‘Far East Deep South’: Panel discussion on the history and evolution of Afro-Chinese relations in America

Society & Culture

“There has to be an intentional effort on both parts to bring our communities and understanding together. I think the more we can have real relationships between our communities, the more we realize that we have more in common than we do differences, and the more we can see each other in a positive light,” says Larissa Lam, Director of Far East Deep South.

far east deep south serica initiative panel

Many people know of the discrimination that minority groups in America have suffered but few have seen how this discrimination has impacted the relationship between the Afro-Chinese community. Far East Deep South is a documentary that explores the unknown history of Chinese immigrants that landed in America’s deep south and how they and their Black neighbors were able to look beyond cultural differences to create a community.

The following text contains highlights from a Serica panel discussion with the documentary’s filmmakers, Baldwin Chiu and Larissa Lam, as well as Dr. Keisha Brown, co-founder of the Black China Caucus, to discuss some of the lessons we can learn from the film and how we can use these lessons today. You can watch the full discussion here. (Interview has been edited for clarity and length).

Serica: Baldwin and Larissa, can you tell us a little about your journey in making the film, and why you decided to make a film about your family in the first place?

Baldwin Chiu: My journey really started with my daughter being born. We really didn’t know where our heritage was and we recently learned that my grandfather and great-grandfather were in Mississippi. I figured that we should probably just try and go out there and look. This started off as a home video; we had no intentions of making a film. We literally thought we would find only two men buried there, my grandfather and great-grandfather. So we took the trip to pay respects to our ancestors, a very important milestone in Chinese culture. We thought we’d pay our respects and get some good Southern food and go home, we’d never go back to Mississippi again.

Larissa Lam: The film is pretty much what happened to our family. We showed up in Mississippi and didn’t know anything, didn’t even know where the cemetery was. And then we ended up hearing about the Chinese, the Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum. And then all of these revelations came about the Chinese in Mississippi, a history that we’d never learned in history class growing up in the U.S. It was mind blowing to me that our community was also impacted by the same laws on segregation as the Black community. All of a sudden it felt like the scales had fallen off my eyes. I wondered why more people don’t know about this. For me to know that there were Chinese and other Asians in the South really gave me a stronger sense of belonging, that our history wasn’t just building railroads, that there was so much more history to our community. That was really what compelled us to make the movie so that our daughter wouldn’t have to grow up dealing with some of the issues of belonging and identity that we struggled with growing up.

Serica: What sense of belonging did you come away with having made the film? Were there certain holes and gaps that made sense for you after from the experience of making this film and learning more about your family history?

Baldwin: Growing up, the whole idea of being foreign was always with me because I wasn’t sure when I was Chinese and when I was American. I always felt like I had to choose, or people would choose for me, when I was allowed to be Chinese or when I should be American. Being a perpetual foreigner basically means you don’t belong here and you never have belonged here and you probably never will belong here. After this film was done, we learned so much more about our lineage. I looked at my daughter and thought it would be such a shame, six generations later, to have the same questions asked of her, for people to look at her when she grows up and also assume she didn’t belong. I realized that I don’t have to choose when I’m Chinese or when I’m American; I can be both at the same time all the time. And that should be a common feeling that all of us in our communities should be able to feel.

Serica: I found it so moving, Baldwin, that your great-grandfather Charlie Lou, extended credit to the Black American community during the Great Depression. He gave people groceries from his store and a lot of these actions allowed them to survive at a time when white grocery stores weren’t doing these kinds of things for their Black customers. From the conversations you had while making this film, what do you think accounted for this strong, perhaps unexpected, bond between the Chinese and Black communities in Mississippi at the time?

Baldwin: Certainly one of the things is this symbiotic relationship. Their similar struggle forced both the Chinese community and the Black community to live in the same predominantly Black area, because both groups had been prohibited from living in white neighborhoods. The white community didn’t want to do business at a Chinese store and didn’t want Black or Chinese customers to come into their stores. They were working through the hardships together, and they understood that in order for both of them to survive that time, they really needed to support each other.

Serica: Has this sense of affinity between these two communities changed over time? What was your sense of it when you went down to Mississippi to film this documentary?

Larissa: We’ve heard from some of the older folks in both the Black and Chinese communities, where they say that a lot of younger people don’t know this history, so they don’t have as strong of a bond. I’m really glad we’re having these conversations, because I think that’s part of the issue. I think it was very enlightening to know that there was this intersection, the shared history. Even within the AAPI community, we don’t know a lot of our history, so we don’t know these bonds. It’s imperative that we continue to keep that history and bring that history because currently it’s not even in Mississippi.

Serica: We’re now living in a cultural and social moment where there’s a lot of conversation, but perhaps not enough about relations between different communities of color and about allyship. Allyship is incredibly important at this juncture of social change with the Black Lives Matter movement, and with anti-AAPI hate work. There’s not often a lot of reckoning about racism within the AAPI community itself, particularly with respect to anti-Black racism. What do you two see as your film’s main takeaways in 2021? What are the lessons for us to be better allies to each other, just as Baldwin your great-grandfather and grandfather were for their Black neighbors?

Larissa: One of the things that was most important in making the film, which is why we included the Black and Asian story, was learning about our shared history. I never felt a personal connection to that history until I stepped into Mississippi. It reminds me a lot of my ‘three F’s.’ A lot of times when the Asian community thinks about the Black community, you’re either fearful or you’re a fan of them, but you’re rarely a friend to them. How many of us actually break bread with them? How many of us are taking them out to dim sum and making them eat chicken feet, you know? We love doing that. Food diplomacy is awesome, but even just getting together, talking about life, is so important. There has to be an intentional effort on both parts to bring our communities and understanding together. I think the more we can have real relationships between our communities, the more we realize that we have more in common than we do differences, and the more we can see each other in a positive light.

Serica: Exposure, friendships, and real relationships really form the foundation to the antidote against stereotypes and towards allyship. Dr. Brown, you’ve spoken to us about your work at the Black China Caucus about the under-representation of Black academic journalists in the China watchers space. Can you tell us a little bit more about the Black China Caucus (BCC) and what you might see as some of the main causes of Black under-representation in China studies and how BCC is working to address this?

Dr. Keisha Brown: I co-founded the Black China Caucus in March 2020 with Mark Akpaninyie, out of a desire to better understand who else is working as Black professionals in the China space. We put out a survey to solicit individuals for a database, and when we got so many responses so quickly, we realized that despite at times feeling like we were by ourselves, we realized that there was a whole community out there. In a little over a year, we’re at almost 200 members, and we’re focused now on professional development with the idea that we’re creating community and building community resources. We’ve created a space that allows our members to come in and be their authentic selves, but also to signal to the China watchers community that we’re here and have been here, and to bring us into these conversations. I think the biggest takeaways for the BCC is giving each other support to continue to do the work we do in our respective fields, because we all have our own stories about how we got to China. We can’t afford to have one particular view of China because China is not a monolith. It is a diverse place, and we need to also make sure that we have diverse perspectives and experiences to reflect that, especially in this moment where the bilateral relationship is in this very precarious position.

Serica: We’ve been talking about Asian American perceptions of Black Americans and also perceptions of Black Americans in China itself. What are your thoughts on how these two levels — the level of relations between the Chinese American and Black American diaspora and the level of transnational relations — relate to each other and interact and intersect?

Keisha: In the transnational space, there are conversations being had at three scales in China: government, academic, and the individual. And in many ways, they are not in conjunction with each other. For instance, you have the CCP putting out posts and tweets supporting Black Lives Matter, to academic institutions like my own doing research about race and Blackness in different spaces. But on an individual level, they’re not necessarily having these connections. As China grows in terms of global influence, I think there’s a lot of work to be done in connecting these three levels in a way that makes these ideas have a conversation, so that we don’t have what we had in June 2020, where you have this huge anti-Black backlash against individuals who are living in Guangzhou where they were being discriminated against. How do we get to a level of engagement to where you’re doing the research and making proclamations, but that they are still in some ways quite disconnected from the realities and the everyday way in which these ideas are actually being perpetuated. How do we break through that?


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