Viewer Guide: Part 1


Most people think of Asians as recent immigrants to the Americas, but Asians have been an integral part of American history since before the Revolutionary War in the United States. Coolies, Sailors and Settlers explores how and why people from the Philippines, China and India first arrived on the shores of North and South America. It traces the globally interlocking story of East and West, tying 18th and 19th century developments in Europe and the Americas to the story of Asian immigration -- from a Chinese Guangdong province village, an Indian seacoast village, Filipino and Chinese sailors jumping ship (Spanish galleon) in Mexico. Using the dramatic voice of an Asian "Every man" narrator to represent the Asian perspective, the film portrays the harsh conditions of survival, settlement and, for some, later re-migrations throughout the Americas.



This Viewer Guide offers a variety of approaches to working with the wide range of issues raised by the film. It frequently makes references to the video and primary source materials reproduced from it.

A central question viewers might consider is: "Where did all these Asians come from?"


A. Before viewing the film study these images:

Balls of opium grown in India and smuggled into China
Hu-Kwa Tea Box from China
Cut Sugarcane field in Hawaii
Porcelain plate made in China showing "savage" image, custom made for Italian market

• Why do you think western nations were interested in these products?

B. Before viewing the film, guess which of the following events responds to the earliest record of Asian settlement in the Americas. Discuss your choice.

      1. Columbus sails West

      2. Eve of the American Revolution

      3. Discovery of gold in California

      4. Outbreak of Civil War

• Describe their migration (i.e. Which part of Asia did the settlers come from, How did they make a living?)

• Name artifacts, institutions, etc. that serve as evidence of their presence


C. After viewing the film discuss:

• Which date did Professor Okihira reveal as the earliest Asian settlements?

"Asia was in the Western mind. The West came to us?"

• Look at the glossary to understand or review important terms.


A. The Coolie Trade

1. Definitions:

Coolies: (Koo’le)

  1. from Hindus "Kull" meaning bonded labor.
  2. from Chinese "Ku Li" meaning bitter labor.

What do the these two definitions tell you about the nature of coolie labor?

2. Voices from the Coolie Trade:

What do these quotes from the film reveal concerning the West’s motives for the trade, the psychological impact on the laborers, and the attitude of the West toward Asians?

"It was the West who came to us."

"When we were no longer in control in our own land, we lost control over the emigration of Chinese."
- Narrator

"A few generations of my family were all ‘sold like pigs‘ to work as coolies."
- Lau Chung Mun, Historian Toishan Museum, China

"If trading goods like tea can make you a millionaire as with the Hong merchant Ho Qua, trading in coolies as if they were goods, could make you ten times more rich than tea."

"Our bones will be tossed into pits to be buried with horses and oxen."
- Deposition from Chinese laborer in 1874 China Commission Report, Cuba.

"My family worked very hard to help other people in Peru be rich, so I belong to that history. Peru belongs to me and belongs to other people as well."
- Fabiana Chiu, Chinese in the Americas Museum, New York.

3. Contrast the system of indentured coolie labor and African enslaved labor in terms of:

• Procurement practices

• Conditions on "coolie ships" and African "slave ships"

• Destinations of imported workers

• Legal rights


Coolie Trade
Indian Village Gods placed on
the beach to protect those
who go to sea



1. What examples are given to illustrate patterns of Asian resistance and self-defense? What was the response of the dominant powers?

2. What events does each of the following quotes from the film refer to? How do they reflect acts of resistance by the Chinese to their treatment by the West?

Ship Mutiny

"Commissioner Lin insisted in burning the opium. He was adamant."

"Bands of us threw ourselves upon them. Release us or we will burn the ship. We have nothing to lose."

"We nine (Cuban coolies) all set forth to lay a complaint before the authorities but were sent back, tied up, and flogged."



1. Look at these images that depict various ways Asian settlers assimilated into their new culture.

This monument is dedicated
to the Chinese who fought
for the independence of Cuba
Presidential Campaigner, 1885
Chinese/Irish Couple in early
19th century, NYC
Chinese men learning English, NYC

2. The word assimilation historically, has had bad connotations because it often meant that immigrants were compelled to conform to the dominant culture by rejecting their own. More recently the look of assimilation is changing. A commentary in The Pasadena Star News, for example, states that "all Americans are in the throes of assimilation - whether straight assimilation, reverse assimilation, or full-blown mutation...."

Consider these views given by contemporary Asian-Americans. Which form of assimilation do they exemplify?

"I just want my daughter to know what it’s like to be in an environment with Chinese people."
- A New York City professional woman who brings her child back to Chinatown for "Saturday" Chinese language schools.

"We have been an integral part of American history. We helped to build this country with our blood, our sweat and our tears. Now, it is time for us to share in governing it."
- Gary Locke, Governor of the state of Washington.

"We’re American first, Southern second"
- Filipina sisters, descendant of a sailor who jumped ship settling in Louisiana 200 years ago.

Think of your own personal observations or experiences that can illustrate other views of assimilation. (food, fashion, words, music, dance, multiethnic families, etc.).


1. $35,000 is the average payment to smugglers, called "Snake Heads," for the transportation of illegal Chinese immigrants to the United States. Revenues from smuggling Chinese to America run as high as $600 million a year. The trip can take four months with stays in Latin America, Russia or other countries. "Physical abuse, disease, and inadequate food or water kill some of these people.....They are locked [up] , handcuffed and beaten, sometimes raped."

[Joel L. Swerdlow New York’s Chinatown," National Geographic"August, 1998, pp. 62-77.]

Compare and contrast these facts with your impressions of the 19th century Coolie trade.

2. In the film we hear of the massacres against the Chinese who settled in the Spanish colonial Philippines. The success of the Chinese, who became the "backbone" of the Spanish colonial economy, was offered as one of the reasons for Spanish and indigenous fear of the Chinese community. Recently, ethnic Chinese in Indonesia, a minority who dominate the economy, have similarly, been attacked following the economic turmoil that stripped millions of Indonesians of their jobs.

Can you identify times in the history of the United States when the Chinese, or other people of color such as Native Americans, have been targeted in widespread violence? What motivated the violence against the groups you have identified? Was it economic? Was it their existence as an available group to scapegoat for actual or imagined crises? Was it racism or cultural misunderstandings between themselves and those who attacked them?

What can be done to prevent the occurrence of such events? How can the human rights of all groups in a culturally diverse society be protected?

3. Consider the population figures and places of origin presented in Coolies, Settlers, Sailors. Compare the facts about early Asian immigration with these contemporary facts:

• The term "Asian American" takes in 28 different Asian groups and 21 different Pacific Islander groups according to the definition established by the US Census Bureau.

• Between 1980 and 1990, the Asian-American population grew at a rate of 108.6 percent, from 3.5 million to 7.3 million.

• Asian-Americans do not share a single unifying language.

Given these facts consider:

• Obstacles to Asian-American unity as a voting bloc

• Asian-American economic potential

• Asian-American representations in the media

• Appropriateness of the inclusively of the term "Asian-American"

4. Where do today’s Americans of Asian origin, including recent immigrants, come from? What are some of the circumstances initiating their immigration? Which groups have been present for many generations?

5. Do all Americans define themselves as part of an ethnic group? What are the issues in a country that has people of many races, ethnicities, languages, and religions? How can community be created out of so much difference?


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