Larissa Lam, director of Far East Deep South (Photo credit: Larissa Lam)
A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of watching documentary Far East Deep South during the Asian American International Film Festival. While I knew it was about a family patriarch, Charles Chiu, rediscovering the life of his father KC Lou in the Mississippi delta, what I didn’t expect was a story about an untold portion of Mississippi history as it relates to Black and Chinese American communities.
I spoke with Far East Deep South director Larissa Lam about the journey she and her family took to discover her father-in-law Charles’ previously unknown ties to Mississippi and what his story could mean to viewers who want to increase inclusivity in their lives.
Monique: I really enjoyed watching the movie, and as a southerner, it really taught me a lot about. Even though I am from Alabama, I don’t actually know that much about Mississippi, except for what I’ve seen in Mississippi Burning. And that’s the most depressing part of Mississippi history. So, I was intrigued to learn this bit of history about Mississippi through this family’s journey. The film has been making its rounds at the, uh, at, in the circuits and festivals–what have you made of the response to the film so far?
Larissa Lam: Well, I think it’s been amazing that the response to our film has come from a very diverse group of people. When we first initially tell people about the story, they might think like, “Oh, it’s just a Chinese or Chinese American or Asian American story,” but what we [felt] in the way we set out to make the film was [that] we thought a lot of these scenes are just universal, about wanting to know where you came from and trying to find a connection to your family.
Even this issue of discrimination hits all different ethnic groups and immigrant groups [that] have come to this country…We’ve had such a large cross-section of people [see the film]. I mean, we’ve been part of Black film festivals. We’ve been part of multi-ethnic film festivals in different regions, so it’s not even limited to the South. So, um, I think it’s just been wonderful that people have been really resonating with the film,
part of the movie that surprised me was when the Chiu family did realize that they had Southern roots and that their reaction, or particularly Charles’ sons’ reactions, were like, “Well, I don’t know anything about the South. I didn’t know we came from there.” So when you were making the films, what did you think about this idea that people might not even know parts of the country where they’re descended from? I’m asking this from the perspective of a southerner because the South is usually disregarded, except if we’re talking bout politics or the election or the Civil Rights movement. So with the Chius coming from California, not really knowing anything about the South,what do you think it did for them to learn they had roots in a part of the country they might not have realized?
Yeah. I mean, I grew up in California too. And if you didn’t know, I’m actually married to Baldwin Chiu [one of Charles’ sons]…Baldwin and I both grew up in California and nowhere in our history books did we ever learn about Chinese being in the South. What we learned was limited to what you had mentioned. It was civil rights, it was slavery, civil war, and that’s pretty much what we learned about the American South.
I literally thought when we went there to go visit the gravesite of Baldwin’s grandfathers, that we would find his grandfather and his great grandfather buried…and there wasn’t going to be anything else. We’d go home, pack up our bags and call it a day. [But as] people see in the film, [there are] generations of Chinese Americans. I don’t get a chance to expand on this as much in our film, but there were [also] Lebanese, there was a strong Jewish population who at the time were considered minorities and even Italians and Mexicans who came also to work on plantations and farms as laborers.
There’s this whole history of other, other people in the South that we never learned about, and of course, being from California, it’s on the coast, everybody kind of has their stereotype of what the South was going to be like. That everybody’s going to be a redneck and I’ve had so many questions asked of me and like, “How did they treat you?” Like, were they going to lynch us? That wasn’t the case. Of course, that was before COVID-19, so it is a little more precarious about being Asian American right now. But for the most part… I can’t speak for every state and every region of the South, but at least our experience in the Delta, because they were used to seeing Chinese in the South, we were [considered] more suspect of Californians than we were for being Chinese American.
I’ve done a little bit of research on other ethnic groups outside of, uh African-Americans in the South. And I just, from my own research, since I just do that just as a hobby anyway, I learned that there are so many different stories that still haven’t been told about the South. And it only gets relegated down to just Black and White and things like that. I hope in the future that there’ll be more focused on all the different types of stories that are going on in the South because even if we’re speaking politically, it seems like it’s just red all the time, but there’s like so many different people that have so many different ideas. And oftentimes there’s a lot of innovation that’s happening down here as well. That kind of just gets swept under the rug until it becomes a big story. Hopefully, this film can like open people’s minds to some of what’s happening in the South that they might not realize.
Yeah. And that’s one of our big goals is what the film is really set to influence the education system so that it’s more inclusive of other experiences because I know growing up Chinese American, whenever we studied that chapter in history–myself and…other Asian Americans–we never felt a connection, I think, to the country because they’re like, “Oh, we weren’t involved with the Civil War. We weren’t involved with segregation and lo and behold, we find out that we were very much impacted by Jim Crow laws as well. And we lived in the South in the reconstruction era. In fact, we even found out that there were Chinese…who actually fought during the Civil War war too.
…I think that representation in history books matters because it rounds out a better picture of what it means to be an American [and] also [gives] a stronger sense of belonging…The Asian community has been perpetually seen as the foreigner. Like we’re all a bunch of new immigrants. Baldwin’s family finds out their roots went several generations deep in this country, more so than even some people you would quote-unquote, consider.
[And] you hit on it so well when you’re talking about [how the South] doesn’t get coverage. That’s the problem with our new cycle and our news media is that, at least with the national ones, the larger organizations, they’re all based on the coast, they’re all based in the major cities. And you know, it’s not the clickbait to report on the nuances of different cities… It’s easier to plug things in black and white and sometimes literally. And, um, and that’s why it’s important for films and other indie projects [to] hopefully…infiltrate more of the mainstream extreme storylines to show that all of us are not the same thing [or not paint] everybody in broad strokes, just even regionally.
What I also found interesting was this relationship between the Chinese and Black communities that existed that I didn’t know about, and I’m sure a lot of people watching the film didn’t know about. What was it like for you to realize this piece of history?
Yeah. I think that for me was very eye-opening. I mean, I think the moment we discovered that there were Chinese in the South during segregation and how they were…well, they were kind of stuck in the middle. So the natural question was like, “Oh, what was the relationship like with both communities, the White and the black. And then when we found out that [the] grocery stores that the Chinese ran mostly were in the Black neighborhoods because the Chinese were not allowed to live in the White neighborhoods as well. And they needed a customer base because again, they were having issues, you know, with, with being accepted by the White community. We’re like, “Okay. So then there, what was that relationship like?”
I live in LA, and so we are obviously very much, um, conscious of the tension historically between the Korean store owners and the black community here in South central LA, a lot of the uprisings that occurred, you know, in the wake of the Rodney King [case] back in the ’90s. That was always kind of the point of reference for me, you know, it was kind of going in like, “Was it really tension-filled back then here too?” …So we were actually very surprised when we discovered that there was a very cordial and respectful relationship between the two communities, very symbiotic.
Again, it just shows you how what we don’t learn in history is kind of amazing because I think that would go along ways for race relations. If both communities knew about the history…at least to know that there was a very, very different dynamic that was happening in the South, that to me was mind-blowing for me. And it really, really reframed how I thought about, um, The Black and Asian relationship. I mean, for me personally, I’ve always had, um, a very strong, respectful, you know, friendships with a lot of friends that are Black, but from a general, historical and societal viewpoint, I think all of us that are Asian have known that there’s been tension, the story was just revolutionary. I thought it was fascinating to learn about that.
America simultaneously keeps people out while promoting this idea of equality and inclusion. The film focuses on how Charles learns about his father, but it’s also showing how many families, particularly immigrant families, are often at the mercy of American racism and immigration policies that don’t make sense. What do you think the film can provide to its viewers regarding that? What kind of commentary do you think the film gives regarding that?
Yeah, I mean, I think the immigration aspect and the Chinese Exclusion [Act’s] impact was also a major, like shock and revelation to us. I mean, I grew up in California and now it’s actually been mandated to include in the curriculum in schools. But when I was growing up, we didn’t really learn about the Chinese Exclusion Act. I think I only learned about it within the last 10, 12 years. But even at that, it was just kind of like a sentence, right?Like, “Oh, this happened.” Okay. But I never had any personal connection to it. I didn’t really know the full effect of it. And until I really started doing this, doing this family journey and the documentary, [I learned] how nefarious all these laws were because, you know, on top of the immigration laws, you had anti-miscegenation laws, which obviously that prevented interracial marriage; laws against owning land; there were all these other laws that were on top of the immigration policies that were just so discriminatory.
So what I would say to people, you know, for today is obviously there’s rhetoric that is very frighteningly similar to what we heard. So the reasoning why the Chinese exclusion act was passed [was] “They’re taking our jobs. They are ruining our society as our way of life.” …We tried to make the film very apolitical so that would make people [realize] it’s complicated. It’s not like we can just open the floodgates and let everybody in for tactical and security reasons. At the same time, the types of policy, how long it takes to get into this country [must change]. I mean, the immigration process is just so arduous. We just need to rethink of the country. What can be practical and just good policy for the good of our country? Because I think there’s a lot of benefits that we can have for immigration.
I don’t necessarily have an answer for the audience, but I hope this story of what happened in history informs the audience that maybe you can [think] a different way. And I personally, too, had very, very strong views that on immigration that have changed as well. I think I used to be a lot more restrictionist in terms of immigration policy, but after learning what had happened and the policies that have been put in place, I have kind of changed my mind in terms of, um, what I want to see. So hopefully it allows people to humanize the immigrant experience, that we’re not just like a big threat, that there are families at stake and how we as a collective society want to move forward. Hopefully that is in a humane way and one that is more fair than it has been in the past.
This brings me to a point in the movie that I thought was really fascinating, which is the senator who helped [Charles’ father] KC Lou, even though he was a staunch segregationist at the time. What did you think of that when you found that out?
Well, um, so he helped KC Lou actually get his son [Charles] into the country…and when we first went to Mississippi, we met Senator James Eastland’s son Woods, which is what you see in the film. In that moment, we actually didn’t know about the history. I mean, I think a lot of people in Mississippi and people who study civil rights know who Senator James Eastland is, but like growing up in California, again, we don’t learn that much about Southern politics or any of that. I didn’t know who he was. It wasn’t until I went to DC to the Library of Congress, I saw a civil rights exhibit and I saw his photo. And at first I was like, “Oh, look, there’s Senator Eastland!” And then I looked closely and I was like, “Oh,”…because it was spelled out that he was the leading segregationalist [of the Senate].
So not only was he a segregationalist, but he was leading the charge against civil rights and integration. And so for me, it was a big shock. And it put us in a little bit of a quandary because we’re like, “Do we even include this in our film?” And I think I ended up deciding to include it because…we’re talking about politics being complicated, and I think this is a great illustration of [the fact that] politics makes strange bedfellows, right?
…We found out later [as shown in the film] that Senator James Eastland…was on the immigration subcommittee in the Senate. And we found out from other historians that he was very anti-immigrant as well. So it was odd that he would actually sign and bill to help some of the Chinese families come in. And a lot of it is currying favor…There were a lot of backdoor deals that go on in the halls of politics. So in this case, it’s not exactly in our film, but we found out that one of Senator Eastland’s aides, became really good friends with KC Lou, and that’s why there was this kind of favor that was done. It was about relationship.
I think, at the core of how do you overcome discrimination, how do you overcome racism in this country, that honestly, it’s honestly through relationship. I’m not saying that Senator Eastland wasn’t racist, but…you know, a lot of times. they’ll say whatever to fan the flames of their base. So obviously as a Southern Democrat, back in that time, plantation owners who were still kind of mad about the Civil War were the ones who were voting him in and keeping him in power. So of course, he’s going to say the things that they want him to say.
Again, it is uncomfortable and that’s why I wanted to portray [it] with some dissonance where it wasn’t exactly resolved because that’s exactly how we felt. I mean, even to this day, it’s like, If your greatest enemy saves you from a burning building, would you refuse the help, or would you still be thankful that you’re saved? [Or if] they saved your baby–of course you’re thankful that they saved the baby. But you’re like, “They’re still not my favorite person in the world.”
I think that not everything in life is so easily explained. So that’s a bit of a quandary of feelings that we still have of feeling very grateful for Charles being in this country. You see in the film that he’s very grateful that Eastland signed the bill, but at the same time, he obviously doesn’t approve of any of his very racist views, and they were very racist.
What do you hope audiences take away from the film? If anything.
We really hope that the audience thinks about what it means to be an American. There are so many assumptions that we make about people based on the color of their skin or the way they look. I think, intrinsically, we have so much stuff, so much conscious bias. So, we want people to think [about] when you see a family of Asian descent to not automatically think they came from China yesterday [laughs].
We also hope that people will also realize that our history that we’ve been taught is not inclusive. Our major push is that we’re actively trying to change the way American history is taught in school. It’s great that we have ethnic studies that are getting added into the curriculum in certain states and stuff, but ultimately, you know…we all learned about segregation, we all learn about The American South in our history books, but nowhere in there currently [is there] anything regarding anybody of Asian descent. And so we’re really hoping to change the way history is taught and talked about. And thereby also influencing the media, [so that] in the news and in film and TV, it’s not going to be like a shock to see somebody Chinese with a southern accent because they’re everywhere [laughs]. We just haven’t been exposed to them because it hasn’t been presented to us. So that’s what we really hope for.
And we hope that we fostered a stronger relationship between, especially the Black and Asian communities because they don’t know the history that they have–the shared history together that, [for] somebody who’s Asian, maybe feel a stronger connection now to someone who’s Black and vice versa, especially in this current climate, [and] that we can all work together towards a better future and better race relations.
I’m really glad I’ve watched the film because, even though I’m a southerner, I actually don’t know a lot about Mississippi outside of the rhetoric from the national conversation. So, this helped me feel closer to my Mississippi neighbors.
That’s encouraging to hear. I mean, I think that the thing that I struck upon, [was that] you read all the news about Mississippi, all the bad news, and it goes back to what we were talking about with Senator Eastland. It’s the government, you know, and the people that are in politics are in charge and in power–there’s a disconnect sometimes between them and the actual citizens. I think that’s what we have to realize is like we have to elect people, you know, as we’re in an election year, we have to elect people that hopefully really do represent the people because I don’t think they always do for whatever reason, you know? We don’t always get that true representation. There’s a lot of better people than there is policy, I would say.