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Celebrating Asian-Pacific Heritage

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apam_header_0Did you know that “ketchup” is a Chinese word? Or that the first female gunnery officer in the navy was a Korean-American in 1946? Or that the current Chief Justice of California is a Filipino-American woman? Or that a Chinese-American biologist co-invented the oral contraceptive pill and pioneered in-vitro fertilization?

Asian-Pacific Americans have long since been a part (albeit understated) of the American landscape, and May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month. It’s a time to commemorate the contributions that they have made, and to celebrate the ongoing relationship and cultural diversity that Asian-Pacific Americans provide to American society and culture.

May was chosen because it was both the month that the first Japanese immigrated to the United States (in 1843), as well as the month that the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, where the majority of the workers who laid the tracks were Chinese immigrants.

For something more local, the Seattle Center will be hosting an all-day Asian-Pacific Islander Heritage Month Celebration on May 3, featuring various national dances and martial arts demonstrations. There will also be booths with local food, and admission is free!

Below, I’ll outline a history of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States. The relationship between Asian and Pacific Islanders and mainstream (white) America has historically been a patchy one, but even in the face of the difficulties that they’ve encountered, Asians and Pacific Islanders have made notable achievements which are definitely worth celebrating!

A History of Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States

In the 18th Century, Filipino sailors settled in what would later be Louisiana after escaping from mistreatment on Spanish ships. In 1778, Chinese sailors also settled in Hawaii.

Although there were already Asians and Pacific Islanders in the US, the first large-scale immigration didn’t happen until the California gold rush in 1848. After the Opium War of 1839-1842, many Chinese miners moved to “Gold Mountain” (the Chinese nickname for California) with the hopes of striking gold and sending it back home. Between 9,000 and 12,000 Chinese were also employed to help construct the transcontinental railroad, and many often worked in harder and dirtier conditions than their white counterparts, for less pay.

White and Chinese miners hoping to strike it rich during the California Gold Rush at Auburn Ravine in 1852. Image source:

Despite the contribution of Asian-Pacific Americans to mainstream American culture, history has not been without its problems. During the first wave of Chinese immigration (at the time of the gold rush), a barrage of racist laws were introduced: the Naturalization Act prevented the Chinese from becoming citizens, while a foreign miner’s license tax was also imposed on every foreign miner, which meant that foreign-born Chinese were obligated to pay it as they were ineligible for citizenship by the Naturalization Act. In 1862, the Anti-Coolie Act was passed, which imposed an additional $2.50 tax per month on “all persons of the Mongolian race” residing in the state. Finally, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 outlawed Chinese immigration altogether from the United States. It was the first instance of a group being singled out for being barred from immigrating to the United States on the basis of their race, and it was not officially repealed until 1943. Chinatowns—which are now so common across the United States—were originally set up in response to the alienation, prejudice, and exclusion that many Asians experienced as a result of these laws.

However, the experiences of Asian people were not always of prejudice and exclusion. At the same time that the California Chinese were being mistreated, many Japanese, Chinese, and Filipinos were hired to work on sugar plantations in Hawaii—at the time an independent country. This immigration of Asians to Hawaii helped set it on its way to being the most racially diverse state in the United States—a record it still holds today.

One of the most notable and shameful mistreatments of Asian-Americans took place after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Following Executive Order 9066, over 110,000 Japanese Americans—including United States citizens—were rounded up and sent to internment camps across the country. George Takei, for example, recounts how his family was sent to an internment camp below:

Despite—or because of—their treatment in internment and the distrust that other citizens had for them, a significant number of Japanese-Americans contributed to the war effort. The 442nd Regiment and 100th Battalion, for example, were composed almost entirely of Japanese-Americans. Both saw heavy combat during the war, with the 442nd becoming one of the most decorated military divisions for its size. The 100th Battalion still exists today, and is still predominantly non-white, being primarily composed of members from Hawaii, American Samoa, Guam, and Saipan.

Asian American radical activists speaking at International Women's Day rally in San Francisco's Chinatown in 1971. Photo copyright © by Nikki Arai.

In the 1960s and 1970s, there was a shift among Asians and Pacific Islanders to recognize their identity as being part of the mainstream United States. The Korean and Vietnam Wars also cast further suspicion on Asians as “others” in the United States, and the Asian-American movement began for Asian-Americans to collectively fight against their oppression and misrepresentation. Specifically, the movement fought to reject the use of the word “Oriental” as a racializing term, and to include Asian-American studies into the then-whitewashed college curriculum. At the same time, the Delano grape strike also helped to highlight the plight of Filipino and Mexican Americans in low-paid agricultural jobs. The strike’s success resulted in collective bargaining opportunities, which benefited about 10,000 farm workers.

However, while the movement made some advances, there were still significant steps to be made. In 1982, Chinese-American Vincent Chin was murdered when two laid-off auto plant workers mistook him for Japanese and beat him to death, blaming him for the auto industry jobs that had been lost to Japan. Neither of the perpetrators served time for their offense—instead, they were given probation and a fine. Chin’s death galvanized the Asian-Pacific community to further promote their rights, and build stronger communities—for all races.

Amazing Asian-Pacific Americans

Despite the hardships that Asian-Pacific Americans have experienced as a group, in researching this piece, I came across literally hundreds of individual Asian-Pacific Americans whose contributions to society made me feel completely inadequate. Unfortunately, there’s just not enough space here for me to cover their achievements in all their glory, but here are some outstanding success stories:

Katherin Sui Fun Cheung. Image Source: 20th Century Aviation

Katherine Sui Fun Cheung was, in all senses of the word, a high flyer. In 1932, she became the first Asian-American woman to earn a pilot’s license—after 12 ½ hours of flight time. At the time, there were only about 200 female pilots (about 1% of all pilots in the United States). Three years later she obtained an international airline license and flew as a commercial pilot. However, not content with just flying to and from places, Cheung also flew aerobatics, regularly entered competitive air races, and was a member of the Ninety Nines, Amelia Earhart’s international organization of women pilots.

As a woman growing up in a Chinese household in the 1920s, Cheung bucked racial and gender stereotypes. When she got engaged, she told her future husband that she would marry him under two conditions: first, she would keep her maiden name, and second, he would allow her to learn to fly. As her flights took her to various cities in the United States, she often made speeches to encourage other Chinese women to be aviators. “I don’t see any reason why a Chinese woman can’t be as good a pilot as anyone else,” she would tell her audiences. “We drive automobiles—why not fly planes?

In an interview years later about her career, Cheung’s explanation for challenging the norm was both elegant and simple. “I wanted to fly, so that’s what I did.”

Another notable Asian-Pacific American who took to the skies was Kalpana Chawla, who was the first Indian-American astronaut, and the first Indian woman in space. (The first Asian-American in space was Ellison Onizuka, who was on the ill-fated Challenger mission.) Chawla studied science and aerospace engineering, and joined the NASA astronaut corps in 1995. Her first flight was in November 1997, when she flew on the space shuttle Columbia on flight STS-87, where she spent just over two weeks orbiting the Earth. She also deployed a satellite from the shuttle.

Chawla with the rest of the STS-107 shuttle Columbia crew in orbit. This image was recovered from wreckage inside an undeveloped film canister. Image source:

Her second flight was part of the STS-107 crew aboard Columbia. She conducted research on microgravity, technology development and astronaut health. The Columbia broke up upon reentry to the Earth’s atmosphere in February 2003, killing all seven crew members on board.

Over the course of her two missions, Chawla logged 30 days, 14 hours, and 54 minutes in space. After her first launch, she said, “When you look at the stars and the galaxy, you feel that you are not just from any particular piece of land, but from the solar system.”

In the realm of politics, Patsy Matsu Takemoto Mink had a string of accolades and firsts. As a Japanese-American living in Hawaii, she faced prejudice growing up in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack. However, she was elected the first female president of her high school body. When Mink graduated from law school, she was denied jobs in law firms because she was a married woman. She also had to fight to take the bar exam—despite being born and raised in Hawaii, Mink’s husband was not, which made her a nonresident of Hawaii, rendering her ineligible for the exam.

In 1956 Mink successfully ran for the Territory of Hawaii House of Representatives, becoming the first Asian-American woman elected to the Hawaii house. In 1958, she was elected to the Hawaii Senate. In 1959, Hawaii became a state, and in a special election to select a Hawaiian congressperson Mink was defeated by another Japanese-American, Daniel Inouye. In 1964, however, she ran again for the United States Congress and was successful. She was the first Asian-American woman and woman of color to serve on the US Congress. She was also the first Asian-American to seek the presidential nomination for the Democratic Party in the 1972 election.

President Lyndon Johnson greets U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink. Image source: Making Waves Films

Mink is best known as the mother of Title IX: in 1971, Mink and Edith Green (a congresswoman from Oregon) drafted the legislation which prohibited gender discrimination in all federally-funded educational institutions. However, it was highly controversial at the time—some thought it would be dangerous to “force” schools to accept women—and Mink and other Title IX supporters had to withstand much criticism to pass the bill. However, it did pass in both houses, and it still exists today. One of its most significant consequences was the considerable growth of women’s athletic programs in American schools and colleges.

Mink was reelected for five consecutive terms, serving for a total of twelve years. In 2002, Mink again announced her candidacy for reelection to the House and easily won the Democratic primary. However, she died unexpectedly, and it was too late to remove her name from the ballot for the November election. She was posthumously re-elected. A month after her death, her House colleagues paid tribute to her memory by renaming Title IX the Patsy T. Mink Equal Opportunity in Education Act.


Asian-Pacific Americans have contributed tremendously to the social fabric of the United States across a diverse range of domains. Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month is the time to recognize these contributions, and continue promoting race and cultural relations of this wide region. There is plenty to celebrate, after all!

This post was originally published on GeekGirlCon‘s blog.

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