Documentary and play examine Asian role in American history

A “certificate of resilience” showed audience participant Fred Dow. (Image courtesy of Valerie Li.)

A screening of documentary “The Chinese Exclusion Act” gathered historians, immigrant advocates and filmmakers for a discussion on perceptions of “Americanness” on Dec. 7 at the Old South Meeting House.

The event was hosted by the Chinese Historical Society of New England, Old South Meeting House, Boston Asian American Film Festival (BAAFF), the Lyric Stage and other organizations.

A 30-minute excerpt of the documentary, directed by Ric Burns and Li-Shin Yu, traced the history of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. The act, which passed with near unanimous support, marked the first piece of U.S. immigration legislation to discriminate against an ethnic group.

Director Benny Sato Ambush read an excerpt from play “Hold These Truths,” which runs at the Lyric Stage until Dec. 31. (Image courtesy of Valerie Li.)

After the screening, director Benny Sato Ambush read an excerpt of “Hold These Truths.” Jeanne Sakata’s play is based on the true story of Gordon Hirabayashi, a Japanese-American who resisted internment during World War II. It plays at the Lyric Stage until Dec. 31.

Paul Watanabe, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies at UMass Boston, spoke on the connections between the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment during World War II.

Director Paul Watanabe spoke about the Japanese-American internment during World War II on Dec. 7 at the Old South Meeting House. (Image courtesy of Valerie Li.)

“The 1882 Act set a precedent for the Congress to pass more discriminatory bills to allow racial segregation and this led to the 1942 Japanese internment,” Watanabe said. “‘A Jap is a Jap;’ racial affinity was not severed by migration.”

“For the Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Asian Americans, our Muslim brothers and sisters, the notion is no matter how long they’ve lived here, the place still doesn’t belong to you,” Watanabe added.

The documentary was screened by BAAFF in partnership with ArtsEmerson and premiered on PBS in May.

Susan Chinsen, BAAFF director, said that “given the country’s political climate of the past year, people are really looking for a place to contribute to their community. Either you’re a filmmaker, a volunteer or someone attending the screenings.”

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