July 8, 2021

Stephen Gong: Celebrating Asian Americans' Contributions in Rural America

Stephen Gong

Whitney talks with Stephen Gong, Executive Director of the Center for Asian American Media, about making visible the experiences and contributions of Asian Americans in our rural communities.

About Stephen Gong

Stephen Gong is the Executive Director of the Center for Asian American Media. Stephen has been associated with CAAM since its founding in 1980, and has served as Executive Director since 2006. His previous positions in arts administration include: Deputy Director of the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive at the University of California, Berkeley, Program Officer in the Media Arts program at the National Endowment for the Arts, and Associate Director of the National Center for Film and Video Preservation at the American Film Institute. He has been a lecturer in the Asian American Studies program at UC Berkeley, where he developed and taught a course on the history of Asian American media. In addition to writing about film history, Gong has provided critical commentary on several DVD projects including the Treasures From American Archives, Vol 1 & 5 (National Film Preservation Foundation), Chan is Missing (dir. Wayne Wang), and is the featured historian in the documentary Hollywood Chinese (Dir. Arthur Dong). He is the Board Chair of the Center for Rural Strategies and serves on the Advisory Board of the San Francisco Silent Film Society.


Whitney Kimball Coe: I’m thrilled to speak with Stephen Gong on today’s episode of Everywhere Radio. Stephen is Executive Director of the Center for Asian American Media and he is also chair of the Center for Rural Strategies, board of directors, which is the umbrella organization for the Rural Assembly and for this podcast. I wanted to bring Stephen on the show today because he brings both a professional and personal perspective to the conversation we’ve been having: about how we build more inclusive communities and particularly how we make visible the experiences and contributions of Asian Americans in our rural communities. 

We’ve seen a rise in discrimination and violence against Asian Americans in this last year and yet we know this kind of violence and discrimination are not new. They, in fact, date back to generations, to rhetoric and policies such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, the internment of Japanese Americans in the 40s and the struggles faced by many more recent immigrants to this country. I’m hoping Stephen can help us unpack some of the historical roots of more recent violence and that he can help us name some of the paths we can take to foster greater understanding, inclusion and empathy. So Stephen, I’m really excited you’re here. Thank you so much for participating in this conversation today. 

Stephen Gong: Thank you, Whitney, for inviting me. This is such a great pleasure. I always enjoy talking with you and I look forward to our conversation today. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: Likewise, where are you calling from today? 

Stephen Gong: I’m calling from my home in Oakland, where I, of course, during the pandemic I’ve done most of my work, but our offices are located in San Francisco. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: And how long have you been chair of the board of Center for Rural Strategies? 

Stephen Gong: Clearly, far [crosstalk 00:01:55]. Since I can’t recall, but I believe it is something on the order of at least eight years, something like that. Six or eight years, yeah. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: Sounds like almost as long as I’ve been with the organization and it’s been my pleasure to get to know you over that time. And I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about the Center for Asian American Media, and then maybe tie your mission to your affinity for rural media and messaging? 

Stephen Gong: Wow. Well, this could be a long story because it’s a story of my life. CAAM, as we are known, was founded 40 years ago and our work, our mission is to produce and present films that reflect, in an authentic way, the diversity of the Asian American experience. And most of our work is done in the documentary field in public television. But I came to this… Even though I was at the founding conference, I’ve not been involved with the organization more steadily, I’ve actually worked in many other areas and really where it connects to Rural Strategies, it goes right back to one of the earliest professional experiences I had as a program officer at the National Endowment for the Arts, in the media arts program, which was film, radio and television. And at that time, it was in the late 19… I started in ’79 and worked there through ’86. And in a way, we were one of the very first funders of what became independent film and video. And I really didn’t have a consciousness about Asian American media. 

In a sense, it didn’t exist then. But on one of these earliest panels, Dee Davis, who was the president of Appalshop, was on the panel and it was unforgettable. There was a proposal from a Asian American group just starting out in Los Angeles and some of their earliest work was a documentary film about redevelopment that had pushed the original Japanese inhabitants out of what was Downtown LA. I’m a program officer, I was just running the meeting and I really don’t have a vote, but some of the other panelists… let’s say who are from the established media world of New York City, were kind of going, “Well it looks like it’s a nice community group, but we don’t see the art here.” 

And Dee Davis, who was from Whitesburg, Kentucky, and Appalshop was this amazing media center in a very rural place and…  

Whitney Kimball Coe: For our listeners, Dee Davis is now president of Center for Rural strategies and he’s also my boss. 

Stephen Gong: I can’t quote him certainly, I’m afraid to paraphrase, but in a sense, he said, “Look people, when they’re finding their voice in the community, sometimes they need to talk about social issues in their community first. They need to ground who they are and you’re talking about a community that people don’t understand, that there are stereotypes. So, of course, the first thing they want to do is try to assert what their identity is.” And that just resonated to me so deeply and informed me; it made me think about all the ways that I understood the Asian American community to in media be the subject of stereotypes. And I understood that and he opened that up to me about Appalachia and about rural America and that has stayed with me. And it’s a fundamental way that I think about America now. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: And it informs the work you do at the Center for Asian American Media, perhaps. 

Stephen Gong: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. In that sense that our stories… A couple of ways, I’ll just say: creating authentic stories, sort of, by and about a group, it’s so important that you’re recognizing at the same time that part of these stories need to ring true to the community that you’re describing. But you’re also aiming those stories at a larger public because the whole point is to create a better understanding of all of our experiences. And that’s about the diversity of America. And I would just quickly want to add one other thing: this led me when Trump was elected and there was such a… There’d been this growing 20 year divide of red state and blue state of the dysfunction of our political system. And it seemed to me that I was hearing, even in my own family and close circle of friends, a continuation of that divide. 

That, “Why don’t we just write off red states ’cause we’re in a pretty progressive area here in California.” And again, this larger lesson about not basing one’s assumptions on stereotypes, certainly, but also understanding how diverse the country is. I wanted CAAM to start an initiative, a program initiative in the American South, because we have recognized that Asian Americans are in every part of the country. But they’re invisible and we make ourselves invisible. So, again, I thought storytelling was really important. It’s been about four years and we have different parts of the initiative and you with Rural Assembly have been so supportive to make sure we include an Asian American voices in the Rural Assembly. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: No, we’ve been having this ongoing discussion really for this episode about the invisibility of Asian Americans and their experiences. And that’s not a new phenomenon. And I was watching, I think it was “Asian Americans”, the film on PBS in this last month. And I believe you got to lead a session that traced, kind of, the historical roots of discrimination, invisibility and violence against Asian Americans, really, over time. And I wonder if you could do little of that tracing in history for us here, today. Give some of that historical context. 

Stephen Gong: Sure. Although, admittedly, right? It’s hard to encapsulate 140 years of American history, but I will do my best. And thank you for mentioning that “Asian American” series; we co-produced that series, it’s a five-hour series on PBS, simply entitled “Asian Americans”, and it’s still streaming for free at pbs.org, if anyone wants to catch it. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: Yeah, that’s wonderful. 

Stephen Gong: And I wanted to throw that out ’cause it tells the story in-depth. But as you mentioned, even earlier in the show, I think the important thing to recognize as discrimination, the struggle for power, the tension between the ideals on which this country was founded and the way it’s been practiced. They’ve been in America’s DNA from the very beginning. That the founding fathers could be slave holders, essentially. And that I think for Asian Americans, it does move up. 

The kind of major thing is that the gold rush in California, sort of, was the calling card for tens of thousands of Chinese to come and for the lure of a better life and a better life for their families back in China, which was suffering at that time. And they were instrumental, actually, in the development of the West. We know about the railroads, the transcontinental railroad, which the Chinese built the most difficult part of through the Sierra Nevada mountains. But also just in the whole creation of agriculture in the Central Valley, the building of levees, enormously important. And yet as White workers started coming in, the nativist tensions arose and they really felt that the Chinese were a threat to White labor. And this was during the period of reconstruction and it’s detailed in the series and a much more in-depth way. 

So, I would just say: what we could start to see the earliest traces was is of the political uses of dividing the country and the creation of fear that could align them with the Southern Democrats at the time in the American South, who really, sort of, made a deal with the Western nativist feelings of, “We’ll help you with your Chinese problem; you help us regain the political control of the South. That’s just one example of the bargain we’re talking about. So there’s always been a struggle, in a sense, over the ideals, but unfortunately it’s not even based on the kind of knowledge of one another or the interdependence that one would hope that we would see in one another, but it becomes more about a struggle of, “I want to make sure my share is larger and I can gain more political power if I can divide all of these smaller groups.” And we’ve just seen that play out again and again and it’s still in play in America right now, I’m afraid. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: That zero-sum game with scarcity, yeah. I wonder if you could locate your own personal story for us a little bit in this arch of history. 

Stephen Gong: Thank you. Yeah. Here’s something that I didn’t even know until about six years ago and I’m almost 70. I always thought my family on both sides immigrated to the U.S in 1920s…because I knew my father’s side story much better. But then as a lot more immigration records have come online, I found in a 18…which was it? 1860 census. That my great-grandmother was born here in the Bay area in a place called Alvarado in 1863, which meant her parents came here in the late 1850s. So we are gold rush Chinese on that side of the family, actually. We have a long history in the country. And then I grew up in San Bernardino. My father grew up in Portland, Oregon, and [inaudible 00:13:46] became a doctor and he was one of the first doctors at the University of Oregon and did his residency work and in San Bernardino where I and my siblings were born. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: So I wonder then how this last year of watching, kind of, this rise in violence and discrimination against Asian American communities has… what have you felt? What has been your internal response and then perhaps your external one? 

Stephen Gong: Well, we’re still in the thick of it. It’s unending now. It’s horrible. It’s horrific. But I do see it… as part of this racial reckoning. Clearly the murder with George Floyd during the pandemic, we had seen so many other cases Ferguson, Missouri, all of these other incidents in South Carolina. But that one, that eight minutes of watching a murder unfold and feeling that it was so unnecessary. So then we’ve seen, right? That we’re right in the midst of this horrible white supremacy, sort of, being welcomed back in or normalized and I think, we’re still just trying to deal with that. I do see the Asian American issue and I guess I should add that it’s made our work feel all the more relevant and necessary and vital. 

And I think in many ways it has galvanized the Asian American community. Oh, this is something you mentioned, in a sense, yes, the invisibility of Asian Americans is not just been a case of, sort of, mainstream America not wanting to recognize the history of Asians in America. It really has been a survival tactic for many, if not all, Asian American communities. And that is, to be able to assimilate is difficult because we look so differently, we’re not of European background. So, you have to, sort of, take care of your own business. It means that you focus your energy and your resources within your own family or narrowly within your community. And you keep your head down and I think that’s what’s contributed to the invisibility, which bringing us up to today and after a year of thousands of anti-Asian hate crimes, I think our communities, which are still so young also. 

I should add one other piece. The Asian American community is still rather new, even though my family’s story’s old, it was the Immigration Reform Act of 1965 that started to allow many more Asians to come in to immigrate legally. I’m sorry for that, for that sort of tangent, but that is why this past year, what we are seeing in so many Asian Americans in the corporate world and in the tech industries that have benefited in many ways from America’s ideals of a meritocracy. But they now realize that it’s fragile, and I would add, we recognize more and more that our own success and threats and risks are tied up with every other community. We cannot be invisible. We are not alone. We really have to participate in America’s civic processes, if we are to find our way out of this. So that’s kind of where we are right now. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: Thank you for that really thoughtful and all encompassing, inclusive kind of answer. And I’m thinking now about what you just said, how your work feels more relevant than maybe it ever has. And can you say a little bit more about that and the role that, I don’t know, media, storytelling and the art form can play in helping us get through this and move the needle. 

Stephen Gong: Thank you. Yeah, exactly. And I think this is part of the work of why CRS is important, and why Rural Assembly is so important. I think a big part of our work is to tell the truth, right? And to participate and be our best selves with our families and our communities, and then with the broader, larger society and community. And we have to change the narrative. I think that’s maybe the biggest summation. That’s definitely one reason why we do our work in public media and why I really believe that’s the kind of baseline and even though that system doesn’t, sort of, engage the younger generation, like what you would hope it does: we need that space. We need that common space where we can trust the information and where we can meet, because goodness knows most media outlets when you look at news and information, they are so partisan that we get in these echo chambers, that I agree with you, with social media too, the danger of getting just inside your own echo chamber is terrible. So, I think that’s why a lot of us who came to consciousness during this independent media, that’s also something we carry, right? Which is this commitment to finding the way to tell authentic stories and to champion those systems. 

So here’s what I would say about that: I grew up and I have benefited so much from the kindness of all communities. My wife is Mexican American and San Bernardino is largely Mexican American and the African American community, the Black community, has always been really important. As I say Appalachia, now I count as one of my communities, but we all know that the narrative, even the best narrative, was about kind of a melting pot, right? 

Bending the moral arc, but it was always still now we see more clearly. It was still structured around kind of Whites being that the privileged center. And as we move forward as a nation and as a whole global community, trying to address existential issues of global warming and the tension that will cause by increased mass migration of nations: we have to get this right. We have to learn how to tell a different story that is about interdependence, I believe, and not about people conforming to one group being the model and being the primary. So, somehow the specificity of our experiences, of the human experience, of celebrating the difference of cultural practice and cultural heritage, counter-intuitively, it becomes all the more important that we hold on to and cherish what makes us distinctive, but recognizing that we have a shared future together. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: I love that. That language and imagery and the call, the real call, to do that work of naming what makes us interdependent and why it’s so important. Before I let people go from Everywhere Radio, I always want to ask them, and I want to ask you, what are you reading right now, watching or listening to that you think deserves a broader, wider audience? And we’ve already mentioned the “Asian Americans” film on PBS, which is streaming for free right now. What else is there that you’d want to recommend? 

Stephen Gong: Wow, I don’t have time to go into this… particular old novel I’m reading that I just kind of found, but I want to mention maybe a film that I still think about and it is “Nomadland”. It’s widely available to everyone. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: Oh, I saw that, yeah. 

Stephen Gong: Yeah. In some ways this director, Chloe Zhang has done such a wonderful, kind of, artfully done film that keeps opening up the meaning of it. Because in one sense, it’s about, right, the disparity of income that drives many people to have to live a nomadic lifestyle. And I believe it’s based on a non-fiction book about that community, right? And some of the leading people who are in that community, but she opens it up to make it about the human spirit, right? And about what kind of paths do we choose, right? To find fulfillment in life. 

So in that one, it’s so interesting. It’s not just about economic, which in America is so key because we otherwise judge everything on one’s material wellbeing and it is such an important issue, I think, for people that live in poverty. I don’t speak against that, but there’s something in the human spirit that in ways is even deeper or goes with that and about what is freedom? What is the life we choose? Anyway, so I really loved it. And I think we need all kinds of stories like this. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: I agree. I felt I had very similar response to that film. And I also feel like it’s a good rural story. [inaudible 00:23:15] I just really want to know what novel you’re reading now. You don’t have to go deep into it, but I’d love to know the title. 

Stephen Gong: It’s from the 1960s and it’s called Spirit Lake and it culminates in the terrible massacre against White settlers there that resulted in the mass hanging of dozens of Sioux First Nations people and it’s a searing novel by McKinley Kantor, who wrote Andersonville, which I’m talking, this is 1960s fiction, and it’s an old paperback and I’ve always thought this author was wonderful and it’s truly magnificent. 

Whitney Kimball Coe: Thank you. Thank you for this conversation, Stephen. Really appreciate you. 

Stephen Gong: My pleasure, Whitney Kimball Coe. And I thank you. I love everything you do. I love your leadership and let’s move forward together on this, huh? 

Whitney Kimball Coe: Right on.