10 Asian Americans And Pacific Islanders You Should Know

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Not only is this a time to celebrate the culture and heritage of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans, but it is more important than ever to recognize the contributions and impact of the AAPI community. To raise awareness about the injustice being faced by Asians during this month, we have released our “Silent No More” design on a pay-what-you-wish basis in honor of #StopAsianHate. To further support this movement, we are highlighting some influential Asian and Pacific Islander Americans that have made their mark in history.

1. Philip Vera Cruz - Filipino American Labor Leader And Activist

Philip Vera Cruz (1904-1994) was a Filipino American labor leader, farm worker, and leader in the Asian American movement. Born in Saoang, Ilocos Sur, Philippines, Vera Cruz moved to the United States at the age of 22. After arriving in the U.S., he worked a number of labor and farm jobs and was a firsthand witness to the mistreatment of farm workers. Vera Cruz led the charge to improve the working conditions of migrant workers, especially Filipino and Mexican farm workers. Alongside Mexican labor organizer Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers Union, Vera Cruz was able to improve the working conditions of thousands.

2. Anna May Wong - First Chinese American Actress

Anna May Wong (1905-1961) was an American actress. Wong is known as the first Chinese American actress to become a superstar in Hollywood as well as achieve international recognition. Born in Los Angeles, Wong began acting at an early age; acting in silent films, the first color films, television, and radio. Although many of her early roles played into ethnic stereotypes, Wong was a vocal advocate for greater representation of Asian Americans in film and television, and garnered acclaim from both critics and audiences for her acting skill.

3. Philip Ahn - First Korean American Actor in Hollywood

Philip Ahn (1905-1978) was an American actor and activist and is widely known as the first Korean American actor in Hollywood. Ahn was born the child of Korean independence activist Dosan Ahn Changho in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, California. From a young age, Ahn was interested in acting, visiting the set of The Thief of Bagdad while still in high school. Though he was unable to pursue acting until later in his life, Ahn attended the University of Southern California with encouragement from his father, who told him that if he really wanted to be an actor, he had to be the best actor he could. Following his graduation, he appeared in a number of films and television shows, becoming one of the few recognizable Asian faces in entertainment at the time. He later became the first Korean American film actor to receive a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Outside of acting, Ahn was also actively involved in the Korean community in Los Angeles and helped bring the Korean Bell of Friendship to San Pedro, California.

4. Sammy Lee - First Asian American Man To Win An Olympic Gold Medal

Sammy Lee (1920-2016) was a Korean American physician and diver. Lee was the first Asian American Man to win an Olympic gold medal for the United States and the first diver to win consecutive Olympic gold medals in the platform event. Lee was born in Fresno, California, and faced racial prejudice from an early age as non-white children were only permitted to use the community pool once a week, on the day before the pool was drained and cleaned. Despite this, Lee went on to win national AAU championships whilst attending Occidental College in 1942. During a hiatus from diving, Lee earned his medical degree from the USC Medical School and served in the medical corps during the Korean War. After returning to diving, Lee won the bronze medal in springboard and the gold medal in the platform events at the 1948 Olympic Games. In the 1952 Olympic Games, Lee won the gold medal in the platform event once again, becoming the first to do so.

Want to learn about Sammy Lee and other notable Korean Americans? Check out our blog: Happy Korean-American Day!

5. Patsy Mink - First Woman of Color and First Hawaiian Woman Elected To Congress

Patsy Mink (1927-2002) was a Japanese American attorney and politician. She was not only the first woman of color and the first Asian-American elected to Congress, but also the first woman elected to Congress from the state of Hawaii. Mink was born and raised on the island of Maui, earned a law degree from University of Chicago after she was rejected by twelve medical schools. After graduating, she became politically active, becoming the first woman with Japanese ancestry to serve in the Hawaiian Territorial Legislature. In 1965, Mink won a post in the U.S. House of Representatives, where she served six consecutive terms. She later served as the Assistant Secretary of State under President Jimmy Carter, then returned to the House, serving again from 1990 to 2002.

6. George Takei - Actor and Activist

George Takei is a Japanese American actor, author, and activist. Born in Los Angeles in 1937, Takei was one of many Japanese Americans who was interned in US-run internment camps during World War II. Takei attended University of California, Berkeley where he studied architecture, as well as University of California, Los Angeles where he graduated with both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in theater. After his graduation, he became active in the entertainment industry, playing various roles in films and television shows before being cast as his most famous role as Hikaru Sulu in Star Trek. His character’s popularity largely contributed to changing the stereotypical view of Asians in Hollywood as nerds or villains. Later, Takei came out as gay in 2005, providing further visibility for Asians as well as the LGBTQ community. His experiences with losing family in Hiroshima during World War II as well as his own memories of anti-Japanese racism during the time inspired him to become an activist later in his life, particularly in relation to immigration issues.

7. Bruce Lee - Chinese American Martial Artist and Action Film Icon

Bruce Lee, also known as Lee Jun Fan (1940-1973), was a Chinese American martial artist as well as an actor, director, philosopher, and martial arts teacher. Lee was born in the Chinatown area of San Francisco to parents from Hong Kong. Lee began acting from a young age and participated in a multitude of martial arts throughout his youth. As he grew older, his work in the entertainment industry led to a surge of interest in China and Chinese martial arts and changed martial arts worldwide. Lee’s acting and directorial work is also credited with helping change the way that Asians were portrayed in the media. Additionally, Lee was the founder of Jeet Kune Do, a hybrid martial arts philosophy that is often credited as the predecessor to modern mixed martial arts (MMA). Today, Lee is considered by many as the most influential martial artist of all time and a pop culture icon of the 20th century.

8. Yo Yo Ma - Chinese American Classical Musician and Performer

Yo Yo Ma is an American cellist, and is renowned for his talent and skill. Ma was born in Paris, France, in 1955 to classically trained musicians. Ma was later raised and educated in New York City, where he gained acclaim as a musical prodigy who began performing at the age of four years old. Ma is a graduate of The Juilliard School and Harvard University and has recorded more than 90 albums to date - for which he has received 18 Grammy Awards. Ma has performed as a soloist with orchestras around the world, recorded more than 90 albums, and received 18 Grammy Awards.

9. Kalpana Chawla - First Indian Woman To Go To Space

Kalpana Chawla (1962-2003) was an Indian American astronaut and engineer, as well as the first woman of Indian descent to go to space. Chawla was born in Karnal of present-day Haryana, India. As a child, she was fascinated by aeroplanes and flying; and she often went to flying clubs with her father. After getting a Bachelor of Engineering degree in Aeronautical Engineering from Punjab Engineering College in India, Chawla moved to the United States where she earned two master's degrees as well as a PhD. Following these achievements, Chawla began working at NASA and served as a mission specialist and primary robotic arm operator on the space shuttle Columbia. Chawla was one of the seven crew members who tragically died when the spacecraft disintegrated during its re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere in 2003 following its 28th mission. After her passing, Chawla was awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor, and several streets, universities and institutions have been named in her honor. Today, she is regarded as a national hero in India.

10. Sandra Oh - Actress and Activist

Sandra Oh is a Canadian American actress and activist. Born in 1971 to Korean parents, Oh began acting and practicing ballet at the age of four. Growing up, she participated in many school productions and eventually rejected a four-year journalism scholarship to Carleton University to study drama at the National Theatre School of Canada in Montreal. Oh has gone on to have a very successful acting career, with starring roles as Cristina Yang on Grey’s Anatomy and Eve Polastri in Killing Eve. Alongside acting, Oh is also known as an activist, using her platform as a public figure to speak out on racial issues. For the 2020 Emmy Awards, we collaborated with Oh on a custom jacket reading “Black Lives Are Precious” in Korean, in order to showcase her support of the Black Lives Matter movement in a way that was personal to her identity as a Korean American.

Interested in learning more about our collaboration with Sandra Oh? Read our blog: Sandra Oh Honored With Nominations At Emmys, and Behind Our Collab

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