Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: PBS Series Explores How Asian Americans Contributed to Rise of Silicon Valley

PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE: A new docu-series examines the role of Asian Americans in shaping different eras of social and cultural turmoil in the US, from the 19th century to the modern era.

As hate crimes against Asian Americans and their businesses continue to escalate during the Covid-19 era, a digital town hall takes place from 5 to 6pm Thursday on Facebook, in part to help advance an upcoming five-part PBS series, Asian Americans, airing across the country on May 11 and 12.

The Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) in San Francisco conceived the series in the long-standing PBS tradition of comprehensive, ethnic-historical documentaries. Told through personal histories, Asian Americans explores the impact of this demographic on the country's past, present and future, all illuminating the significant roles Asian Americans played in shaping American history and identity. In the series, which this columnist has already watched, we get to see the first wave of Asian immigrants circa 1850, then various articulations of identity through eras of social and cultural turmoil in the 20th century, and then finally to the ways Asian immigrants and refugees contributed to the rise of Silicon Valley.

"It's not just a series by and for Asian Americans, but it really tried to speak to American history," says Don Young, CAAM's Director of Programs. "In particular, our responsibility in relation to America, but also other communities of color."

Asian Americans was completed in five episodes before the pandemic unfolded, but one can't watch the series without the current era in mind. We learn about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, then later eras in which Asians could not own land or marry white people, plus Japanese internment, the civil rights era, Asian stereotypes in Hollywood, the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982 and the ways in which the media pitted the Korean and black communities of Los Angeles against each other during the Rodney King riots. With the current rise of racist attacks in response to the coronavirus, the sixth episode is writing itself in real time.

"I think a moment like now, where clearly class and race are going to be intertwined in how we dig out of this moment, I think the series is a great response to the people who oversimplify it or say, 'Oh, it's just a virus from China,' where it's much more complicated and nuanced," Young says.

One particular episode explores contributions made by Asian Americans in Silicon Valley. Jerry Yang reflects on starting Yahoo back in the '90s. Norm Mineta likewise reflects on his push to counter racist dynamics in the post-9/11 era. Pulitzer-winning novelist Viet Thanh Nguyen, who grew up in downtown San Jose, also appears several times, providing historical context and commentary.

We also see how high-tech companies exploited Southeast Asian refugees during the height of the dotcom boom by paying them below minimum wage to assemble circuit boards piece by piece from their homes, in total violation of labor and safety laws. The immigrants were paid by the piece, which gave rise to the term, "piece work."

With no education like those of the successful "model minority" students who might start their own companies, these immigrants provided the foundation for Apple's expansion into China and for the rise of the chip-manufacturing industry in Taiwan. Neither would have occurred without Asian-American immigrants in Santa Clara County toiling away or building the connections, just as the transcontinental railroad would never have been completed without Chinese labor.

In both those eras of modernization, America elevated its global standing on the backbones of Asian-American immigrants. Former Mercury News-reporter K. Oanh Ha, who originally helped break the stories about piecework 20 years ago, even appears in the episode, reflecting on her days at the Merc.

Because the series was completed before the coronavirus spread across the country, Young believes that now, with all the hate crimes currently being reported, the series will provide a way for all Americans to place this moment in proper context.

"If you step away, you realize fear, anger, racism—these are cycles that people live," Young says. "Hopefully looking at this history will give audiences a sense that this has happened before; we can dig out of it. But, also, our communities contributed an awful lot to this country. Not in a 'rah-rah' way, but in a very clear-eyed, historical manner."