Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in May
May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, a time when many communities, federal agencies, students and others in the U.S. hold various events to celebrate the accomplishments and contributions Asian Pacific Americans have made in America.
Who are Asian Pacific Americans?
How did Asian Pacific American Heritage Month come about?
A Brief History of Asian Pacific Americans
Asian Pacific Americans Today
Celebrating Asian Pacific American Contributions
Resource to Learn More About Asian Pacific American History & Culture
Who are Asian Pacific Americans?
Asian Pacific American is a political term that attempts to give expression to cultural, linguistic and ethnic diversity while recognizing common historical experiences in American history. Asian Pacific Americans include many ethnic groups with diverse backgrounds, histories, languages and cultures. The significance of this month can only be understood by recognizing the progression and convergence of the many diverse groups that make up the Asian Pacific American community, which includes Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Korean Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Asian Indian Americans, Filipino Americans, Cambodian Americans, Hmong Americans, Laotian Americans, Hawaiian Americans, Samoan Americans and Thai Americans, to name a few. The month of May is set aside to celebrate the collective accomplishments of these communities.
How did Asian Pacific American Heritage Month come about?
The official celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month has been years in the making. Here's a timeline of some key events:
- June 1977
Representatives Frank Horton (R-NY) and Norman Y. Mineta (D-CA) called upon President Jimmy Carter to declare the first ten days of May as Pacific/Asian Heritage Week.
- July 1977
Senators Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga introduced similar legislation in the Senate.
- July 10, 1978
Legislation is passed by the House to proclaim Asian Pacific American Heritage Week in May. At this time, the proclamation had to be obtained yearly because the final Joint Resolution did not contain an annual designation.
- October 5, 1978
President Carter signed the Joint Resolution.
- May 1990
Asian Pacific American leaders around the country gathered at the White House to witness the signing of a proclamation by President George Bush declaring May to be Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. He did the same for the following two years.
- October 23, 1992
President George Bush signed legislation to designate every May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
A Brief History of Asian Pacific Americans
While many believe Americans of Asian and Pacific Islander ancestry are the newest immigrant population and many have come in more recent years, the first Asians actually settled in the bayous of Louisiana in the mid-1700s. Asian Pacific Americans share common struggles throughout their histories in America, including racial prejudice and discriminatory laws against them. Since the histories of Asian Pacific Americans are very diverse and complex, we can only provide a brief overview of some of their journeys to America. Please see the resources listed below for more in-depth accounts.
Chinese began to emigrate to Hawaii in the early 1800s in search of sandalwood, a prized furniture-making wood. From 1853 to 1898, 46,000 Chinese came to Hawaii as contract laborers to work on pineapple and sugarcane plantations. Most of these laborers went with the intention of returning to China when their contracts were up, but many stayed, opening businesses and developing relationships with the native Hawaiians. Earlier, in January 1848, gold was discovered near San Francisco.
By 1852, 20,000 Chinese immigrants had arrived in California in search of gold, fully intending to return to China with their new riches. However, many never returned, because many never got those riches. With the mines depleted, Chinese went to work in agriculture, landfill and irrigation-system construction, and transcontinental railroad construction. During this time, nearly all of the Chinese emigrants who came to the United States came from the Guangdong (Kwangtung) Province of southern China. Its distance from the ruling city of Beijing allowed these Chinese to escape a country that imposed the death penalty on those who tried to emigrate, a law from the Manchus, who had ruled China under the Qing (Ching) dynasty since 1644. This ban was not lifted in China until 1868, but rebellious Chinese left long before that to flee the famine, government corruption and high taxation that plagued China.
Most of the emigrants in the mid-1800s were poor laborers who left to earn enough money to be able to return to China and buy land. Many were also merchants, who found themselves losing money to foreigners after Britain and other foreign merchants gained control of trading. However, Chinese immigrants in the U.S. faced more struggles, namely racism and discriminatory laws against them. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prohibited the immigration of Chinese laborers. This law, the first time in American history that immigration restrictions were aimed at one ethnic group, was extended until 1943, when Congress lifted the ban in the midst of World War II. At the time of the repeal, as many as 40,000 foreign-born Chinese lived in the U.S., and they were now eligible to become citizens.
In 1945, after the war was over, Congress passed the War Brides Act, which allowed wives and children of U.S. servicemen to immigrate regardless of the limit of 105 Chinese immigrants per year. As a result, 7,000 Chinese women immigrated as war brides between 1946 and 1953. President Lyndon Johnson signed The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and raised the annual quota of Chinese immigrants to 20,000. Chinese immigrated to the U.S. in droves, to study, to join their families, or to practice their professions. Discriminatory practices by real estate agents and homeowners prompted Chinatowns to develop, especially in San Francisco, New York and Seattle.
While most Chinese provided the labor for fishing, canning and laundry businesses, some became doctors, entrepreneurs, clergy and other high-status professionals. In fact, between 1966 and 1975, nearly half of all Chinese immigrants were professionals, managers, and technical workers. Today, Chinese Americans are a significant part of business, government, and many other areas.
Japanese first came to America in 1868, when they were "labornapped" to work on Hawaii sugar plantations. They were promptly summoned back by the Japanese government when it was discovered that the Japanese farmers were being mistreated. In 1882, the Meiji Restoration lifted Japan's previous ban on emigration, and many Japanese returned to Hawaii to work on sugar plantations in the hopes of earning more money. They also traveled to the mainland to fill the void of decreasing Chinese labor after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
All in all, around 380,000 Japanese left for Hawaii and the U.S. between 1885 and 1925. The Japanese call this first-generation of immigrants "Issei." Many Issei went to the Pacific Northwest where the fishing and timber industry needed labor. Japanese immigrants included more women, unlike the Chinese, so families could be started. Some came with their husbands, others arrived as "picture brides," met by unknown future husbands once they arrived in America. Their children, the second generation, are called "Nisei." Independent Japanese were successful farmers, but alien land legislation passed in 1920 and 1923 deprived them of the right to lease or purchase land.
Then, the Immigration Act of 1924 virtually ceased the flow of Japanese immigration, but those already in America became educated and began to get jobs. However, when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, anti-Japanese sentiment led President Franklin Roosevelt to sign a document entitled "Executive Order 9066." This document gave Issei and Nisei only ten days to sell their businesses, homes and belongings, after which 120,000 Japanese-Americans would be rounded up into holding areas and shipped to "relocation centers." These centers were in desolate parts of America, and some families were separated in the process. Conditions were terrible, with five to eight people living in bare, 20 X 25 foot rooms with no privacy, bad food, and harsh weather. They were freed starting in 1943, but most had many difficulties restarting their lives. Finally, in 1988, many of those who had been incarcerated and were still living received cash payments for America's treatment of them when Congress voted to publicly apologize to Japanese-Americans.
Filipinos arrived in the U.S. as early as 1587, when eight Filipinos were recorded to have traveled on a Spanish ship to visit the coast of what is now known as California. Filipinos began to actually settle in the U.S. in 1763, when Filipino seamen, called Manilamen, jumped ship off New Orleans, Louisiana and settled in the bayous.
In 1898, when the Spanish-American War broke out, the Philippines became involved when the U.S. attacked the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. The U.S. promised to help the Filipinos achieve independence, but when the war was over, Filipinos were stunned as the Philippines was given up by the Spanish only to become a colony of the U.S. In 1899 they began a bloody rebellion against the U.S. troops, which claimed the lives of 200,000 Filipinos over the next three years. Some Americans were outraged, and the war with the Philippines became as controversial as the Vietnam War would be 70 years later. In the end, the Philippines lost their struggle for independence.
President William McKinley recognized the injustice of the U.S. going back on its word to the Filipinos, so he decided to pave the road toward Philippine independence by establishing government and education systems in the Philippines based on American models.From these education systems came the first of a great wave of Filipino immigrants.
From 1903-1910, Filipino students called pensionados arrived in the U.S. to live with host families and to study at American high schools and universities. At the same time, Filipino laborers were recruited by the Hawaii Sugar Planters Association to cut sugarcane in the Hawaiian territory. They were needed because the Chinese and Japanese laborers the association had been importing had been forbidden to immigrate by new U.S. laws. Spurred by the stories of wealth gained by other Filipinos in Hawaii, many Filipinos tried their hands at working in America, mostly in agriculture. Then, on December 8, 1941, the Japanese attacked the Philippines, and the U.S. and the Philippines joined forces to fight off the Japanese occupation.
By the end of the war, the Philippines was a devastated country. Overwhelmed and too pained to stay, many Filipinos immigrated to the U.S., as they were eligible to become U.S. citizens by virtue of their induction into the United States Army during the war. Many Filipinas who had worked for resistance during the war fell in love with American servicemen and became war brides, leaving the Philippines behind for a new life in the U.S.
In 1965, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Immigration and Nationality Act, which raised the annual quota of Filipino immigrants to 20,000 per year. Many immigrants were professionals seeking further education and higher salaries. Others emigrated to escape political unrest, particularly because of Ferdinand Marcos. presidency of corruption and violence. While Filipinos did have opportunities in the U.S., they also faced racial prejudice and discrimination, including Anti-Filipino movements. However, they endured and are today some of the wealthiest and most educated Americans.
From 1910 to 1945, Japan occupied Korea and started a campaign to wipe out Korean culture by ordering Koreans to speak Japanese, worship at Shinto shrines and adopt Japanese names. Koreans looked for a way to escape Japanese control, and Hawaiian plantation owners were looking for another labor force after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 halted Chinese labor.
The plantation owners feared that the remaining Japanese laborers would join forces in protest, so they targeted Koreans in 1903 for their animosity towards Japanese and to undercut growing Japanese power. Koreans were recruited to Hawaii under the same conditions as the Japanese, 11,000 making their way by 1905.
Horrific working conditions prompted Japanese, who were responsible for overseeing the treatment of Koreans, to halt Korean emigration in 1905. By 1907, approximately 1,000 Koreans migrated from Hawaii to California, Utah, Colorado and Wyoming, where they worked on copper and coal mines. When Japan signed the Gentlemen's Agreement with the U.S. in 1908, they agreed to restrict emigration of Japanese and Koreans.
From 1910 to 1924, Japan allowed only Korean wives and around 1,000 "picture brides" to emigrate to the U.S. With the Immigration Act of 1924, Korean immigration ceased and did not start again until after WWII. The largest flow of Korean immigration to America came after the Korean War, when American GIs brought home war brides (the first legal Korean immigrants after 1924) and Korean students came to American universities.
The Hart-Celler Act of 1965, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson, raised the quota for immigrants from each of the countries in the Eastern Hemisphere to 20,000 per year. As a result, about 299,000 Koreans came to America between 1965 and 1980, many of them skilled laborers and professionals. The lure of American education, economic opportunity, the threat of communist North Korea, and political actions by the South Korean government prompted many to start new lives in America.
Before the end of the Vietnam War, there were about 15,000 Vietnamese living in the U.S., most of them students or wives of American servicemen.
After the war, Southeast Asians came to America to take refuge in the wake of the Communist victory, the first wave coming shortly before the fall of Saigon in 1975. Most of the Vietnamese figured the relocation was temporary, and that the U.S. would send troops to overthrow the Communists, allowing the South Vietnamese to go back. However, that overthrow never occurred, and Vietnamese stayed in the U.S. to become permanent residents.
Within a few years, accounts of tens of thousands of Vietnamese people fleeing over oceans in makeshift boats flooded the news. The United Nations took action to provide a legal means to emigrate, thus slowing the flow of the boat people. This response to the boat people also led to The Refugee Act of 1980, which set the number of refugees who could be accepted into the country each year.
Along with Cambodian and Laotian immigrants, these refugees formed the largest short-term immigration of people ever to the United States. Between 1975 and 1985, 100,000 Southeast Asians a year came to America. By 1985, 643,200 Vietnamese refugees lived in the United States. Then, in 1987, Congress passed the Amerasian Homecoming Act to bring Amerasians born in Southeast Asia to the United States. One of the few stipulations was that they had to show proof that they were born of American fathers. Many came to find their American fathers, and most considered themselves more American than Vietnamese because of the way they were treated by other Vietnamese. They considered the U.S. their home.
France established Laos as a protectorate in 1893 and ruled it until WWII, when Japan took Indochina from France.
After the Japanese surrendered to the Allies, France sought to reassert rule over Laos, but this time the Laotians fought for their freedom. They enlisted the help of the Viet Minh, who were also fighting for independence from French domination.
In 1954, when the Geneva Accords were struck, Laos gained its independence, but it was soon plagued by internal conflicts between the Royal Lao and the Pathet Lao ("Lao Country"). The U.S. came to the defense of the non-Communist Royal Lao in order to stop the domino effect of communism, recruiting many Hmong mountain tribesmen to fight against the Pathet Lao and the Viet Cong. The Laotians fled when the Pathet Lao won in 1975. Some feared retaliation and persecution; others feared religious persecution, repression of civil liberties, and forced work in communes.
Approximately 70,000 ethnic Lao, 10,000 Mien, and 60,000 Hmong arrived in America in 1975 along with Vietnamese and Cambodians. However, their struggles to adjust to life in the U.S. have been very difficult due to huge differences in customs, culture and religion.
In particular, the Hmong have found it extremely difficult to navigate their way through post-industrial and technological America. For those that lived in the mountains of Laos, simple modern-day conveniences such as electric appliances and toilets are foreign to them.
Furthermore, 70 percent of the Hmong who came to America were illiterate in their own language. It was only in 1953 that a written form of the Hmong language was developed, so the Hmong ended up having to master their own language before tackling English. As a result, unemployment among the Hmong is a startling 90 percent, and according to a 1987 California study, three in ten Laotian refugee families have been on public assistance from 4 to 10 years, with the Hmong remaining on welfare the longest. Still, today more Laotians live in America than in the Laotian capital Vientiane.
Asian Indian Americans
A handful of Asian Indians came to America in the 1790s as slaves and indentured servants involved in the U.S.-India trade. Then, in the early 1800s, the British instituted a capitalist agricultural economy in India, which left small landowners in dire straits. Long-lasting economic difficulties and a famine that lasted from 1899 to 1902 forced these landowners and peasants from the Doab and Malwa regions of Punjab State to leave for the British West Indies, Uganda, British Guiana, and Canada.
Many eventually made their way to the U.S., mostly Sikhs and some Hindus and Muslims. By 1900, approximately 2,000 Asian Indians called America home. Some Punjabis found jobs in the lumber mills of Washington State, but white laborers were openly hostile to Asian Indians and often forced them out of town. A number of Punjabis fled back to Canada, while others headed south to work on the railroad and agriculture.
From 1907 to 1917, 6,400 Asian Indians traveled to America's West Coast. California fruit growers lured Asian Indian laborers to their farms to work, where they were treated very poorly. After a time, some Punjabis escaped by pooling money to lease or purchase farmland. (Later, owning or leasing land became prohibited for immigrants under the California Alien Land Act.)
Racist sentiment led to a campaign to end Indian immigration, and Congress responded in 1917 with the Immigration Act of 1917 that designated India as one of Asia's "barred zones." Then, to prevent Asian Indians from becoming American citizens, the Asiatic Exclusion League declared Indians to be from European ancestors that "became enslaved, effeminate, caste-ridden and degraded," and as such they should be barred from citizenship.
The Indian Welfare League fought to rid America of anti-Asian Indian discrimination, but to no avail. That is, until World War II, when the U.S. needed to strengthen relations with India for strategic reasons. In 1946, Congress enacted legislation granting naturalization rights to Asian Indians and providing for the quota of 100 immigrants per year. Between 1947 and 1965, 1,772 Asian Indians became naturalized citizens of the U.S. Historians say that if the laws had gone unchanged in 1946, the Asian Indian population in America would have died out. With the passage of the Hart-Celler Act in 1965, which did away with racial quotas, Indians were able to enter the U.S. in substantial numbers.
By 1970, 20,000 Asian Indians had arrived from Pakistan, and by 1985, Asian Indians from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh totaled 525,000. High unemployment in India pushed most to emigrate, many of them highly educated. By 1990, the Asian Indian population reached 815,447 according to Census reports.
Pacific Islander Americans
Between 1950 and 1970, the first major wave of Pacific Islanders left their home countries in search of a better way of life. Most did not migrate directly to America but rather stopped in such places as Guam, Saipan, Yap, Nauru in Micronesia and American Samoa.
The Tongans, however, migrated directly to America, mainly because missionaries brought them there. Immigration to the U.S. has been partly attributed to increased pressure on the natural resources in the Pacific Islands and the desire for higher education.
Many Pacific Islander groups are now better represented in the U.S. than in the Pacific Islands themselves. For example, by the late 1970s, American Samoans residing in the U.S. totaled 50,000, while only 30,000 to 40,000 Samoans lived in American Samoa. This is also true of the Chamorros, whose population in the U.S. ranges between 30,000 and 50,000, about equal to the population of Guam and Saipan together.
Asian Pacific Americans Today
Despite facing years of oppression, prejudice and obstacles, Asian Pacific Americans persevered and flourished. Statistics show that from 1960 to 2002, the U.S. Asian Pacific American population grew from about 1 million to over 12.5 million, making it the fastest growing segment of the country.
According to the Census Bureau, there were 12.5 million Asian Pacific Americans living in the U.S. as of 2002, about 4.4% of the nation's population. Projections show that by the year 2050, one out of every 10 Americans will trace their heritage to Asian or Pacific Island roots. By then, the majority of Asian Pacific Americans will have been native-born in the U.S.
Today, Asian Pacific Americans have the highest median household income among all race groups. Still, the income levels vary greatly. According to the Census, 10.2% of Asian Americans are below poverty level, compared to 11% of whites, 26.5% of African Americans, and 27.1% of Hispanics.
Asian Pacific Americans, as a group, are the most highly educated of the race groups in the U.S. Specifically, 47% of Asian and Pacific Islander adults age 25 or older had attained a bachelor's degree or higher in 1997, versus 28% of all Whites, 13% African Americans and 10% of Hispanics.
Some of this success has contributed to the racial stereotype of Asian Pacific Americans as the "model minority." This disregards the fact that there are Asian Pacific American youths that are having trouble in schools, just like any other race.
We at Asia For Kids believe that learning about oneself and others will contribute to breaking these and other racial stereotypes. Asia For Kids provides easy access to books, videos and other resource materials of Asian Pacific American interests, which are still ignored by most publishers, manufacturers and retail outlets today. According to the Cooperative Childrens Book Center at the University of Wisconsin, there were only 52 books of Asian American interest out of 5,000 published in 1998. Many of these titles are never reprinted.
We encourage parents and teachers to use our carefully selected multicultural resources to learn and share with others. Read books and watch videos about the history and contributions of Asian Pacific Americans in all fields.
Celebrating Asian Pacific American Contributions
Asian Pacific Americans are people to honor and recognize during every month, but May is the official month of celebration. One only has to look at the contributions of Asian Pacific Americans to see how they have enriched and benefited American culture:
Arts & Humanities: Chin Yang Lee, author; Lan Cao, author; Deepak Chopra, author; Maya Lin, architect and designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; Josie Natori, Fashion Designer; Vera Wang, Fashion Designer; I. M. Pei, architect; Amy Tan, author; Laurence Yep, author; Maxine Hong Kingston, author.
Business & Economy: Rajat Gupta, Managing Director, McKinsey & Co.; Sant Chatwal, President, Hampshire Hotels & Resorts; John Chen, Chairman, CEO and President, Sybase Inc.; Lilia Clemente, Chair/CEO, Clemente Capital, Inc.; Andrea Jung, President of Global Marketing, Avon Products, Inc.; David Kim, Director of Corporate Relations, Anheuser-Busch Companies, Inc.; James Li, President of Emerging Markets Group, American Express; Jerry Yang, Co-founder of Yahoo! Inc.; Charles B. Wang, Founder and CEO, Computer Associates International, Inc.; Kanetaka Yamaguchi, CEO, Union Bank; Loida Nicolas Lewis, Chair & CEO, TLC Beatrice.
Education: Gordon Chang, Associate Professor, Stanford University; Chang-Lin Tien, Former Chancellor, University of California, Berkeley; Paul Watanabe, Associate Professor/Co-Director, Institute for Asian American Studies, University of Massachusetts, Boston.
Entertainment: Sessue Hayakawa, actor and Acadamy Award nominee; Miyoshi Umeki, actor and Academy Award winner; Dean Devlin, Film Producer/Screenwriter; Christopher Lee, President of Production, TriStar Pictures; Yo Yo-Ma, Cellist, Boston Symphony Orchestra; Seiji Ozawa, Music Director, Boston Symphony Orchestra; Ming-Na Wen, Actress; Bruce Lee, Actor/Martial Arts Master; Fritz Friedman, Vice President of Worldwide Publicity, Columbia TriStar Home Video; B. D. Wong, actor; Wayne Wang, film director; Joan Chen, actor; Dalisay Aldaba, opera singer; Midori, violin virtuoso; Martin Yan, Master Chef, author, host of Yan Can Cook; Zubin Mehta, Director, New York Philharmonic Orchestra.
Government: Norman Y. Mineta, Secretary of Transportation; Elaine Chao, Secretary of Labor; Viet D. Dinh, Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Policy; Rear Admiral Ming E. Chang, Vice President, Raytheon International, Inc.; General Eric Shinseki, Commander-in-Chief, United States Army Europe; Dr. Jeremy Wu, Director of the Office of Civil Rights; Ming W Chin, California State Supreme Court Justice.
Health & Science: David Ho, AIDS Researcher, Named Man of the Year by Time Magazine; Sammy Lee, Physician in U.S. Army Medical Corps & Olympic High Diving Gold Medal Winner; Steven Chu, Scientist, Winner of 1997 Nobel Prize for Physics; Chen Ning Yang & Tsung-Dao Lee, Scientists, Winners of 1957 Nobel Prize for Physics; Kalpana Chawla, Astronaut/Mission Specialist, National Aeronautics & Space Administration (NASA); David Ho, Director, Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center; Leo Esaki, Physicist, Winner of 1973 Nobel Prize for Physics; Bobby Jindal, Department Head, Louisiana Department of Health & Hospitals; Howard Pien, President of Pharmaceuticals-North America, SmithKline Beecham.
News & Media: Connie Chung, News Correspondent, ABC; Ann Curry, News Anchor, NBC; Michiko Kakutani, lead literary critic of the New York Times; Howard G. Chua-Eoan, Assistant Managing Editor, TIME Magazine; Fred Katayama, News Anchor and Correspondent, CNN; Michael Kim, News Anchor, ESPN.
Politics: Gary Locke, Governor of the State of Washington; Daniel K. Akaka, United States Senate; Eni Faleomavaega, Congressman, U.S. House of Representatives; Matthew K. Fong, former Treasurer, State of California; Daniel K. Inouye, Congressman, United States Senate; David Wu, Congressman, U.S. House of Representatives; Robert T. Matsui, Congressman, U.S. House of Representatives.
Sports: Eugene Chung, National Football League lineman, Dat Nguyen, NFL linebacker, Michael Chang, Professional Tennis Player; Paul Kariya, Professional Hockey Player, Anaheim Mighty Ducks; Michelle Kwan, Olympic Figure Skater; Junior Seau, Professional Football Player; Tiger Woods, Professional Golfer; Kristi Yamaguchi, Olympic Figure Skater.
Bandon, Alexandria. Filipino Americans. New York: New Discovery Books, 1993.
Bandon, Alexandria. Vietnamese Americans. New York: New Discovery Books, 1994.
Bandon, Alexandria. Chinese Americans. New York: New Discovery Books, 1994.
Bautista, Veltisezar. The Filipino Americans. Farmington Hills: Bookhaus Publishers, 1998.
Cao, Lan, and Novas, Himilce. Everything You Need To Know About Asian-American History. New York: The Penguin Group, 1996.
Check out www.naata.org for related PBS programs in the month of May.
Learn More About Asian Pacific American History & Culture
Asia For Kids proudly celebrates Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and invites you to learn more about Asian Pacific American history and culture with resources such as the following books and videos:
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