Loni Ding: Creating 'Ancestors in the Americas'

Still from Ancestors in the Americas

Thirteen/WNET New York's series DUE EAST begins with Ancestors in the Americas, the first in-depth television documentary to trace the history and legacy of Asian immigrants to the Americas, from the 17th through the 19th centuries. Stretching the boundaries of traditional documentary to create a "docu-memoir," director Loni Ding conjures up first-person archetypes to voice the experiences of a different group of pioneers traditionally left out of the public record. Searching out shards of history found in archaeological artifacts, household objects, personal mementos, folklore, and rituals, the film links history to contemporary issues. From the economic and political forces that brought the first Filipinos, Chinese, and Asian Indians to the shores of the Americas to the large-scale immigration of Chinese to California during the Gold Rush, this is a dramatic story about oppression, bigotry, discrimination, and landmark legal battles, which eventually helped Asian Americans claim their rightful place in a new home.

Asia Society spoke with Ding about her experiences as a filmmaker and the importance of Asian American history.

You are a filmmaker, an advocate, a community organizer, and a teacher. How did Asian American issues become a focus for you?

I think Asian American issues come out of my life because I happen to be second generation and I am the last of seven children. My parents are foreign-born, coming out of Guangdong as highly educated people, but neither of them spoke any English and had to deal with a lot of prejudice. Yet they wanted to move us as a family out of Chinatown. So they were already challenging the boundaries from the very beginning. It was very clear to me that we really were dealing with boundaries. We could not take it for granted that we did whatever we were capable of doing based on our skills and our interests; there were boundaries all around us. Primarily what I felt was not a boundary around myself because I was only seven. I had all these adults around me, and they formed a group of people to tell you what to do, so you were used to rules or parameters. But on the other hand, you were supported by it. It was meant to help you grow--a benevolent set of boundaries.

The boundaries of racism are not benevolent; you know that from the beginning. In particular, when you felt it addressed at your parents, which is what I felt most fiercely. I greatly and deeply respect my mother and father. I would say that my mother, father, and my older sister are the three members of my family who really set a tone, a pace, and a standard for me. The three of them had trouble, mostly my mother and father, with how society would set limits and obstacles in our path. My parents then planned and plotted and carefully maneuvered to increase the opportunities we could have and it was always clear to me that they were doing it for the other members of the family. They were both very self-sacrificing without being martyrs about it because they are both very alive people. But I could see that they were facing obstacles all the time and so I was watching how they handled it. It made it very clear to me that I needed to understand why they were facing this and why we were facing it, but they had the responsibility for doing something about it. I was a kid then and was going along for the ride--someone else would have to do the hard peddling.

So I think that from the beginning I was trying to figure out the kind of society I was living in, what was going on around me, who these other people were, and who we were. There were these two categories. There were the white folks and there were us Chinese. This is how it came across as a young child. It took me a while to get more comfortable and I was always watching and thinking and observing what was going on. For about six years I used to travel between one end of the city and the other...just about the full length of San Francisco, in order to go to Chinese language school. It was exciting for me to see who was on the bus at the time and see all these people whom I didn't ordinarily have contact with but I could see them coming and going and observe how they dressed, acted, and the way they treated me, my sister, and brother. I could compare my life with the lifestyles of people around me. What are those differences about? No one really tells you or talks about it. So I made my own surmises about what it was, how I felt about it, what I wanted in my life, and what I did not want in my life. But I was definitely not among those people who felt Chinatown was a provincial place that was very narrow and backwards and segregated, and therefore wanted freedom. I felt that Chinatown was a cozy, warm, engaging, interesting place where I ate great treats, where I could play with my friends, and where I did not need to be on my model behavior. For me it was friends and an easy social acceptance, which was not the case where I lived or the case where I went to school where we were on our best behavior constantly. That is why I would say it would be the most natural thing in the world for me to be interested in what is Asian American, what is Asian America. But all that went through lots of filters, having gone to Berkeley, and ultimately ending up in Sociology, and then traveling...

Can you explain what a "docu-memoir" is and why you chose this approach for Ancestors in the Americas?

I chose "docu-memoir" because for many years I was struggling with how we can stay with reality, not go into absolute fiction, not go into drama, but stay with the drama of real life. How can you take what is intrinsically dramatic in what you see and how people face life, and how they make choices? Those are little gestures that they have, which are telling gestures. If you are a director, a writer, you could not come up with these incredibly revealing and telling gestures that people naturally have. In fact most times they are trying to hide it because they are saying, "I don't want people to know about this." Not that they are ashamed of it exactly, but it is private and personal and it is not something they would walk out and show everyone. Especially Asians are this way. How many Asians have you met who give you a completely implacable, opaque face? This is not to say they have something to hide but it is held in reserve. It was unseemly sometimes to burst out and say every little thing on your mind. It is absolutely not the assumption you see on our talk show culture, the more out in the open the better, the more you can get attention. For some of us, getting attention is not the ultimate value, in fact, it is uncomfortable having people watching you, looking to you for something. Privacy and solitude are great desires for a lot of us.

So the "docu-memoir" is a way of creating and expressing the inner voice. It is the inside of the more subjective aspects of what Asian Americans experience. It is to find some way to give a language or voice to it. I think that is exactly the area in which we suffer misunderstandings or prejudices. It is partly because we allowed the blank page to be there for them to write whatever they wanted on it. I think it is very important for us to express ourselves and to reveal some of our thoughts about who we are...I am deeply attracted to what people are carrying inside themselves, which is at the center of their lives, which is very pivotal to how they make decisions and which sometimes cannot be discussed even if they chose to talk about it. It can't be put into words, you can only know it by watching behavior and by putting it in a setting. Then people do reveal and materially express what matters to them.

So that, for instance, is in the second part of Ancestors in the Americas. There is a whole scene inside the living quarters of a temple caretaker, a Chinese temple deep in the forest of California dating back to the 1870s. You go into the caretaker's room and you see on his bed his single pair of stockings, his sandals, his headrest on the floor...you have a sense that they are intimate objects of this man's life. You see on the table all the dishes and the food hanging from the ceiling that will later be made into a meal...you see all the little things that represent a life lived. Although this man is alone, he is clearly gathering together for meals with others and they cook all this Chinese food and they must have a loud noisy time together. It's the objects that tell you that. You see the stuff and you can already hear the voices. So I would get people together to do that and create that social chattering time together when you are eating. And you hear the sound of the wok and the food being turned, and the flames of the fire. This says that these are people who get a lot out of being with each other and they find sociability, comfort, solace, and support. It is part of the way they survived everything, the way they were able to keep their spirits up and maintain very high productivity levels at work...

I want to hear and bring this out through the "docu-memoir" method, as if it were memory. It is "docu" in the sense that it is based on the records, it is actually in the place where they came and lived, the place where you can see...the evidence of their work and their life and the remains they leave on the American landscape.

In your writings, you also mention you like exploring devices like metaphors, surrealism and tableaux in your filmmaking. How have you employed these methods?

The scene where the man is climbing the hill and the narrator says, "I am voyaging still..." It is about the effort and struggle for making a life. I am fond of that image. In Guangdong, they have a very old Catholic church. This church was located in what used to be a special section of the city reserved for Westerners. When I saw that church I said, "I need that church but I want you to shoot it in very strange angles." I wanted it to feel like it is going to tip over but it is massive. It is powerful but it is also off-centered. It is not sitting firmly on this good earth, it is in conflict...

There are lots of little things like that. At one point, I took the single character for the Chinese word "root," like in the sayings, "When the leaf falls it returns to its root," and, "When the foot steps down it grows new roots." In post-production, we asked the editor to take this character off this scroll, isolate it, make it three dimensional and I wanted it to float over an aerial view of rows upon rows of California crops... So I am looking for those kinds of things that express meaning that words just don't do.

Having been part of the activism of the 1960s, do you see a major difference in Asian American activism at the start of the 21st century?

I have seen examples of activism where I think they really have built from the past. I am thinking about the most recent activism on the UC Berkeley campus where we had a hunger strike on the part of the students. It was across the whole campus, it wasn't just students of color...I saw the way the students rallied, and I thought that they really are a step ahead; they combine a sense of principle with an understanding that you have to struggle to treat each other decently. There is the expectation that you don't just have a lot of political rhetoric and hit people over the head with it. You have to win them over. You have to respect that they are different from you and you have to have discussions. At the same time you know that you can't endlessly talk. You have business you have to achieve, decisions that have to be made, and therefore you have to come to some kind of consensus at the end of a meeting. And they would do all these things. I was truly impressed.

I think there was a time when we walked around with a lot more illusions and now there is always the danger that instead of illusions people have irony. Irony is a substitute for actually having any kind of commitment. On the one hand, in artistic or cultural terms, irony is an interesting phenomenon. But when it comes to struggle in which something is at stake where you have to act, irony, sarcasm, cynicism are certainly inappropriate. And I didn't find any of that with the students. People were earnest. At the same time they had a sense of humor, a sense of fun, and they were very kind to each other...You can't be what they call "liberal," meaning you won't say anything. You have to say it, name it, but somehow it is important that you can come to an agreement so you can act.

I am thrilled to know that the Asian Pacific American department at NYU was created by students standing firm. I am thrilled to know that's the way it happened at Columbia as well. I am thrilled to see that some of the Harvard students are standing up for a living wage for poorly paid manual workers on that campus. It is exciting and wonderful to see that. It is not sentimentalism. It very important that they know exactly what they are doing. Mainly, that they are doing it.

What is your response to the growing anti-Chinese sentiment in the U.S.? There was a recent survey sponsored by the Committee of 100 that showed strong negative attitudes toward Chinese Americans even before the Hainan incident. Is this surprising to you? (See San Francisco Chronicle article on the survey).

I think it allows us to talk about it but I don't know what it means. I don't know how the questions were posed or what questions were never asked. I don't doubt that they were properly sampled. I want to know that if people have these kinds of negative feelings, what is the degree and character of their actual contact with Asians.

You've worked in both TV and film. Even though there have been major improvements in media images of Asian Americans we still see patterns of stereotypes being reused, particularly in the wake of specific U.S. foreign policy developments in Asia. We've seen this historically and we see it now. How can Asian Americans battle media bias?

I am watching media images and you definitely hear people saying all kinds of things. The talk shows and what goes on CNN; I think we are in for it. I think we are entering a dangerous time. It is going to get worse as China is more and more clearly seen as an ascendant power, economically ascendant, culturally ascendant...There is certainly envy, jealousy, but I think there is also an aversion. There is almost a physical aversion but at the same time it is combined with a taste for exoticism.

We [Asian Americans] have to keep discussing it. We have to do things together. We have to come up with plans. It is obvious we have to become more conscious. We have to get our stories out. Speak up and speak out. We have to continue to be present, visually and physically present.

You have to be aware that sometimes people are very offended when you point these things out. They expect you not to take notice or just live with it or keep it low key so they are not exposed in any way. One of the things that I think is hard for Asians to take is conflict and not being harmonious and being the cause of disharmony. We have to accept that that is not in the cards. We have to get over that. We are at a time in society where we have to be very quick about taking a hold. It is our job to do that without feeling bad about it, without saying, "Why are they doing this to us again and why do they think they can get away with this." We don't know why, we just know we have to put a stop to it. It is up to us to act quickly.

As the nation celebrates Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, what do you hope viewers of Ancestors in the Americas will take away with them?

I want people to be startled by it and to give it thought...I remember my best friend in New York who is a deeply knowledgeable person. She is a real New Yorker, she has seen every kind of person. But when she got done seeing [my film] Color of Honor, she said, "I will never walk down the street again and see an Asian male and not wonder what he is really like. I no longer assume that I know...I feel positive and open and receptive to possibilities of who this man might be..." I can't ask for more than that.

I want to see it in all the schools; we have to get these works into the junior high schools and high schools of this country. These kinds of stories are truthful but also our stories and don't pull their punches. There is bitterness in there, edginess, and some people complained about it. They were put off by it. The media writer for the American Library Association booklet gave both these shows editor's choices, but besides the actual printed review, he talked to me and said what he really liked about the show was that I did not take the easy path. He told me, "You said some things that are going to make some people very uncomfortable, but you did it in a personal way based on a lot of information."

Your work has often been celebrations of ordinary people and celebrations of particular communities. What makes a story compelling to you? What is the process once you find a story you want to tell?

I'm drawn into stories of the human side of what is not visible and not spoken--where there is silence. When there is an event that is very significant... A major event in people's lives and yet we do not know what they thought or felt. Especially if I feel that no one has asked them. No one has created a condition for revealing and expressing what they do feel about it. You don't just walk up to them with a pencil and paper and say, "Tell me." You are going to have to spend a little time and create a condition in which they will feel it natural to talk about it. That is part of what the job is--to make it possible for those who know to express themselves, to use the full power of your craft to contexualize what they are saying to you. You put it in a setting and then we are able to see the power of what they personally said because it is connected to other things and other people. Especially when the connections are surprising. It is very important to me that the Chinese and Indian coolies were the answer to the ending of black slavery. It is one of the few historical examples where you can show a direct connection between Asians and Africans. That is a connection that both sides have not known about and sometimes reject. I head toward a story and ask, "How can I find the most compelling, visually interesting, emotionally engaging, and clarifying way to state this?" The clarity has to do with the connections...

What I find compelling is the satisfaction of finding a voice and having it expressed and putting it in the context of a whole network of connections that gives us understanding and builds relationships between all groups of people. Even a generational relationship where that third and fourth generation finally feels like they can go and talk to that second generation because they now know certain things. And that second generation will now call them and say, "Now that this show is out, I know that my children and grandchildren know what this is about, I can talk to them and not have to start from scratch."

Asia Society interview conducted by Cindy Yoon. Photos courtesy of PBS.