Celebrating Asian-Pacific American Heritage

Marisa Mendosa, Art Director

May 15th, 2020

Just as February is Black History Month, March is Women’s History Month, and June is Pride Month, May is recognized as Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month. The celebration originally just only observed the first ten days of May as Asian-Pacific American Heritage Week when passed by President Jimmy Carter in 1979, it was later extended to the whole month in 1990 and made official by Congress in 1992. 

According to the Library of Congress, the celebration was issued to commemorate “their contributions to the sciences, arts, industry, government and commerce.”

The significance of the month of May correlates with the first recorded Japanese immigration to the United States on May 7, 1843, and the essential Chinese contribution with the Transcontinental Railroad completion on May 10, 1869. 

Film History

It is important to recognize the successes of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders from American history since it is often underrepresented. Even now, Asian American representation in the media, politics, and other public outlets is still extremely low. 

One major success was the 2018 rom-com film, Crazy Rich Asians, which hoped to open the door for other Asian-led films. 

Since then, a few popular films have told the stories of Asians. Another Netflix rom-com, Always Be My Maybe, stars Randall Park and Ali Wong and was released last May. The Farewell set Academy Award history, awarding Awkwafina Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy, the first time that award had been given to an Asian woman. The most well-known film of 2019 was the thriller Parasite. Parasite made history as the first non-English film to win Best Picture. 

(View more Asian-led films here, note: Parasite was released after the article was written)

However, Asians have only recently experienced these small Hollywood successes. Throughout its history, Hollywood was known to whitewash characters by hiring white actors to play a character originally or written to be a person of color, typical Asian. One of the most notable instances of whitewashing in recent history is in the remake of the film Ghost in the Shell, originally a Japanese manga, where Scarlett Johansson was cast as the lead. The film received backlash from people as soon as the casting was released and Constance Wu greatly contributed to criticizing the film’s casting decisions. (Read more about the controversy and other whitewashing instances here.)

Asian American History

Besides just the discrimination in film and the media, Asian Americans have frequently been targeted for racial aggressions throughout American history. 

One of the most well-known instances is the Japanese Internment Camps During WWII. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the American people began to fear people of Japanese descent. In February of 1942, the Japanese Internment Camps were established for all Japanese Americans, those who were first generation immigrants and couldn’t receive citizenship, but also second generation families who had citizenship were interned by the American government. The hardships the Japanese experienced during WWII is just one example of Asian discrimination.

Chinese Americans had endured as a minority since they first came to the United States around the time of the California Gold Rush. The most significant instance of discrimination was the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 which restricted Chinese immigration to America for over fifty years. During that time period, Chinese immigration was banned and deportations were prevalent.

Additionally, Filipinos in the United States have not been treated fairly throughout the nation’s history. The Philipine-American War was rooted in the imperialist mindset of the nation and resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of Filipinos. Filipinos actually have their own heritage month in October recognizing the history and accomplishments of Filipino Americans. (More on Filipino American History Month here)

(Read more about other Asian American discrimination examples and accomplishments here)


However, despite the major hardships Asian Americans have endured through and risen above the oppressors. People who had not volunteered to be leaders helped guide the country through the oppressive times. 

Kajiro Oyama and Wong Kim Ark were activists who fought through the Supreme Court in order to attain rights. Kajiro fought for his property that was unlawfully confiscated under the Alien Land Laws since as an Asian immigrant, he could not apply for citizenship. Though his land was registered under his son’s name, who had citizenship thanks to Wong. Wong used the Supreme Court to advocate for the citizenship of the children of Chinese immigrants in 1898, those who couldn’t apply for citizenship under the Chinese Exclusion Act. Their judicial activism provided future Asian Americans with even more opportunities to succeed.

A more current example of an Asian American leader would be Tammy Duckworth. Born in Bangkok, Thailand, Duckworth was a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and received multiple awards including the Purple Heart from losing her legs in a helicopter attack in Iraq in 2004. She now serves in the U.S. Senate representing the state of Illinois.

With many other Asians being leaders in science, literature, politics, activism, or any field, they all deserve to be celebrated this month and recognized for their achievements anytime.