When Baldwin Chiu witnessed his father's growing relationship with his young daughter Caliya--from the times he held her as a baby to when she was old enough to run into his arms--Chiu was reminded of what he never got to share with his own grandfather.
“As we saw my dad interact with her, we just kind of felt like, she should know [who she is and where she comes from]," Chiu told NBC News. “I was never able to experience what she experiences with my dad.”
Chiu's grandfather had immigrated to the United States when his family was very young. Chiu's father, Charles, had barely even known him.
Baldwin Chiu and his family, including his wife Larissa Lam and his father Charles, set out toward Cleveland, Mississippi, to visit his grandfather’s resting place and learn what they could about their family history. "Finding Cleveland" captures meetings with museum workers and longtime Cleveland residents, who unveil what they know about his grandfather and that era.
"It's obviously an Asian-American story, it's obviously a Chinese-American story, but ultimately this is a story about America."
“We were just going to make a small family film just documenting our trip, but as you saw in the film, it became apparent very quickly that this was just not an ordinary trip,” Lam, a producer and international recording artist, told NBC News.
Lam said she told her husband, “It’s not just about your family history. Now it’s becoming about American history, and beyond American history this is a remarkable journey.”
The couple decided to make their short trip, which spanned less than 48 hours, into a short film. While the 12-minute documentary focuses on the family's discoveries about their roots, it also touches on a broader history, such as the treatment of Asian immigrants in the region and the role the Chinese Exclusion Act played in that.
"It's obviously an Asian-American story, it's obviously a Chinese-American story, but ultimately this is a story about America," Chiu said. "We don't want it to be segregated into a small little bubble of history that people don't really care to know more about. But they should know that this is a part of our entire history."
This film marks the directorial debut of Lam, who as a singer-songwriter and radio/television host has already made her mark in the media industry. She originally planned to score the music for "Finding Cleveland," but, with her experience directing plays and producing music videos, ended up being more hands on in the story's development. Her husband, whose rapper alter ego goes by Only Won, was behind the camera, along with his brother.
As the film makes its rounds at various festivals this fall, the couple has said viewers expressed surprise to learn about the Chinese Exclusion Act and early immigrants. Lam said they've found it encouraging when people who don't have a connection to this journey become cheerleaders and champions for this story.
Now, the couple hopes to expand the project and make a longer documentary to touch on more of the family history, and larger social and racial issues.
"We're musicians. I'm a songwriter. I'm a recording artist," Lam said. "[Baldwin is] a hip-hop artist. We did not envision setting out to make a film about American history, but we feel like it's probably one of the most important projects we've done and it could be a lifelong project."