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A Conversation With Dolly Li

Introduce yourself!

I’m Dolly Li, and I’m a videojournalist and filmmaker. I work mostly on non-fiction and short documentaries.

First off, how did you get into the field of journalism and filmmaking? 

In college I studied visual arts; I’ve been an artist all my life. So, my start in journalism was actually through art. I was an illustrator for Al Jazeera back in 2014 and naturally, being able to create visuals and helping people understand the news in a very digestible format led to me creating more in that medium which led to video. I had all of these stories that I was doing through illustration. My first works were illustrated videos that were animated, where I bring stories to life about people who didn’t necessarily want to be on camera. And from there, I started pitching more field stories and hosting some of them as an on-camera correspondent.

 

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A lot of your work centers around Asian American identity; what is an Asian American identity to you and how has it influenced your work?

I think the Asian American identity is multifaceted and complex. My main interest in storytelling is to add complexities to communities. I don’t want to necessarily say it is to uplift or to empower, but the only way to humanize people is to share all of their dimensions, including the really flawed ones.

So I think that means showing stories that make us question what it means to be Asian, to be American; stories that show not just people achieving great things but also people struggling. Stories of failure as much as stories of success. So, to me, that’s what the Asian American community is. And I feel like generally in the media we’re lacking that nuance and dimensionality and that’s really what’s necessary to push forward a more holistic view of this community. 

Have you had any personal encounters or challenges being a woman and a person of Asian descent in this field?

We see a lot of this in the media, and the field of journalism and filmmaking, that you’re a minority in this industry that tends to be dominated by men. Part of it is understanding how to navigate those spaces. I worked a lot abroad as well, and there are moments where I am the director of the shoot and when I interview a man who’s over 40 or 50, they’ll ignore everything I say and speak to the cameramen instead. It’s hard for them to believe that a young woman could be in charge.

There are actually quite a few Asian Americans in the news and media space, but the stories don’t necessarily encompass the Asian American voice. There’s also the additional factor of working in a male-dominated space where you’re being scrutinized for every mistake. But the beauty of it is that so many women I have worked with have been the ones who really invested and nurtured me in my growth.

You also co-host the PBS series A People’s History of Asian America which is a series of visual essays and explainers that details the history of the Asian American experience. It’s really educational and helps bridge a knowledge gap that many may have about Asian America of today and how it came to be. Why do you think there is such a disconnect? And how can confronting these issues help other Asian Americans?

What the U.S has in terms of ethnic studies is very unique compared to a lot of other multicultural countries that don’t necessarily teach these histories nor value them. A lot of the stories that I have worked on in the Asian American community have been viewed by my colleagues abroad, and they were like “I didn’t know that the immigrant experience was so difficult when Asian Americans first started arriving in the US.” It’s eye-opening for them because from their perspective, they know immigrants as quite wealthy and that’s their understanding of America; that if you’re in America you must have a lot of money, which is just not true for most of the immigrants in this country. 

So much of my work is also inspired by learning and understanding more about Black American history. The first stories that I covered were very focused on the Black Lives Matter movement starting in 2014. Almost all of my reporting was related to incarceration, mass shootings, and race-based violence. To me, understanding the power of the Civil Rights movement and the activism led by the Black American community that gave all communities of color so much more legal rights and access that we now benefit from was what inspired me to push forth more Asian-American stories.

By telling these stories we can not only advocate for ourselves as a community but also let people know that we exist and our voices need to be heard. 

How do you think COVID-19 and race-motivated events such as the rising violence and hate crimes towards the Asian diaspora and the Atlanta shooting changed or formed, people’s opinions of Asians and Asian America? 

I challenge this idea that it’s rising violence; this violence has always existed in our major cities, it’s something that many Asian communities know is already there. Right now, with COVID-19, more people are watching the news and being aware of the world around them. I think what’s helpful is that people are finally paying attention.

“I think we are going through a very big change in terms of how people are seeing this community and their visibility.”

I think it’s really galvanized the Asian American community to speak up and get involved in storytelling. It’s really inspiring to me and I hope to continue to push forward these narratives. The violence needs to stop, but no real sustainable movement has ever been born out of violence nor a hate campaign; it has to be born out of a place of empowerment for the community.

As an Asian-American woman, what do you think is a significant challenge that other Asian-American women or female-identifying bodies experience as of today?

I think that there has been a lot of progress in calling out harassment, especially sexual harassment, and I’m glad that it is a much more acceptable conversation than it ever has been.

But women are still in the position of being very heavily scrutinized, not just by their colleagues and employers but also by their audience. So you have to tread very carefully as a woman and try your best to look for other women to be able to grow and support and nurture each other’s work. It sucks to say this but women just have to work so much harder, so much more diligently; we have to be that much more correct than our colleagues.

That, unfortunately, comes with the sexism that exists in our society. But I am hopeful that we’re making progress in this realm and actually having these conversations about the ways women are being treated. And there are so many communities now that support female filmmakers. Shoutout to Brown Girls Doc Mafia, shoutout to all the filmmaking girls that exist and all the organizations that I love like the Asian American Journalist Association.

Rapid-fire round!

Favorite Asian dish: I think my favorite is a dish that my mom makes which is a pretty Cantonese dish. It’s similar to the one in dim sum where it’s pork spare ribs but with bean sauce that’s extra spicy.

Sauce: Dip or Pour: I’m 100% dipping, I’m a dipper! 

Favorite place to visit: I love going back to mainland China, especially my parents’ hometown Shaoguan. It’s a tier four city so it’s very much like a town. Shaoguan just feels idyllic and it feels like the people are all neighbors. It’s a reminder of where they came from and a reminder that the country is so big and has so much rich history we have yet to explore.  


Dolly Li is an award-winning video journalist, correspondent, and producer. She is the creator and co-host of A People’s History of Asian America miniseries on PBS Voices.

Dolly has over 7 years of experience telling investigative and nuanced cultural stories about communities such as the Mississippi Delta Chinese, Korean American adoptees, and global Asian diaspora. Her videos have appeared on Al Jazeera, the South China Morning Post, PBS, and other outlets.

In 2017, she won a Regional Emmy in Northern California for her AJ+ (Al Jazeera) short documentary How Chop Suey Saved San Francisco’s Chinatown, the first episode of a three-part documentary series examining Chinese cuisine from the Mississippi Delta to the San Gabriel Valley.

In 2018, she moved to Hong Kong and co-founded Goldthread, a video publication focused on food, culture, and travel stories, incubated by the South China Morning Post.

Dolly returned to the U.S. in 2019 and founded Plum Studios, a production company that focuses on telling stories that center diverse communities. She is based between Los Angeles and New York.

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Overachiever Magazine was started by Rehana Paul in October of 2018 to give a platform to all Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities.

Our name is poking fun at the stereotype that all Asians are overachievers, especially Asian women, non-binary people, and other gender minorities. It’s also in recognition of all of us who have had no choice but to be overachievers: managing societal expectations, family obligations, and educational opportunities, all while fighting the patriarchy.

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