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From the Far East to the Old West: Chinese & Japanese Settlers in Montana

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Directed by Kathy Witkowsky
Produced by Pat Murdo
1999. 28 Minutes.

Commissioned and Distributed by The Mansfield Center
for Pacific Affairs (MCPA)
1401 New York Avenue NW, Suite 740
Washington, DC 20005-2102

Phone: 202-347–1994, Fax: 202-347-3941
Web site:

Reviewed by TRACY BEE


The Chinese and Japanese immigrants who settled in Montana were pioneers in every sense of the word, according to the documentary From the Far East to the Old West.

The film provides an often unheard perspective on settling the western United States. It is not the story of cowboys and romantic gun battles with outlaws, but rather the toil and perseverance of ordinary people who chose to do an extraordinary thing. This is the story of many immigrants to the West, but it is clearly the heritage of the Chinese and Japanese in Montana—and elsewhere in the United States. While the film focuses on the history of one state, the story is representative of experiences elsewhere and could be used as a start­ing point to discuss a broad range of issues.

This fast-moving, engaging film condenses over eighty years of Asian-American immigrant history. Filmmakers never rest on one image or idea very long. Archival images flash on screen. Photographs and maps constantly change, yet are well-chosen to coincide with the narration, which is provided by the distinct voice of George Takai (best known for playing Mr. Sulu on the original Star Trek). The film gives historical context through this narration, then punctuates the history lesson with details from historians, anecdotes from descendants, and quotes from primary source materials such as newspapers, letters, diaries, proclamations, and laws. A quick, folksy soundtrack featuring fiddle and banjo complements the presentation.

two men squat and eat while young boys watch them
Chinese at the railroad station eating with chopsticks and being observed by young boys.
Photo: The Montana Historical Society. Courtesy of Pat Murdo.

Approximately half of the video focuses on the Chinese, while the other half features the Japanese experience. It may be an accident of history that the two groups settled Montana forty years apart, but this clear delineation makes it easy for teachers to counter the all-too­common confusion that all Asian peoples are the same. The Japanese and Chinese immigrants are described and their reasons for coming are succinctly explained.

With the exception of one brief moment when a descendent talks of a Montana senator who stood up for the rights of Japanese, there is little emotion. The cuts are too quick to allow us to get to know the interviewees. This is not necessarily a problem but teachers may be frustrated by a lack of parallelism in the statistics. Numbers are offered, but comparison between them is impossible. For example, viewers are told the Chinese made up ten percent of Montana’s popu­lation in 1870, but are given no true idea of the extent of their exodus when told only 1,300 remained in 1910.

The relatively short length of the film allows for viewing and debriefing within the same class period. Discussion topics could include labor, immigration, discrimination, and racism, and the role of Japanese and Chinese immigrants. While clearly produced for middle school students, the film is never condescending and has much to offer high school students and even adults who have little or no back­ground in this part of American immigrant history.

The video includes a study guide that details instructional objec­tives, lists and defines select vocabulary, and suggests questions to ask students prior to and after viewing the film. A study packet with additional resources is available.



Throughout May, AAS is celebrating Asian American and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Read more