A fresh eye on the Asian-American story

Observing is an instinct for Loni Ding. As a little girl, she would lie awake at night, straining to hear her parents talk. It was the 1930s, and hers was the first Asian family to move into their San Francisco neighborhood. So they waited until night fell to speak in their native tongue about family issues. It was "another level of reality" that little Loni couldn't bear to miss.

When she grew up, her penchant for probing life's complexities took her around the world, with camera operators in tow. Her quest has been to turn what she observes into compelling stories - researched thoroughly enough to be called documentaries, but done in a way that prompted her to invent a new label: documemoir.

Ms. Ding's films tell the untold stories of Asian-Americans. "The Color of Honor," for example, centers on Japanese-American soldiers and families who were relocated in the US during WWII. "Island of Secret Memories" goes inside Angel Island, a San Francisco Bay immigration station during the early 1900s.

The documemoirs, which have earned Emmy awards and other recognition, blend images from past and present, words from court documents and poetry. Some have a narrative voice that is not a neutral observer of history, but rather a symbol of it, speaking subjectively for people whose thoughts and lives are often ignored or oversimplified by official records.

"I want to give you impressions, impressions that hopefully will stir your imagination, that will capture some slight resonance with something you yourself experienced," Ding says with an intense expression, as if she's been transported from the cafe where she sits in Berkeley, Calif., to a favorite place of discovery.

Ding's mind seems as full as her nearly 100-year-old house in downtown Berkeley, across the bay from her hometown. She lives upstairs; her books, paperwork, and editing equipment live downstairs; and a jade plant lives on the small front porch. Here, a few part-time assistants help run her nonprofit production and consulting company, the Center for Educational Telecommunications. She often hires them from the classes she teaches on media analysis and film production through the ethnic studies department at the nearby University of California. A variety of advocacy and public-service roles round out her calendar.

Her most recent project takes a broad look at how Asians came to settle in the United States and other parts of the Americas - whether as "coolies" (low-paid laborers), merchants, or seekers after gold. Parts 1 and 2 of "Ancestors in the Americas," which trace primarily the 18th and 19th centuries, are periodically broadcast by public television stations around the country, and Ding hopes to finish up Part 3 early next year.

Stories of resistance

Countering prejudice is certainly one of Ding's goals, but she also wants to satisfy viewers who, like her, yearn to catch a glimpse of something more subjective: How might these people have felt as they cultivated farms in a strange new land or struggled to earn enough money to send for family members?

"I counter [stereotypes] by replacing them with something that I think is more interesting, more human, and more engaging and compelling," she says. "When you talk about the history of people of color in this country, there's always the possibility that you could fall into victim history, telling lament after lament. I think it's necessary to present what those things are, whether hardships or obstacles. But it's an incomplete story until you get to what they did about it. You have to get to the resistance, the strategies of survival."

"Ancestors," for example, reports that Chinese immigrants brought more than 170 cases before the US Supreme Court, helping to establish such fundamental rights as automatic US citizenship to anyone born here.

Digging for buried treasures

One theme that emerges in "Ancestors" is how Asians' contributions have often been erased in the recording of American history. The voice-over from the symbolic ancestor puts it this way: "What is history when the reporter does not record and the camera does not see? We walked this land. We worked this land. Our bones are in this land. Find our history and tell it."

Ding, too, has walked the land - to help unbury that history. Her travels, made possible by years of fundraising, took her to Hong Kong, China, India, Cuba, and the Philippines. Certain places have an "aura," she says. "You need to just stand there and think about it."

Even though they shaped the frontier West in major ways (the focus of Part 2 of "Ancestors"), Asian immigrants to the US were often perceived as visitors, not settlers. And Ding is battling that image in real time, not just in history. "If there's one single thing that is a very common concept, it's that the Asian is a foreigner, is an alien person. No matter how many years they've been here, the question will always come up - where are you from?"

That's why the findings she treasured most during her research in the US were those that showed how Asians made a home for themselves here. There's the Chinese temple in California, where she found a headrest made in the 1870s. These headrests were made out of ceramic for centuries, but in their new home, the immigrants made this one by wrapping cowhide around wood.

In Oregon, Ding stood amid 60 acres of rocks that had been carefully stacked by Chinese men. It was their systematic way of digging for gold left behind by whites, who sold the land cheaply after scouring it. She was most intrigued by what a local archaeologist told her about a circle of undisturbed earth nearby. This is where the men gathered to eat and conduct ceremonies. According to their practice of Feng Shui, the spot had to have water running toward it and trees or bushes on one side.

Audiences moved to tears, and laughter

Putting together these stories still carries the excitement of childhood daydreaming, but Ding is also motivated by feedback from people who see her films.

She tells of a Chinese-born man who e-mailed her after watching the show about the frontier West with his American-born son. "He said, 'I always thought that the Chinese in this country allowed themselves to be led like sheep to the slaughter. That they accepted all these terrible things ..., they didn't feel any need to resist it. And your film tells me that it was not like that at all. I cried, seeing the story, and my son cried. And I said to him, this is your country and mine. We are going to stay.' "

Another response came in from a woman who showed "Ancestors" at a national multicultural conference. "The people were really amazed at the similarity between Black and Asian, the voyage on the ship, the being excluded," the woman commented in an excerpt now printed in Ding's promotional materials. "They laughed in all the right places," she added. In one scene, a museum curator in a California town notices that the Chinese men are not shown in the 19th-century photos of lumber workers and ranchers. When the viewers heard him comment, "It must be on purpose, huh?" they reportedly roared with laughter at his moment of enlightenment.

Ding constantly sees such parallels between past and present, especially because so many Asian-Americans, and others, grapple with dual identities. That's why she blends modern-day footage - whether of farm workers in China or students on the streets of New York's Chinatown - with photographic stills of eras gone by.

"We are alive, we are thinking about these things now," she says. "This is not a docudrama; it is today, straddling both times. One foot is in the present and the other is in the past."

r For more information, including film clips, see www.cetel.org or www.pbs.org/ancestorsintheamericas.

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