Ancestors in the Americas
Series in 3 parts (Part III is in production)

Genre: Documentary/Docu-memoir
Ethnicity: General Asian American
Themes: History, Immigrant/Refugee Experience/Diaspora, Political/Legal Issues
Date: 1997
Running Time: 57 min. each (Parts I and II)
Director/Producer/Writer: Loni Ding
Center for Educational Telecommunication (CET)
Institution Price: Part I, $265; Part II, $265
Quicktime movie clips available at:
In recent years, the Asian immigrant population has become one of the most visible and fastest growing immigrant populations in America.  The Chinese Laundromat has become a common sight in the urban and suburban sprawl, Asian cuisine has experienced an increase in popularity, and close-knit communities of Asian immigrants can be found in most major American cities.  However, the question remains: Where did these Asian immigrants come from?  When and why did they come?  What impact have Asian immigrants had on American culture, society, and history?

The first part of Loni Ding’s documentary series Ancestors in the Americas attempts to tackle some of these questions, plotting the history of Asian immigration to America with particular focus on the role of Asian immigrants in American history.  The documentary focuses on China’s trade relations with Europe and the Americas in the 19th century, providing an especially rich discussion of China as a world exporter of tea, the opium trade in China, and the resulting Opium Wars.  Setting the stage for the European and American imperial dominance of Asia in the second half of the 19th century, the documentary explores the importation of Chinese laborers known as "coolies" to the Americas.  Although the film’s narration is at times overpoweringly didactic — harshly criticizing European and American exploitation of Asian peoples — Part I of Ancesters in the Americas is an informative and accessible treatment of the history of Asian immigration to America.

The second part of the documentary focuses on the Chinese-American contribution to the nineteenth-century development of the American West.  The film argues that the economic development of California could not have occurred without the tremendous contribution of these immigrants, particularly in the areas of agriculture, land reclamation, and mining.  However, it also conveys the harsh discrimination endured by this community.  The documentary includes a clearly presented discussion of the unfair laws that targeted Chinese immigrants, as well as the use of the American legal system by immigrants to oppose these discriminatory laws.  An especially interesting comparison is made between the Dread Scott case and the legal position of Chinese-Americans during this period, which helps to contextualize the problem for those unfamiliar with Asian-American history.  The film also discusses the social effects of an overwhelmingly male Chinese immigrant population and the lives of the few Chinese women who did settle in the West, many of whom received the generic moniker, "China Mary."  Like Part I, Part II of Ancestors in the Americas provides a clear presentation of the hardships endured by these immigrants and the influence they had on the development of their new home.

Carman, John.  "Asians’ Untold Story, Told Poorly."  San Francisco Chronicle.  March 22, 2001.

Chan, Priscilla.  "Review of Ancestors in the Americas and Interview with Loni Ding."  Asian American Movement EZine, 2001.

Liu, Haiming.  "Ancestors in the Americas: Coolies, Sailors, Settlers."  Amerasia Journal. Vol 26, Issue 3 (2000/2001).

Teicher, Stacey A.  "A fresh eye on the Asian-American story."  Christian Science Monitor.  January 22, 2002.

Wood, Irene.  "Ancestors in the Americas."  The Booklist.  November 1, 1999.

Supplementary Materials
Ancestors in the Americas, Center for Educational Telecommunications
Features viewer’s guides with pre- and post-viewing discussion questions, as well as detailed summaries, primary documents, quotes and photos, and more.
Ancestors in the Americas, Public Broadcast Service
Features as a detailed timeline of Asian American history, links to other websites,  and free downloadable (as PDF files) classroom guides.  These guides are probably more suited for junior high and high school classrooms than for college-level teaching.
An Interview with Loni Ding, AsiaSource, Asia Society

Asian American Filmography ExEAS