Dolly Li and Adrian De Leon Make Asian American History Accessible, One Video at a Time

Adrian De Leon and Dolly Li
The duo behind "A People's History of Asian America" on collaboration, trust, and new ways of telling stories.

In the aftermath of the March 2021 spa shootings in Atlanta, in which six of the eight victims were Asian women, CAAM and PBS Digital Studios sought to explain the long history of stereotypes that have plagued Asian Americans and to do it in a way that was understandable to younger audiences. Enter Dolly Li and Adrian De Leon, creators and co-hosts of the mini webseries, A People’s History of Asian America.

“That really got so many people’s attention and including PBS, which for better or worse, they weren’t spending enough time thinking about the stories related to Asian American communities and what they could be doing,” said Li. “So by the time that the PBS Digital Studios came to CAAM, to talk about wanting to do something, it was only about a month out of May. We only really had about four or five weeks to put together a show. The four-episode series explores microaggressions that have long existed throughout history of the Asian American community.

“There was no idea,” she added. “It was just a conversation between me and CAAM, initially. And they’re like, well, they want something. And I was like, ‘All right, let’s come up with something.’ Thank God! Thank God Adrian and I were already friends! He was teaching this amazing course at USC remotely; it was like Asian American studies 101.”

Li and De Leon had actually met about two years prior to collaborating on the series. Li, a video journalist and filmmaker, had just moved back to the states after living abroad in Hong Kong for a time. While cementing herself as an independent journalist and creator, she was also volunteering at a bookstore cafe in New York called Housing Works.

De Leon, an assistant professor of American Studies & Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, had just wrapped up research in Washington, D.C. and was visiting a friend when he came by Housing Works. As Li put it, they vibed immediately.

“I happened upon this cafe, and like, I think we commented on each other’s hats,” De Leon recalled. “I was wearing this beanie that said, ‘cold day in hell,’ because it was a cold day in hell, and I know we’re referring to it like that. But yeah, I think [that’s] one of the things that really sparked this journey, which has been great for me.”

Being a professor for a university based in Southern California is a different experience than teaching on the East Coast. As De Leon elaborated, being surrounded by the media and entertainment industries, he finds it awesome, as he doesn’t feel constrained to academic life. That’s why working on this series with Li has been an interesting experience for him.

“As much as the university might want me to prioritize my esoteric research first,” he stated, “my commitment is to teaching, my first commitment is to different kinds of teaching which includes public teaching, and public education.”

Despite being a professor of ethnic studies, the subject is not taught at all in Canada, where he is from. So for people such as himself who develop interest in it, he has to look to the U.S. higher education system. For De Leon, ethnic studies and Asian American studies go hand-in-hand with his personal story, as someone who was born and spent his childhood in the Philippines; a country that was previously colonized by the U.S.

“So there was always that influence of American culture, American politics, American power, that everyone in the Philippines always watches for,” he explained. “For me, that’s been the continuity, right? But coming to California, and Southern California, where so much of the center of Asian American cultural and political life has been—which is on the West Coast—has been really interesting.”

Adrian De Leon
Prof. Adrian De Leon at a 2018 reading at the University of Toronto to launch his poetry collection “Rouge”

For Li, whose background is in illustration and animation before learning the reigns of video production, her work has been centered around documenting the self and identity. “It’s all an expression of art,” she said. “How do we express our existence? How do we capture it with nuance? And it’s not just about the self, it’s also about the community in which we exist in.”

As she continued to grow as a video journalist and documentarian, she covered stories within communities she cares about. Li recalled how she covered a lot of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2014, back when other journalists were saying how social justice isn’t news.

“And that’s where I felt like a lot of people were questioning, people including myself and my colleagues,” she explained. “Questioning what it means to be unbiased as a journalist, right? What does it mean when you have the privilege of stripping your identity from the way you see the world? And what’s missing? What is missing from news, and media, and storytelling when your identity isn’t a part of it, right? Not everyone can write from the lens of whiteness, or report from the lens of whiteness, the ‘unbiased’ view.”

It’s a frontier that journalists like Li are pushing forwards, by adding perspectives through community and language. A lot of her early viral works for Al Jazeera’s AJ+ digital platform focused on histories within the Chinese American community, such as the Mississippi Delta and San Francisco’s Chinatown. She has even channeled those efforts into launching Goldthread, an American vernacular English-language media outlet that was incubated by the very British English-language South China Morning Post.

“We got to do a lot of really incredible reporting on food culture, travel throughout China, Asia, Hong Kong, Taiwan,” she reflected. “Thinking back on it as we’re emerging from this pandemic, there was such a short period of time to be able to do that with the freedom that we had to travel, move around. Albeit sometimes being stopped by just nosy police asking, ‘What you’re doing filming?’ and things like that. But travel is so restricted now in Asia, and you need so much oversight and move around that. I really cannot imagine launching that type of publication today. That was a crazy short, brief period of time where we were able to do this.”

Dolly Li Mississippi Chinese
Dolly Li interviewing subjects for her video about the Mississippi Chinese for AJ+

Working with her friend on A People’s History of Asian America felt hand-in-hand for Li. Video production is a team effort, as she and De Leon would work together to come up with as many ideas as possible for the series.

“That is one of the great parts of having collaborators who [you] really trust, right?” she stated. “You throw a hundred things at the wall, and hopefully one of them resonates with the other person. But also a few other people outside of your space. It’s very hard to make video without that type of network.”

Li wasn’t the only person De Leon knew who worked on this project. Two of his former students worked as part of the crew. Working with them all as collaborators made for not only a teaching experience for De Leon, but also a learning experience, especially as he paves a road for himself as a creative writer.

“I think that set up this different kind of teaching project, which is through videos, was really cool to see how the knowledge was translated directly by my students,” he remarked. “One thing that I really enjoyed learning through this process was seeing how a director thinks. And so the multi-column process that Dolly does like to imagine scenes and stuff like that influenced the way that I write novels now, or like the way that I plan lectures now, right? Because it’s in scenes.”

Dolly Li and Adrian De Leon
Illustration by Andre Sibayan

In working with CAAM, as well as filming at Flash Cuts’ Los Angeles studio, De Leon and Li really appreciated the openness to explore the format and approach with each topic covered in the series, especially as anti-Asian violence continued to rise.

“The microaggression is so political,” says De Leon of his experiences in the world. “And I just remember when we were on that first call, and subsequently when I got to meet with Don [Young] in person when I got to visit San Francisco, it was just the complete support and enthusiasm for the concept, which was, ‘Yeah, that makes sense.’ Just full trust in the fact that Dolly and I are millennials.”

“CAAM has been so supportive this entire time and nothing but offering every resource they possibly can, to make sure the project was as successful as it could be,” Li said. “Having people put trust in you is such a big part of creating and it was wonderful to have that trust with them, and anything that was a concern, or an issue they were the first to make sure that these things were resolved, and setting up systems, and infrastructure to make sure that things would be smoothly moving forward. History and legacy is so important to both me and Adrian. It’s building upon the work that CAAM has been doing for decades.”

A People’s History of Asian America has been nominated for Best Short History Format for the World’s Congress of Science & Factual Producers’ The Buzzies awards program. Li and De Leon are so excited and find the nomination to be the ultimate cherry on top of everything that went into making it happen.

Looking ahead, aside from his work in academia, De Leon continues his creative writing pursuits. He recently released a poetry book called barangay: an offshore poem.

As for Li, she is involved in the creation of another PBS program with a similar format to A People’s History of Asian America, but bigger, as it will be covering race and pop culture, through the histories of multiple communities. She hopes she and De Leon will collaborate on a project again in the future.

“This show is going to be an expanded version of People’s History,” Li explained, “but they were very inspired by the format that we created, and the energy and youth that we brought to it. So that’s something that we’re hoping to bring into this new history show and really make something new at PBS, and keep it fresh, and hopefully continue evolving, and adding more folks to this network of creating.”

All four episodes of A People’s History of Asian America can be streamed for free on the PBS website or the PBS Voices YouTube channel.

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