31 People to Celebrate During Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month
May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. Throughout the month, we will recognize Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans who have uniquely contributed to and influenced the United States history, culture and achievements.
Its origin dates to congressional resolutions in 1977 and 1978, followed by 10 years of annual presidential proclamations to celebrate Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush issued a proclamation designating May 1990 as the first Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and signed legislation that would renew the honor for May 1991 and May 1992. Since then, every president has issued an annual proclamation designating May to honor Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans.
The most comprehensive list of resources we have identified is available on the Library of Congress’s website dedicated to Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month, at https://asianpacificheritage.gov/exhibits-and-collections. It features selected exhibits and collections hosted by:
- Library of Congress
- National Archives
- National Endowment for the Humanities
- National Gallery of Art
- National Park Service
- Smithsonian Institution
- S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
- World Digital Library
As part of our agency’s diversity, inclusion, equity and anti-racism efforts, our law firm marketing and public relations team collaborated on a list of AAPI individuals whom we admire for their talent, hard work and contributions to the country. Categories include:
- Art and Design
- Culinary Arts
- Law and Government
- Science and Health Care
- Sports and Entertainment
ART AND DESIGN LEADERS – ASIAN AMERICAN AND PACIFIC ISLANDERS
Hung Lui, Chinese American Contemporary Artist
Hung Lui is a Chinese American contemporary artist and one of the first Chinese artists to establish a career in the West. Her paintings and prints often include imagery from historical Chinese photographs of women, children, soldiers and refugees. She is a two-time recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in painting and received a Lifetime Achievement Award in Printmaking from the Southern Graphics Council International in 2011.
Isamu Noguchi, Japanese American Artist and Landscape Architect
Isamu Noguchi was a Japanese American landscape architect and artist whose six-decade career begin in the 1920s. He is well-known for his sculptures and public art and collaborated with the Herman Miller company in 1947 on what is one of the most influential bodies of modern furniture ever produced. The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum in Queens, New York, was founded and designed by him and is committed to advancing an appreciation of his legacy.
I.M. Pei, Award-Winning Chinese American Master Architect
One of the most revered architects in the world, I.M. Pei is most famously known for designing the glass pyramid at the entrance to the Louvre in Paris and the National Gallery of Art’s East Building in Washington, D.C. Born in China, he lent his style of modernism to many urban projects in New York and beyond, including the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colorado, and the Museum of Islamic Art in Doha, Qatar.
BUSINESS LEADERS – ASIAN AMERICAN AND PACIFIC ISLANDERS
Bill Imada, Chairman and Chief Connectivity Officer of IW Group
Bill Imada is the chairman and chief connectivity officer for IW Group, a minority-owned marketing, communications and advertising agency that specializes on multicultural markets. He has worked with many well-known brands during his career, including American Airlines, Coca-Cola, General Motors, HBO, McDonald’s and Walmart. His board memberships and other efforts supporting the Asian American and Pacific Islander American community have been recognized by the White House, including an appointment to the President’s Advisory Commission on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders by President Barack Obama.
Tony Hsieh, Taiwanese American Internet Entrepreneur and Venture Capitalist
Tony Hsieh was a Taiwanese American Internet entrepreneur and venture capitalist, most famous for serving as the CEO for the online shoe website Zappos for 21 years. During his tenure, revenue for the company reached $1 billion and the organization was often listed in Fortune as one of the best companies to work for. Before joining Zappos, he founded LinkExchange, an advertising network that was sold to Microsoft for $265 million in 1998.
CULINARY ARTS LEADERS – ASIAN AMERICAN AND PACIFIC ISLANDERS
David Chang, Korean American Restaurateur, Author and TV Personality
The winner of multiple James Beard Foundation Awards, David Chang is a Korean American restaurateur, author and television personality. He founded the Momofuku restaurant group, which features restaurants around the world, including Momofuku Ko in New York, Momofuku Seiōbo in Sydney, and Momofuku Noodle Bar and Kojin in Toronto. Momofuku Ko earned two Michelin stars in 2009 and has retained them every year since. He also developed two Netflix originals: Ugly Delicious and Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner.
Cristeta Comerford, Filipino American White House Executive Chef
Filipino American Cristeta Comerford began serving in the White House as a sous chef during Bill Clinton’s presidency and was appointed as executive chef by First Lady Laura Bush in 2005. In addition to being the first Asian American White House executive chef, she is also the first minority and the first woman to ever serve in the position.
Anito Lo, Malaysian American Chef and Restaurateur
Anita Lo is a Malaysian American chef and restaurateur who was named by Food & Wine magazine as one of the 10 “Best New Chefs in America.” Before it shuttered in 2017, her restaurant — Annisa — was one of only two women-owned restaurants in New York City with a Michelin star. In addition to being the first challenger to win a battle on the television program Iron Chef America, against Chef Mario Batali, she was also the first female guest chef to cook for a State dinner at the White House.
LAW AND GOVERNMENT LEADERS – ASIAN AMERICAN AND PACIFIC ISLANDERS
Hong Yen Chang, First Chinese Immigrant Licensed to Practice Law in the U.S.
Born in China in 1860, Hong Yen Chang is reported to the first Chinese immigrant to earn a license to practice law in the United States. After his graduation with honors from Columbia Law School in 1886, the New York State Bar required that applicants be U.S. citizens to be admitted and rejected him even after he was naturalized as a citizen. However, the New York State Legislature issued an act, titled “An Act for the relief of Hong Yen Chang,” which allowed him to gain admission to the New York State Bar on May 17, 1888.
Tammy Duckworth, First Thai American Woman Elected to Congress
Tammy Duckworth is a U.S. Senator from Illinois, in addition to being the first Thai American woman elected to Congress, first person born in Thailand elected to Congress, first woman with a disability elected to Congress, first double amputee in the Senate, and first senator to give birth while in office. She is a retired Army National Guard lieutenant colonel and was the first American female double amputee from the Iraq War, for which she received a Purple Heart.
Kamala Harris, First Asian American Vice President of the United States
The daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, Kamala Harris is the current vice president of the United States. In addition to being the first woman to hold this office and the highest-ranking female government official in U.S. history, she is also the first Asian American or African American to fill the role. Before her inauguration, she served as a U.S. Senator from California since 2017 and the state’s attorney general from 2011 to 2017.
Daniel Ken Inouye, Then-Highest Ranking Asian American Politician in U.S. History
Born to Japanese immigrants, Daniel Ken Inouye was a U.S. Senator from Hawaii from 1963 until his death in 2012. He witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor and later overcame discrimination to serve in the U.S. military. He earned his law degree from the George Washington University Law School in 1952. In June 2000, President Bill Clinton awarded him the medal of honor. Until Kamala Harris’s inauguration this year as vice president, he was the highest-ranking Asian American politician in U.S. history, third in the presidential line of succession as president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate.
David Oh, First Asian American Elected Politician in Philadelphia
David Oh is a Korean American lawyer and politician, as well as the first Asian American to hold an elected political office in Philadelphia. He was elected to the Philadelphia City Council as a councilmember at-large in 2011, took office in January 2012, was re-elected in November 2015, and began his second term in January 2016. He is also the only military veteran to serve on the City Counsel, having enlisted in the U.S. Army and serving as a 2nd Lieutenant, C Company, 1st Battalion, 20th Special Forces Group (Airborne), Army National Guard, from 1989 to 1992.
Faiza J. Saeed, First Asian American Woman to Lead Major Law Firm
Pakistani American Faiza Saeed is the first Asian American woman to head a top U.S. law firm. She serves as presiding partner of Cravath, Swaine & Moore, one of the most prestigious law firms in the United States, which she joined in 1991. In her role, she is the first woman to hold the top position in the firm’s nearly 200-year history. She is a recipient of the American Jewish Committee’s Judge Learned Hand Award and was named one of the Asia Society’s Game Changers of 2019.
LITERATURE LEADERS – ASIAN AMERICAN AND PACIFIC ISLANDERS
Jhumpa Lahiri, Indian American Pulitzer Prize-Winning Author
Jhumpa Lahiri won a Pulitzer Prize for her debut short-story collection titled Interpreter of Maladies and has authored an additional short-story collection, as well as three novels. Most of her work addresses the common struggles that Indian American immigrants to the United States face and the stark differences between America and their homeland.
Celeste Ng, Chinese American Essayist and Author
Essayist and author Celeste Ng explores in her debut novel, titled Everything I Never Told You, the complex intersection of race and gender, portraying how a Chinese American family grapples with tragedy. Her second novel is titled Little Fires Everywhere and has been adapted into a Hulu miniseries with the same name.
Amy Tan, Acclaimed Chinese American Writer
Amy Tan has authored several best-selling novels — including The Joy Luck Club, The Bonesetter’s Daughter, and Saving Fish From Drowning — in which she draws on her own personal experiences to explore the complexities of the Chinese American identity. She has also written short stories, a nonfiction essay collection titled The Opposite of Fate, and children’s books.
MEDIA LEADERS – ASIAN AMERICAN AND PACIFIC ISLANDERS
Connie Chung, Emmy-Winning Chinese American Broadcast Journalist
Born in Washington, D.C., Connie Chung is an award-winning broadcast journalist who has served as an anchor and reporter for major television news networks ABC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC and NBC. Some of the high-profile topics that she has covered during her career include Chandra Levy’s disappearance and Magic Johnson’s HIV diagnosis.
Seung Min Kim, Korean American Reporter
Seung Min Kim is a Korean American Washington Post reporter who covers the White House. She grew up in Iowa City, Iowa, earning a bachelor’s degree in journalism and political science from the University of Iowa. Before joining the Washington Post, she spent more than eight years reporting for Politico, primarily covering the Senate and immigration policy. She continues to cover immigration policy at the Washington Post and often serves as an on-air contributor to CNN.
David Lat, Filipino American Lawyer, Author and Legal Commentator
David Lat is a lawyer turned writer who recently created the legal publication, Original Jurisdiction and is the founder of Above the Law, an award-winning website about the legal profession that reaches more than 1 million unique visitors every month. Recently, his writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, among other publications. Furia Rubel was honored to host him on its podcast, On Record PR, for the episode titled “Career Considerations for Lawyers During a Turbulent Market with David Lat.” Here is his announcement from May 1, 2021, about the new publication: Welcome to Original Jurisdiction, the latest legal publication by me, David Lat. You can learn more about Original Jurisdiction by reading its About page, you can reach me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can register to receive updates on this signup page.
Kimmy Yam, Chinese American Journalist Focused on Asian American Issues
Kimmy Yam is a first-generation Chinese American and journalist for NBC. She often reports on topics relating to the Asian American community, including issues of race and gender in connection to the shooting deaths of eight people in Atlanta on March 16, six of whom were Asian American women. Her reporting on the incident demonstrated that women have been twice as likely as men to report anti-Asian hate incidents in the aftermath of the tragedy in Atlanta.
SCIENCE AND HEALTH CARE LEADERS – ASIAN AMERICAN AND PACIFIC ISLANDERS
Joan Block, Korean American Co-Founder of the Hepatitis B Foundation
May is also Hepatitis Awareness Month. In the United States, 1 in 12 Asian Americans is chronically infected with hepatitis B, in comparison to 1 in 1,000 non-Hispanic white Americans. While Asian Americans constitute only 4% of the U.S. population, they comprise more than half of the nation’s 1.2 million–2 million people chronically infected with hepatitis B. This is one of the greatest racial health disparities in the U.S. Furia Rubel served the Hepatitis B Foundation as its public relations agency from 2004 to 2017 under the guidance of Joan Block, co-founder of the nonprofit organization. Block and her husband, Dr. Timothy Block, joined Paul and Janine Witte to start the foundation in 1991. Their goal was to find a cure for the viral liver infection and improve the quality of life for those affected. Since then, the foundation has grown from a Pennsylvania-based grassroots effort into a powerful patient advocacy and research organization with a global reach. Joan Block remains a tireless advocate of the foundation, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2021.
Margaret Chung, First American-Born Chinese Woman Doctor
When Margaret Chung graduated from the University of Southern California Medical School in 1916, she became the first American-born Chinese woman doctor. As the only woman in her class, she went by the name “Mike” and dressed in masculine clothing, facing many residency and internship denials before she became an emergency surgeon in Los Angeles. She helped establish the first Western hospital in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Of note, she accepted a secret assignment during World War II after volunteering as a front-line surgeon, through which she recruited pilots for the 1st American Volunteer Group. This covert position connected her with high-ranking officers and U.S. politicians, which helped her establish the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Services, the World War II naval reserves branch that paved the way for women to be integrated into the U.S. Armed Forces. However, she was rejected from serving in this branch herself, likely because of her race and because the government suspected she was gay.
Ellison S. Onizuka, First Asian American in Space
Ellison Onizuka became the first Asian American and first person of Japanese origin to go to space when he served as a mission specialist aboard Space Shuttle Discovery’s STS-51C mission in 1985. Tragically, he died in the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in January 1986. Before his career with NASA, he served with the U.S. Air Force as a flight test engineer and test pilot. He was posthumously promoted to the rank of colonel from the rank of lieutenant colonel.
Jōkichi Takamine, Japanese American Scientist and Activist
Jōkichi Takamine was a Japanese American chemist who, in 1901, became the first person to isolate the chemical adrenalin (now referred to as epinephrine) from the suprarenal gland. This was the first time that a pure hormone had been isolated from a natural source. Outside of science, he dedicated his life to improving Japanese Americans’ position in society. One of his most notable contributions was funding a gift of 2,000 cherry trees from Tokyo’s mayor to beautify the Tidal Basin area around the Potomac River in Washington, D.C.
SPORTS AND ENTERTAINMENT – ASIAN AMERICAN AND PACIFIC ISLANDERS
Victoria Manalo Draves, First Asian American to Win Olympic Gold
Olympic diving champion Victoria Manalo Draves became the first Asian American to win an Olympic gold medal when she placed first in the 1948 London Summer Olympics’ women’s three-meter springboard event. She faced regular discrimination as a Filipino American when using a public pool, sometimes when the pool would be drained simply because she used it to train. After her Olympic success, she opened a diving school with her husband. In 1969, she was inducted to the International Swimming Hall of Fame.
Dwayne Johnson, Samoan American Entertainer and Athlete
Dwayne Johnson, also known by the nickname The Rock, is a Samoan American actor, producer, former football player and retired professional wrestler who is regarded as one of the greatest of all time. Before pursuing an acting career, during which his films have grossed more than $10.5 billion worldwide, he wrestled for the World Wrestling Federation for eight years.
Bruce Lee, Chinese American Martial Artist, Actor and Director
Credited with helping to change how Asians were presented in American films, Bruce Lee is considered by many to be one of the most influential martial artists of all time, bridging the gap between the East and the West. He was the founder of a hybrid martial arts philosophy called Jeet Kune Do, which draws from different combat disciplines and paved the way for modern mixed martial arts (MMA).
M. Night Shyamalan, Indian American Filmmaker and Philanthropist
Most famous for his supernatural film plots and surprise endings, M. Night Shyamalan is an Indian American filmmaker and philanthropist whose films’ cumulative gross exceeds $3 billion worldwide. He was raised in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania, and many of his films are set in the Philadelphia region. In 2001, he co-founded the M. Night Shyamalan Foundation with his wife, Dr. Bhavna Shyamalan, which supports grassroots work empowering emerging leaders by removing barriers created by poverty and inequity in their communities.
George Takei, Japanese American Actor, Author and Activist
George Takei is a Japanese American actor, author and activist best known for his role as Hikaru Sulu in the television series Star Trek. He has garnered a social media audience on Facebook of more than 10 million followers and was inducted into the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his work in television in 1986. During World War II, he faced internment in two U.S.-run internment camps. He is extremely active in human rights work, especially as it relates to LGBT rights and Japan–United States relations.
Dorothy Toy and Paul Wing, Asian American Tap-Dancing Duo
In the 1930s and 1940s, Dorothy Toy and Paul Wing became famous as an American tap-dancing duo, often billed as the “Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers” even though Toy was Japanese American and only Wing was of Chinese descent. The pair became the most famous Asian American dance duo in history, performing across the United States and England. They were the first Asian American dancers to ever perform at London’s Palladium Theatre.
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