Chinese-American Filmmaker Sees Family Story in Colombian Immigrant’s Story

Patricia Shih with her husband (Photo via the filmmaker)

The debut documentary of Patricia Shih, a Chinese-American musician turned filmmaker, has been selected for screening in the upcoming Queens World Film Festival. The film, titled “Undocumented,” is about the story of a former undocumented immigrant from Colombia who is now a top cardiologist in the U.S. Shih said she saw in her main character, Dr. Harold Fernandez, a story similar to that of her own father, an outstanding war reporter who almost lost the opportunity to come to the U.S. because of the Chinese Exclusion Act. She said every time the economy weakens, the American government points a finger at immigrants. The situation her father faced then is similar to the anti-immigrant wave President Trump has helped trigger now, only that they target different immigrant communities. She said she hopes the film issues a call for immigrants to unite, help one another, and work together for a better America.

Dr. Harold Fernandez (Photo via Patricia Shih)

Shih said her father Frank Pao-Hu Shih was born in Hebei province, China, and studied at Peking University. When the second Sino-Japanese War broke out in the 1930s, he dropped out of college to become a war reporter, calling for the Chinese people to unite to fight against the Japanese invaders. The Chinese Exclusion Act, which became law in 1882, was repealed in 1943. But in 1945 when Shih’s father came to the U.S. there was still an annual quota of 105 people that restricted the number of Chinese immigrants (the quota lasted until 1965). Her father, with a job offer from the New York office of Voice of America to be a reporter, which he received with the help of a friend, became the 25th Chinese immigrant that year. He arrived in San Francisco where he met Shih’s mother.

Shih’s mother’s family were early Chinese immigrants. The family of Shih’s maternal great grandfather was one of the first group of 19 Chinese families that settled in a fishing village in Monterey, California. “My great grandfather’s family moved there before the Chinese Exclusion Act went into effect. They were fishermen. The Americans who lived there didn’t like the Chinese newcomers. They burned down the entire village. The arsonist was never caught,” said Shih. “After the incident, they had to move to San Francisco’s Chinatown to start a new business of selling shampoo.”

Shih’s grandparents died young. Her mother, the oldest of 10 children in the family, had to take over the responsibility of taking care of her younger brothers and sisters. Still, she maintained a good academic performance and was admitted to the University of California in Berkeley. Then she met Shih’s father.

Shih was born in New York. But when she was 1 year old, she moved to Bowie, Maryland, with her family because her father was deployed there. Bowie was a white middle class city that had only three Asian families then. That was a time when diverse cultures didn’t enjoy much respect. Shih’s parents expected the complete assimilation of their children.  

Shih’s mother spoke Cantonese and her father spoke Mandarin. But the family communicated in English at home. Other than the Chinese food in the kitchen, Shih grew up with little influence from Chinese culture.

“I didn’t learn anything about Chinese culture until I went to the San Francisco Art Institute when I was 20,” said Shih. But luckily, she didn’t experience much discrimination either. Her white friends all liked to come to dinner and stuff themselves with the roasted duck, dim sum and steamed fish her mother made. 

Shih started out as a folk musician. She wrote her first song when she was 12 and released her first album when she was 16. In the more than 30 years after that, she has been doing visual performance art. Shih said she decided to make documentaries because she would like to tell the stories of undocumented immigrants, and also to resist the anti-immigrant wave ignited by President Trump.

Shih said the film is about the story of Dr. Fernandez who fled from his home country which was battered by drug trafficking, snuck into the U.S. by sea and became one of the country’s top cardiologists. He is a good example of the contributions immigrants make to the U.S.

Shih said Dr. Fernandez’s story is similar to that of her father. “If the Chinese Exclusion Act was not repealed in 1943, my father would have not been able to come here. I would not have been born. Immigrants like these who come to the U.S. and work hard here for better lives are worth our applause,” she said. 

Shih said immigrants and all people of color should help one another in the Trump era. If they don’t stand up for Muslims and immigrants from the Middle Eastern countries, “when Chinese become the target one day, who will speak for us?”

“Undocumented” is slated for screening on March 16 at 2:30 p.m. at the Kaufman Astoria Studios’ Zukor Theatre. The address is 34-12 36 St., Astoria. For tickets, go to goo.gl/1BsmG4

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