Asian American Storytellers

Meet an innovative group of Asian American storytellers who challenge racial stereotypes and caricature to reclaim the narrative of what it means to be Asian American.

Asian Americans TrailerCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Cartoon Censuring Anti-Chinese Sentiment by BettmannCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

"Chinese Must Go!"

19th Century depictions of the Chinese in America, with long queues and exaggerated features, emphasize their foreignness. These images dehumanize the Chinese, who are blamed for labor shortages, vice and disease.

Shirley Maclaine in YellowfaceCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

In 20th century Hollywood movies, caricatures of Asians takes on a new form. White actors are made up to appear Asian in what comes to be known as "yellowface."

Woman on Speaker at Asian Americans for PeaceCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Rising to the challenge of these depictions, Asian Americans find bold and innovative ways to define their own image and tell their own stories.

Anna May Wong with Metallic Flower by Carl Van VechtenCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Anna May Wong

Anna May Wong's family has been in the U.S. since the Gold Rush. She grows up in Los Angeles where her father runs Sam Kee Laundry. They are the only Chinese family in a Mexican and Eastern European neighborhood, just over the hill from Chinatown. From childhood, Anna is enraptured by “the flickers.” At the age of 17 she has her first leading role in the 1922 drama, The Toll of the Sea. 

Anna May Wong on White BackdropCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Anna dazzles on the screen, but she faces a glass ceiling within the industry. In her screen roles she becomes the consummate screen Dragon Lady, a caricature she abhors.

Anna May Wong Letter to Fania Page 1 by Anna May WongCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

In 1935, there is news of the MGM studio blockbuster production of Pearl S. Buck's book The Good Earth, which is set in China.

Anna knows that the leading role of Olan would transform her career.

But the part goes to a white actress, Luise Rainier. Instead Anna is asked to audition for the role of the concubine Lotus.

Anna May Wong Letter to Fania Page 2 by Anna May WongCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

By Alfred EisenstaedtLIFE Photo Collection

Wong rejects the role of Lotus saying "If you let me play Olan, I will be very glad. But you're asking me–with Chinese blood–to do the only unsympathetic role in the picture featuring an all-American cast."

Anna May Wong in Top Hat by Carl Van VechtenCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Despite these barriers, Anna May Wong's career spans 40 years. The "girl from Chinatown" continues to break barriers and challenge the conventions of race and gender against all odds.

Asian American Students Sitting by Victor WongCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

The Asian American Movement

1968 is a transformative year in American history with the civil rights movement, assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Vietnam War. In that year, a new identity is born to a young generation. No longer "Orientals," they call themselves "Asian Americans."

Dan Gonzalez in a ClassroomCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Students like Dan Gonzalez at San Francisco State College, join forces with the Third World Liberation Front to demand ethnic studies.

They mount the longest campus strike in U.S. history.

Asian American Berkeley Students by Victor WongCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

The students are hungry to learn a history and culture that has been missing from their education.

Behind the scenes, they draft a brand new curriculum from scratch.

Across the nation, it is a time of awakening and change in Asian American communities and culture.

And for the first time, the field of Asian American Studies is born.

Vincent Chin in SunglassesCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

The Impact of Vincent Chin

On the night of his bachelor party in June, 1982, Vincent Chin is killed by two autoworkers who mistake him for Japanese. It is the midst of a deep auto recession and Japanese imports are blamed. When his killers receive no jail time, a campaign for justice is sparked. 

Helen Zia at Vincent Chin EventCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Helen Zia helps lead the campaign to tell the story of Vincent Chin. She is driven by the belief that "the world wants to know how the Asian American community feels about this."

Mee Moua GraduatingCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Hmong refugee Mee Moua is a college student when she learns of the Vincent Chin case.

For the first time, she realizes she is not alone.

Mee Moua Oath of OfficeCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Mee and a new generation of diverse Asian Americans are inspired by these stories of justice to stake a claim in the future. She becomes the first Hmong American elected to statewide office.

Viet Thanh Nguyen Receives PulitzerCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen is a child when his family flees their home after the 1975 Fall of Saigon  They are among the 1.2 million Southeast refugees who resettle in the U.S. after the Vietnam War. Says Viet "I was born in Vietnam but made in America." 

Viet Thanh Nguyen OutsideCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Viet challenges the narrative that puts Americans at the center of the war, despite the fact that Southeast Asians bore the brunt of the devastation.

In his books, Viet writes the story of that experience through a Vietnamese lens.

Viet Thanh Nguyen Pulitzer GroupCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

In 2015, Viet is awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his novel, The Sympathizer, a darkly comedic tale of an undercover communist agent whose loyalties are split between Vietnam and the United States.

Alex Ko Family BirthdayCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Alex Ko

Alex Ko's family immigrate from Korea to Los Angeles to pursue their own American dream. Alex is part of the "1.5 generation," born in Asia but raised in the U.S. In 1992 the Ko's dreams are shattered. The family's video store is destroyed when violence erupts after the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police, and the killing of Latasha Harlins by a Korean store owner. 

Alex Ko's Parents at WorkCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

Alex makes a film called Pokdong, to try to make sense of that rupture for his family and his city. For the first time his parents are able to talk about those days of violence and reckoning.

UCLA Asian American Studies MA Program by UCLA Asian American Studies CenterCenter for Asian American Media (CAAM)

The Next Generation of Storytelllers

The Asian American story is no longer new, but there are still many new stories to tell. To learn more about these stories and more, check out Asian Americans on PBS on May 11-12 at 8pm!

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
Explore more
Related theme
Asian Pacific American Cultures
Explore stories and artworks across Asian Pacific American Cultures
View theme
Google apps