, when the local people realized that they were being kidnapped, they certainly rose up and beat up on those kidnappers. They did everything they could. In the same way, the coolies on the ships mutinied. We weren't talking an occasional mutiny. We're talking about one in every 11 [ships]. That's a lot of mutinies going on. I think it's natural that it would happen, and that's important to say. It's a matter of recovering that history, and saying we are all in a long line of humankind recognizing when we are being abused or not being treated fairly, and struggling and trying to create changes for more livable conditions. Everyone wants a human life, and a connected life where they struggle not only for themselves, but for others with whom they are kin. And that kinship can cross many lines. It's not always a kinship of blood or village. It's more than that. It can be a kinship of identification with others' struggles. That can always happen. And it has always happened.

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