March 31, 2003 12:00 PM

The Chinese Experience
PBS (Tues.-Thurs., March 25-27, 9 p.m. ET)

Critic’s Choice

Exotic pigtailed opium smokers. An invading horde willing to work dirt-cheap and steal union members’ jobs. The “good Asians,” aiding the fight against Japan in World War II. A model minority, studious and industrious.

According to this fine documentary, narrated and cowritten by Bill Moyers, Chinese immigrants have endured a series of racial stereotypes over the past century and a half. Meanwhile, they have scaled high walls of discrimination and contributed much to the life of the country.

The first part offers a vivid account of Chinese laborers’ role in building the Transcontinental Railroad in the 1860s; the second lucidly explains the successful challenge later in the 19th century to laws barring the Chinese from U.S. citizenship. In Part 3 the emphasis shifts from narrative history to personal interviews. Memorable subjects include gentle, positive-thinking Benny Pan, who suffered during China’s chaotic Cultural Revolution before making it to America in 1990, and author Helen Zia, who embraced the term Asian-American as a Princeton student. “I didn’t have to call myself Oriental, like a rug,” she recalls.

BOTTOM LINE: Informs and inspires

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