Celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month
By Jeannette Carrington
Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is celebrated annually in the United States during the month of May. It is a time to recognize and celebrate the contributions of Asian and Pacific Islanders to the country’s history, culture, and society. The observance of this month-long celebration can be traced back to the late 1970s.
The idea for Asian Pacific American Heritage Month originated in 1977 when a group of Asian Americans in California sought to commemorate the first Japanese immigrants who arrived in the United States in May 1843. The group also wanted to celebrate the contributions of Asian Americans to the country’s history and culture.
In 1978, Congress passed a resolution declaring the first ten days of May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Week. The dates were chosen to coincide with two important milestones in Asian American history: the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants on May 7, 1843, and the completion of the transcontinental railroad on May 10, 1869, largely built by Chinese immigrants.
The week-long celebration was initially focused on the West Coast but quickly gained national recognition. Over the years, the celebration was expanded to a month-long observance. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush and Congress passed a resolution designating May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
The month of May was chosen for several reasons. May is already significant to the Asian American community, as it marks the anniversaries of the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants and the completion of the transcontinental railroad. Additionally, May is a time of year when many schools and universities are in session, making it an ideal time to promote education and awareness of Asian American history and culture.
Today, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is celebrated across the United States with events and activities such as cultural festivals, concerts, and educational programs. The celebration serves to honor the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to the country’s history, society, and culture.
Asian Pacific American Heritage Facts
- Hiram Fong, one of Hawaii’s first two senators, became the first Asian-Pacific American to serve in the U.S. Senate in 1959. Seven others have followed in his historic footsteps: Samuel Hayakawa of California (1977-1983); Spark Matsunaga (1977-1990), Daniel Inouye (1963-2012), and Daniel Akaka (1990-2013) all of Hawaii; and current senators Mazie Hirono of Hawaii, Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, and Vice President Kamala Harris of California.
- Tye Leung Schulze – She was a civil rights and community activist born in San Francisco’s Chinatown in 1887.
- Mabel Ping-Hua Lee – Mabel Lee was a suffragist who mobilized the Chinese community in America to support women’s right to vote leading up to the 19th Amendment to the Constitution that gave many women in the US the right to vote. Because Chinese immigrants were not considered citizens, the ratification of the 19th Amendment in 1920 did not give Mabel the right to vote. She was also the first Chinese woman to earn a Ph.D. in economics from Columbia University.
- Louis Lee – During World War II, Louis Lee staff photographer for the Kaiser Shipbuilding Company.
- Harry S. Kawabe – In 1916, Kawabe bought a lot on Fifth Avenue and started Seward Steam Laundry. This was the start of his long and successful business.
- Wilhelmina Kekelaokalaninui Widemann Dowsett – Born in 1861 at Lihue, Kauai in the Kingdom of Hawaii, Wilhelmina Kekelaokalaninui Widemann was the daughter of Mary Kaumana Pilahiulani, a Native Hawaiian, and German immigrant Hermann A. Widemann. Part of the Royal Hawaiian family, her father was a cabinet minister for Queen Lili’uokalani. In 1912, Dowsett founded the National Women’s Equal Suffrage Association of Hawai’i (WESAH), the first Hawaiian suffrage organization.
- Queen Liliuokalani – She was the last monarch of the Kingdom of Hawai’i.
- Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu – Chien-Shiung Wu is a pioneer and pivotal figure in the history of physics. An immigrant to the United States from China, she did important work for the Manhattan Project and in experimental physics. Her crucial contribution to particle physics was, however, ignored by the Nobel Prize committee when it awarded the 1957 Nobel Prize in Physics.
- Leah Hing – In 1934, Leah Hing, a first-generation Chinese-American, became the first U.S.-born Chinese-American woman to earn a pilot’s license.
- Ruth Nomura Tanbara – Ruth Tanbara was a pioneering Japanese-American community leader in St. Paul, MN. During World War II, the incarceration of Japanese Americans forced her and her husband Earl to leave their home in Berkeley, CA. They were the first Japanese Americans to resettle in St. Paul and worked to promote the acceptance of other Japanese Americans from incarceration camps. After the war, the Tanbaras stayed in St. Paul and remained active in the community.
- Dr. Margaret “Mom” Chung – Dr. Margaret “Mom” Chung was the first Chinese-American woman to become a physician. She founded one of the first Western medical clinics in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the 1920s. During World War II, she and her widespread network of “adopted sons,” most of them American soldiers, sailors, and airmen who called her “Mom,” became famous. Although she faced prejudice because of her race, gender, and sexuality, Dr. Chung forged a distinctive path throughout her life.
- Mary Tape – Almost 70 years before Brown v. Board of Education, Mary Tape fought for her daughter’s right to attend public school in California. She and her husband sued the San Francisco Board of Education when school authorities barred her daughter because of her Chinese ancestry. The lawsuit became a landmark civil rights case for public school desegregation.
For more information about Asian Pacific American Heritage, engage with the following resources.
- Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center
- National Park Service Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage
- EDSITEment! – NEH
- National Archives
- Library of Congress