‘Bengali Harlem’ Documentary Explores an Early Wave of South Asian Immigration

“They would spend hours and hours in the belly of the steamship shoveling coal where the temperatures were over 100 degrees.”

“They would spend hours and hours in the belly of the steamship shoveling coal where the temperatures were over 100 degrees.”

When filmmaker and writer Vivek Bald first met actor Aladdin Ullah in the early 2000s, he was instantly intrigued by the story of Ullah’s family.

The actor and comedian said his father, Habib, was born in what is now Bangladesh and arrived in New York in the 1920s when he jumped off a British steamship he and other South Asian men were working on.

“I had a whole series of historical questions that I thought his father’s story raised,” Bald recalled. “Was his father part of a larger migration of South Asians — particularly of South Asian Muslims — to the United States that had just not been recorded in history?”

Ullah and Bald’s exploration of this history is the subject of “Bengali Harlem,” a book, web project and upcoming documentary, which received a grant to finish production earlier this year from the Center for Asian American Media.

Bald’s 1994 documentary “Taxi-vala/Auto-biography” also explored the lives of South Asian workers in New York. He felt drawn to Habib Ullah’s story not only because it was dramatic, but also because the man’s early years were during an era of intense anti-Asian sentiment in the United States.

The Immigration Act of 1917 prohibited immigration from South and Southeast Asia and the Pacific, and its predecessor — the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — had completely halted all arrivals from Asia.

“So what stood out to me was that his father came here after that really strict anti-immigration law was passed in 1917,” Bald said. “And he lived out the majority of his adult life in the United States during the height of exclusion between 1917 and 1965.”

By Lakshmi Gandhi for NBC NEWS

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