A Chinese-American family gains an understanding of their Mississippi roots.
In ‘Far East Deep South,’ Charles Chiu and his Chinese American family travel from California to the Mississippi Delta in search of their shared, unknown past. What they uncover is a peek into an often-overlooked piece of American history, where Asian American immigrants struggled alongside Black communities against prejudice and discrimination. In this interview, director & producer Larissa Lam and producer Baldwin Chiu talk about how their familial relationship with Charles added to the film’s production.
The following interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
How did your own identity inspire the making of this film?
Larissa Lam: I am the first one in my family born [in America], and my parents were born in China. So, I had a very different perspective. I certainly struggled with my sense of belonging growing up. I always felt like I wasn't quite American enough, and then, when I would go overseas to visit relatives, I wasn't quite Chinese enough. So, the struggle with identity has been with me for a very long time.
There was this thirst to know more about the history, not just about Baldwin's family, but I think the history of the Asians in the South, that really prompted me to make this movie. Because so much of this history isn't told in our history books. I know we all learn about segregation. We all learn about the American South, and normally nowhere in that picture [are] Chinese Americans, and so this story fascinated me, and I hope it broadens how we look at American history and how we look at people as Americans.
What did seeking out this history mean for your family?
Baldwin Chiu: My daughter was born, and I saw my dad holding my daughter, and I was thinking, "Huh, I've never experienced this before. I have no idea what this feeling is even about, to be held by a grandfather." I never had a grandfather. And that just kind of made me wonder, "Well, why hasn't my dad ever talked about his father, and why did I never have [a grandfather]?” And so I think that longing started to come out again.
Larissa Lam: I think for Baldwin's dad, Charles, it was cathartic. It was difficult for him to reconcile the past, but yet, the revelations that we come across [were] what made the film and the journey remarkable. I wanted to show other people...the personal journey that he was on to connect with the father that he never knew.
He ended up discovering so much more than he realized, and the factors and the reasons why the family was separated for so many years, and why he grew up fatherless, and a lot of that was because of the laws of the land, especially the Chinese Exclusion Act.
What about the Asian American experience do you hope the audience will take away?
Baldwin Chiu: A lot of our history has been lost. And a lot of people don't understand that the Asian American community has been in America for a very long time. We've gone through a lot of discrimination, and we've shared some of that with other people of color. And because people don't know that, and even our community doesn't really know that, and because we put our heads down and say like, "Move forward. Don't look back," we've forgotten the reasons why we came here in the first place. We've forgotten all the things that we've done to make it easier for the next generations to come over.
And we aren't looked at as part of America. We've been seen as outsiders, because people have not remembered all the things that we've done in the past. I certainly hope that when people watch this film that they will see that Asian Americans are Americans.
Larissa Lam: You know, we always say that our film is not just a Chinese American story, or an Asian American story, but it really is an American story. The way I even framed the film, I think, was out of response, even prior to the pandemic, [to] some of the racial negativity that we personally had experienced being Asian American.
What we want people to see is: You wouldn't look at somebody who is Caucasian and automatically think, "Oh, you must be from France or Germany. Where are you really from?” You would say that they were American. Or even if you looked at someone African American – most people wouldn't say, "Oh, are you from Senegal? Are you from Kenya?" There is a sense that somebody that looks of Asian descent, and I would even say the Latinx community also experiences this, there's this othering. That, for some reason, we’re not from here. We're not – quote-unquote – American.
And so...we just hope that our daughter won't encounter the same racism and racial bias that we have encountered growing up, so that her generation and future generations will be American.