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Voyage to the New World

Asian American butcher
"Today and for over two hundred years, Asians have been a part of the life of the Americas. How did these many people get here? What was it like for those who came first? What would they tell us, if they could speak?" - Narrator

Most people think of Asians as recent immigrants to the Americas, but the first Asians--Filipino sailors--settled in the bayous of Louisiana a decade before the Revolutionary War. Asians have been an integral part of American history since that time.

COOLIES, SAILORS AND SETTLERS explores how and why people from the Philippines, China and India first arrived on the shores of North and South America, and it portrays their survival amid harsh conditions, their re-migrations, and finally their permanent settlement in the New World.

The film travels across oceans and centuries of time to trace the globally interlocking story of East and West--from a village in Guangdong Province and Spanish military barracks in Manila to a Chinese cemetery in Havana and the Peabody Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, where early Asian imports are on display.

The first program of ANCESTORS IN THE AMERICAS introduces the "documemoir" approach that characterizes the series. This approach stretches the traditional documentary genre in order to represent an inaccessible past and imagine what life was like for these early voyagers to the West.

The dramatic voice and presence of the Asian Everyman narrator represents the Asian perspective throughout the film, capturing the first-person perspective of those who experienced this history. In seeking out his own story, he guides us in examining and interpreting historical records, and his voice conveys a drama and passion often absent in conventional historical narratives.

New York City

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"Asian emigration had as much to do with developments in Europe as it did with developments in the Americas or in Asia. Overseas migration was part of European colonizing efforts in different parts of the world." - Professor Sucheng Chan

In looking for the source of Asians in the Americas, the film points to Western expansionism and the self-serving idea that the "white man's burden" was to "save" the barbarian masses of the world. Thus, the West colonized much of Asia as well as the New World, a move vividly illustrated in the film's mapping of these global movements.

"Asia was always on the Western mind," observes scholar Gary Okihiro. Both Columbus' nautical quest for Spain and, three centuries later, Lewis and Clark's exploration of the Northwest Passage--on assignment from Thomas Jefferson--were journeys undertaken in search of a direct route to Asia and with it, wealth from global trade in textiles, spices, crafts, porcelains, silk and tea.

At the center of early trade with Europe and the New World was the Philippines. As far back as the 17th century, Filipino sailors worked on Spanish galleons which plied trade routes between Spain's two colonies: Manila in the Phillipines and Acapulco in Mexico. Typically a third to half of their crews jumped ship upon hitting port.

Some of the Filipinos who left their ships in Mexico ultimately found their way to the bayous of Louisiana, where they settled in the 1760s. The film shows the remains of Filipino shrimping villages in Louisiana, where, eight to ten generations later, their descendants still reside, making them the oldest continuous settlement of Asians in America.

South Asian woman
"America may think immigrants always come to get something from America, from the West, and take it away, but really it was very different....Long before Asians immigrated, when East met West, it was the West that came to us."- Narrator

In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the Western powers, and especially the young American republic, depended upon the "China trade" to build their economic strength. During this period China was considered to be very rich and powerful, while the fledgling American republic was relatively poor and weak. The richest man in the world of that era was the Canton merchant Houqua, who earned his fortune on nothing more than trading in Chinese tea.

In a Massachusetts museum we see a vast display of paintings, porcelains, furniture, textile and silver work made by skilled Chinese craftsmen for the world's markets. In the collection made for the U.S. market is the set of china engraved with "J" for Thomas Jefferson.

Merchants from America and China enjoyed cordial relations for some time, but these golden years did not last. Of the commercial trade items between China and the West, tea became the most important, as its popularity grew throughout Great Britain and the thirteen colonies. The British imported far more tea than they could export goods to China, creating a trade imbalance. When the trade deficit grew devastatingly large by the 1830s, England, with help from some well-known Americans, began growing and smuggling opium from India—which was under British control—into China, where it was sold to pay for tea.

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