Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month is celebrated in May to commemorate the contributions of people of Asian and Pacific Islander descent in the United States. Congress passed a joint Congressional Resolution in 1978 to commemorate Asian American Heritage Week during the first week of May. Congress later voted to expand it from a week long to a month long celebration.
Since immigration starting in the late 19th century, Asian and Pacific Islander Americans have woven themselves into the fabric of America. Even in the face of discrimination and barriers, APIAs have persevered and even prospered in various fields.
The following list reveals individuals of the past and present, many of whom pioneered APIAs into mainstream society. It also traces the steps of many APIAs who continue the legacy of achievements in arts, entertainment, politics, science and technology, sports, and literature and journalism in society today.
Dalip Singh Saund
Saund became the first Asian American to be elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1956.
Born in Chhajulwadi, Punjab, India, Saund immigrated to the United States and studied at the University of California, Berkeley. He served as chair of the local Democratic party of the Justice of Peace before winning the House election in 1956. In the '40s, Saund formed the Indian Association of America to help amend American immigration laws to make Asian Indians eligible for citizenship. His efforts, along with others, paid off when President Harry S. Truman signed the Luce-Cellar Act in 1946, which permitted citizenship to Asian Indians but not necessarily others. He was not allowed to become a citizen until 1949, and his choice of professions was very much limited. After becoming a citizen in 1949, Saund became active in mainstream organizations such as the Democratic Party and the March of Dimes. He was selected as a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in 1952, 1956 and 1960. In 1950, he ran for a judgeship in Westmoreland and won — only to be told that he could not serve because he had not been a citizen for a full year before the election. Rather than quitting, he ran again in 1952, and served from then until he moved to Washington as a congressman in 1957. He served three terms representing the Imperial Valley. Early in his campaign for a fourth term, he suffered a stroke and was defeated in November 1962.
Patsy Matsu Takemoto Mink
Mink was an American politician from the US state of Hawaii. Mink was the first Asian American woman elected to Congress. She was also the first woman elected to Congress from the state of Hawaii, and became the first Asian American to seek the Presidential nomination of the Democratic Party in the 1972 election, where she stood in the Oregon primary as an anti-war candidate.
Mink attended the University of Hawaii at Manoa, and then transferred to the University of Nebraska. The university had a long-standing racial segregation policy whereby students of color were forced to live in different dormitories than the white students. Mink organized and created a coalition of students, parents, administrators, employees, alumni, sponsoring businesses and corporations and successfully lobbied to end the university's segregation policies. Mink later applied to the University of Chicago Law School and received her Juris Doctor in 1951.
In 1965, Mink became the first female minority to join the ranks of Congress. Mink served in the US House of Representatives for a total of 12 terms, representing Hawaii's second congressional district. While in Congress she was noted for authoring the Title IX Amendment of the Higher Education Act, which she wrote, prohibiting gender discrimination by federally funded institutions, an outgrowth of the adversities Mink faced through college. Mink won her last election after her death in 2002.
In recognition of her contributions towards equal rights in the country, Congress named the Title IX Amendment of the Higher Education Act the "Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act".
Norman Yoshio Mineta
Mineta was born in San Jose, California, to Japanese immigrant parents who were non-U.S. citizens. Mineta was the first Asian American Mayor of a major US city.
He graduated from the University of California, Berkeley's School of Business Administration in 1953 with a degree in Business Administration. Upon graduation, Mineta joined the US Army and served as an intelligence officer in Japan and Korea.
His political career began in 1967 when he was appointed to a vacant San Jose City Council seat by Mayor Ron James. In 1971, Mineta won every precinct in the election, and was elected the 59th Mayor of San Jose, becoming the first Asian American mayor of a major US city.
Mineta was appointed in 2000 by President Clinton as the United States Secretary of Commerce, making him the first Asian American to hold a post in the presidential cabinet. Mineta most recently served in the Presidential Cabinet of George W. Bush as the United States Secretary of Transportation, the only Democratic Cabinet Secretary in the Republican George W. Bush Administration. On June 23, 2006, Mineta announced his resignation after more than five years as Secretary of Transportation, making him the longest-serving Transportation Secretary in the Department's history.
Elaine Lan Chao
Elaine Chao is the first Chinese American and the first Asian American woman to be appointed to a President's cabinet in American history.
At the age of 8, Chao and her family emigrated to the United States from Taipei, Taiwan. Chao received her B.A. in Economics from Mount Holyoke College in 1975 and her MBA from the Harvard Business School in 1979. Chao also studied at MIT, Dartmouth College, and Columbia University. She is the recipient of 31 honorary doctoral degrees from colleges and universities around the world.
Chao Hsiao-lan served as the 24th United States Secretary of Labor in the Cabinet of President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2009. Chao was the only cabinet member to serve under George W. Bush for his entire administration.
Anna May Wong
Wong was an American actress, the first Chinese American movie star, and the first Asian American to become an international star. Her long and varied career spanned both silent and sound film, television, stage, and radio.
Born near the Chinatown neighborhood of Los Angeles, Wong became infatuated with the movies and began acting in films at an early age. During the silent film era, Wong acted in The Toll of the Sea (1922), one of the first movies made in color. Wong became a fashion icon, and by 1924 had achieved international stardom.
Frustrated by the stereotypical supporting roles she reluctantly played in Hollywood, Wong left for Europe in the late 1920s, where she starred in several notable plays and films. Wong spent the first half of the 1930s traveling between the United States and Europe for film and stage work. In the late 1930s, she starred in several movies for Paramount Pictures, portraying Chinese-Americans in a positive light. During World War II, Wong devoted her time and money to helping the Chinese cause against Japan. Wong returned to the public eye in the 1950s in several television appearances as well as her own series in 1951, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong, the first US television show starring an Asian-American. She had been planning to return to film in Flower Drum Song when she died in 1961, at the age of only 56.
For decades after her death, Wong was remembered principally for the stereotypical "Dragon Lady" and demure "Butterfly" roles that she was often given. Wong's image and career have left a lasting legacy. Through her films, public appearances, and prominent magazine features, she helped to "humanize" Asian-Americans to white audiences during a period of overt racism and discrimination.
Ang Lee is the first Asian American to win an Academy Award. Lee came to the US from Taiwan in 1979 to study at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he completed his bachelor's degree in theater in 1980. Thereupon, he enrolled at the Tisch School of the Arts of New York University, where he received his MFA. Lee was a classmate of Spike Lee and worked on the crew of his thesis film, Joe's Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads.
Lee's film Brokeback Mountain (2005) won the Golden Lion (best film) award at the Venice International Film Festival and was named 2005's best film by the Los Angeles, New York, Boston, and London film critics. It also won best picture at the 2005 Broadcast Film Critics Association, Directors Guild of America, Writers Guild of America (Adapted Screenplay), Producers Guild of America and the Independent Spirit Awards as well as the Golden Globe Award for Best Motion Picture — Drama, with Lee winning the Golden Globe Award for Best Director.
In 2007, Lee's film Lust, Caution earned him a second Golden Lion, making him one of only two directors to have ever won Venice's Golden Lion twice.
Connie Chung is a journalist and the first Asian American woman who has been an anchor and reporter for several US television news networks. Chung was born and raised in Washington, DC, a degree in journalism at the University of Maryland, College Park in 1969.
Chung’s network television career has spanned NBC, CBS, ABC, CNN, and MSNBC. Chung was a Washington, DC-based correspondent for the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite in the early 1970s. On June 1, 1993, she became the second woman to co-anchor a major network’s national news broadcast (with CBS). While hosting the CBS Evening News, Chung also hosted a side project on CBS, Eye to Eye with Connie Chung and also Face to Face with Connie Chung. In 1995, Chung jumped to ABC News where she co-hosted the Monday edition of 20/20 and began independent interviews, a field which would soon become her trademark. Chung was the first journalist to interview basketball legend Magic Johnson after he went public about being HIV-positive.
Ken Kashiwahara is the first Asian American male anchor to be on network news. The Emmy Award winning broadcast journalist who spent 25 years with ABC News as a correspondent covering major national and international news. Before his retirement in 1998, he served as ABC’s San Francisco Bureau Chief. One of the first prominent Asian American correspondents, he reported on major historical events, including the 1975 the fall of Saigon, where he was one of the last American correspondents airlifted out of the city; the Lebanon civil war; and the aftermath of the Tienanmen Square riots. He also spearheaded ABC’s coverage of redress for Japanese Americans interned during World War II. He won Emmys in 1986 and 1988, the “Lifetime Achievement” award from the Asian American Journalists Association in 1993.
Ieoh Ming Pei
Commonly known by his initials I. M. Pei is a Pritzker Prize-winning Chinese-born American architect, known as the last master of high modernist architecture.
He came to the United States to study architecture at the age of 18 at the University of Pennsylvania. He received a Bachelor of Architecture degree from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1940. He received a Master's degree in Architecture in 1946. He is known for many designs including the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
Pei founded his own architectural firm in 1955, which was originally known as I. M. Pei and Associates and, later, I. M. Pei & Partners until 1989 when it became known as Pei Cobb Freed & Partners recognizing James Ingo Freed and Henry N. Cobb. In 1990, Pei retired from his firm, but still participates in design work with both Pei Cobb Freed and Partners and Pei Partnership Architects.
Maya Lin is an Asian American artist and architect who is known for her work in sculpture and landscape art. Her best-known work is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.
In 1981, at age 21 and while still an undergraduate, Lin won a public design competition for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, beating out 1,420 other competition submissions. The black cut-stone masonry wall, with the names of 58,253 fallen soldiers carved into its face, was completed in late October 1982 and dedicated on November 13, 1982. The wall is granite and V-shaped, with one side pointing to the Lincoln Memorial and the other to the Washington Monument.
Lin, who now owns and operates Maya Lin Studio in New York City, went on to design other structures, including the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama (1989) and the Wave Field at the University of Michigan (1995). In 2000, she agreed to act as the artist and architect for the Confluence Project, a series of outdoor installations at historical points along the Columbia River and Snake River in the state of Washington. This is the largest and longest project that she has undertaken so far.
In 2008, Lin completed a 30-ton sculpture called "2 x 4 Landscape," which is on exhibit at the M.H. de Young Memorial Museum in San Francisco, California. Her current projects include an installation at the Storm King Art Center.
Eric Ken Shinseki graduated from the United States Military Academy in 1965 with a Bachelor of Science degree and a commission as a second lieutenant. He earned a Master of Arts degree in English Literature from Duke University.
Shinseki served in a variety of command and staff assignments in the Continental United States and overseas, including two combat tours with the 9th and 25th Infantry Divisions in the Republic of Vietnam. In July 1996, he was promoted to lieutenant general and became Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations and Plans, United States Army. In June 1997, Shinseki was appointed to the rank of general before assuming duties as Commanding General.
Shinseki is the only Japanese American and Asian American to be promoted to the Army's top position and is the first four star general of Asian descent in the US military.
On December 7, 2008, President-elect Barack Obama announced at a Chicago press conference that once in office, he would nominate Shinseki to become the Secretary of Veterans Affairs. He was unanimously confirmed by the United States Senate and was sworn in January 21, 2009.
Susan Ahn Cuddy
Susan Cuddy was the first female gunnery officer in the United States Navy. Cuddy is the eldest daughter of Ahn Chang-ho and Helen Ahn, the first married Korean couple to immigrate to the United States in 1902. In 1942, Cuddy joined the Navy and served until 1946, reaching the rank of lieutenant. Cuddy went on to work for US Navy Intelligence, and later the Library of Congress and the National Security Agency. She retired in 1959 and returned to her birthplace in Los Angeles, California where she helped manage her family's Cantonese restaurant Phil Ahn's Moongate.
Roman Gabriel is a former American football player. The son of a Filipino immigrant, he was the first Asian American to start as an NFL quarterback and is considered by many to have been one of the best players at that position during the late 1960s and early 70s. At 6'4" and 235 pounds, he is considered the first truly big quarterback of the modern era.
A two-time All-American, and a two-time ACC Player of the Year (1960-61) he starred at quarterback for North Carolina State University in the early 1960s and finished his career holding virtually every Wolfpack passing record. As captain of his team Gabriel set 22 school and nine conference football records. He threw for 2,961 yards and 19 TDs. Gabriel wore the number 18 with the Rams and the number 5 with the Eagles. In the professional ranks Gabriel went on to play 16 seasons in the NFL, splitting time with the Los Angeles Rams (1962-72) and the Philadelphia Eagles (1973-77). He was named the NFL Most Valuable Player Award in 1969 and earned Pro Bowl spots in 1967, 1968, 1969, and 1973. He ranked as the Rams' all-time passing leader with 22,223 yards and 154 touchdowns (1,705 com./3,313 att.) and threw for 7,221 yards and 45 touchdowns (661 com./1,185 att.) with the Eagles.
After retirement from pro football in 1977, Gabriel went into broadcasting as a color commentator for CBS television and, later, Carolina Panthers radio. Committed to charity work in his home of Charlotte, North Carolina, he has raised over $4 million for charity through RG Sports Connection trust through which he promoted celebrity golf tournaments for various charities - multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, leukemia, the blind, the Special Olympics and the Salvation Army.
Sammy Lee was born in Fresno, California of Korean descent. Lee is the first Asian American to win an Olympic gold medal for the United States and the first man to win back-to-back gold medals in Olympic platform diving.
Lee also won a bronze medal in springboard diving in the 1948 games. His accomplishments were not limited to the athletic field. Dr. Lee was a student-athlete at the University of Southern California School of Medicine, where he received his M.D. in 1947. He went on to serve in the US Army Medical Corps in Korea from 1943-45, where he specialized in the diseases of the ear. In 1953, while serving his tour of duty in Korea, he won the James E. Sullivan Award, which is awarded annually by the Amateur Athletic Union to the most outstanding amateur athlete in the United States. He went on to coach Olympic divers including Pat McCormick, Bob Webster, and Greg Louganis. He is a member of the US Olympic Hall of Fame.
Vera Wang is an American fashion designer based out of New York. Wang is known for her wedding gown collection, among other specialties. Wang attended the Chapin School in Manhattan, New York City, before she studied at the University of Paris. A graduate of Sarah Lawrence College, she majored in Art History.
Wang was a senior fashion editor for Vogue for sixteen years. In 1985, she left Vogue after being turned down for the editor-in-chief position currently filled by Anna Wintour and joined Ralph Lauren as a design director for two years. In 1990, she opened her own design salon in the Carlyle Hotel in New York which featured her trademark bridal gowns. She has designed costumes for figure skaters, including Nancy Kerrigan and Michelle Kwan. Silver medalist Nancy Kerrigan wore a unique design of Vera's for the 1994 Olympics.
Wang has expanded her brand name through her fragrance, jewelry, eyewear, shoe and houseware collections. On October 23, 2001, her book, Vera Wang on Weddings, was released. In June 2005, she won the CFDA (Council of the Fashion Designers of America) Womenswear Designer of the Year.
Wang has made wedding gowns for Mariah Carey, Jennifer Lopez, Thalía, Jessica Simpson, Avril Lavigne, Victoria Beckham, Jennifer Garner, Sharon Stone, Sarah Michelle Gellar, and Uma Thurman among various other celebrities.
Kristine Tsuya "Kristi" Yamaguchi- Hedican
Kristi Yamaguchi is an American figure skater and the 1992 Olympic Champion in women's singles. Yamaguchi also won two World Figure Skating Championships in 1991 and 1992 and a US Figure Skating Championships in 1992. She won one junior world title in 1988 and two national titles in 1989 and 1990 as a pairs skater with Rudy Galindo. In December 2005, she was inducted into the US Olympic Hall of Fame. Yamaguchi was a local commentator on figure skating for San Francisco-area TV station KNTV (NBC 11) during the 2006 Winter Olympics.
Throughout her career, Kristi has received numerous awards and accolades. In 1996 she was named Skater of the Year by American Skating World magazine. Yamaguchi appeared on International Figure Skating magazine's annual "25 Most Influential Names in Figure Skating" list several times and was named the Most Influential person in the sport for the 2001-02 season. She was named to the U.S. Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1998 and the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame in 1999. On Dec. 8, 2005, she was inducted into the USOC Olympic Hall of Fame. In January 2006, she joined all her fellow American Olympic gold medalists for a special tribute at the 2006 US Championships in St. Louis.
On May 20, 2008, Yamaguchi became the celebrity champion in the sixth season of Dancing with the Stars with partner Mark Ballas.
Troy Aumua Polamalu
Troy Polamalu is an NFL strong safety for the Pittsburgh Steelers. Polamalu played college football at the University of Southern California and was subsequently drafted by the Steelers 16th overall in the 2003 NFL draft.
In his career as a 3-year starter at the University of Southern California, Polamalu recorded 278 tackles, 6 interceptions, 13 deflections, 2 fumble recoveries, and 4 blocked punts. He was voted All-American first-team selection by The NFL Draft Report, Associated Press, Walter Camp, Football News, CBS Sportsline, and ESPN, earning second-team honors from The Sporting News during his senior season. In 2001, he was named USC's MVP Award, led team with 118 tackles and six passes defended.
Polamalu is a two time Superbowl Champion, having won in Superbowl XL and Superbowl XLIII. He is also a five time Pro Bowl player (2004-2008).
Jerry Yang is an entrepreneur and the co-founder of Yahoo! Inc. Born in Taipei, Taiwan Yang moved to San Jose, California at the age of eight, with his mother and brother. Yang graduated from Sierramont Middle School, and Piedmont Hills High School, then went on to receive his B.S. and M.S. degrees in electrical engineering from Stanford University.
While Yang studied Electrical Engineering at Stanford University, he co-created an Internet website consisting of a directory of other websites called "Jerry's Guide to the World Wide Web". It was renamed "Yahoo!" As Yahoo! became very popular, Yang and Filo realized the business potential and co-founded Yahoo! Inc. in April 1995 they took a leave of absence and postponed their doctoral programs indefinitely. Today, Yahoo! is used by nearly 500 million people around the globe.
Yang stepped down as the chief executive officer of Yahoo! in November of 2008.
Victoria "Vicki" Manalo Draves
Victoria Draves is an American Olympic gold medalist diver. Draves was the first Asian American to win a gold medal at the Olympics. She was also the first woman to win Olympic gold medals in both springboard and platform diving, all of which she accomplished at the 1948 Olympic games in London.
Draves’ father was Filipino, and growing up in San Francisco during World War II she confronted racism; a swimming club required her to alter her last name in order to train in its facilities. She was already a noted diver at the age of 16, and in 1946 she won her first US outdoor highboard diving championship, marrying her coach, Lyle Draves, the same year. She retained the highboard championship in 1947 and 1948 and also won the indoor 3-metre diving championship in 1948. Draves excelled in platform diving, and at the 1948 Games she accumulated 68.87 points to win the platform event. In the springboard event she earned 108.74 points to finish just 0.51 point ahead of fellow American Zoe Ann Olsen and win the gold. She was inducted into the Swimming Hall of Fame in 1969.
JabbaWockeeZ is an all-male dance troupe, established in 2003 by Joe Larot, Kevin Brewer and Phil Tayag. The group first gained fame by appearing on America's Got Talent before going on to being the first winners of the MTV hip hop dance reality series America's Best Dance Crew on March 27, 2008, which earned the crew $100,000 and a touring contract. They are known for their intricate, synchronization and precise dances, mime and kabuki-styled theatrics, and for wearing masks and gloves during most of their performances.
Members of the JabbaWockeeZ include Randy Bernal, Kevin Brewer, Ryan Ellis, Chris Gatdula, Gary Kendell, Joseph Larot, Rainen Paguio, Phil Tayag, Ben Chung, Eddie Gutierrez, Saso Jimenez and Phi Nguyen. The JabbaWockeeZ are from San Diego, California but have performed all over the world. They have performed on such shows as Live with Regis and Kelly, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, the 2008 BET Awards, the 2009 NBA All-Star Game.
Notable Asian Americans: Printable Version