As civil war and famine ravaged the population of southern China in the mid-19th century, word of the California Gold Rush reached the port of Canton. Lured by the prospect of making a fortune in America, young Chinese men set sail across the Pacific by the thousands.
They were prepared for hard work and sacrifice but could never have imagined the epic struggle they and their descendants would face in the U.S. or the breadth of the American dream they would be chasing.
In the three-part series "Becoming American: The Chinese Experience," Bill Moyers and a team of filmmakers look at why the Chinese immigrated, the conflicts they faced and, ultimately, the tug of war between old and new worlds. The story is told in human terms, revealing the sweep and nuance of an almost secret past largely ignored by the history books.
The show is broadcast from 9 to 10:30 tonight through Thursday on KCET, followed tonight by "Becoming American: Personal Journeys," a half-hour companion program in which Moyers interviews prominent Chinese Americans.
In Part 1 tonight, titled "Gold Mountain Dreams," "The Chinese Experience" illuminates the role of Chinese Americans in settling the West and building the transcontinental railroad.
When gold strikes tapped out and hard economic times came, Chinese immigrants faced a wave of hatred. White labor leaders rallied against the "almond-eyed lepers" they saw as undercutting their livelihood. Racist fervor led to an epidemic of U.S. laws, including the landmark Chinese Exclusion Act.
"America was open to everybody who wanted to come," says one historian. "The only people we excluded by law at that time were prostitutes, lepers and morons, and in 1882 we added the Chinese to that list."
Part 2, "Between Two Worlds," explores a new era of violence and discrimination, as assault and murder became more present dangers for a people marginalized by the law. Men found refuge in Chinatowns across the country, but with Chinese custom and U.S. law keeping most women away, they found it hard to establish families.
As the Chinese immigrant population fell sharply, newspapers celebrated the prospect of its demise. But immigrants fought for their rights using the only tools of democracy available to them, the courts.
In Part 3, "No Turning Back," Chinese Americans found themselves embraced by the U.S. during World War II, allied in the fight against Japan. An embarrassed government repealed the exclusion laws.
But as the population rose again, hostility to Asians in general lingered. In Detroit on June 19, 1982, Chinese American Vincent Chin was mistaken for Japanese by two disgruntled white auto workers, who beat him to death and later plea-bargained their way to probation. The outrage brought Asian Americans together in protest as never before.
Though many children of Chinese immigrants clash with their parents in America, the old-school emphasis on education has paid off. Yahoo Inc. co-founder Jerry Yang recalls how his mom made him memorize words from the dictionary every day, then quizzed him. Much has changed in 150 years, but not the tradition of hard work.
'Becoming American: The Chinese Experience'
What: "Becoming American: The Chinese Experience"
When: Today-Thursday, 9-10:30 p.m.
Where: KCET and KVCR
Host: Bill Moyers
Rating: PBS has rated the series TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).