May is Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month. This year also marks the 30th anniversary of this celebration. The original observation was a seven-day period beginning on May 4, 1979, as Asian Pacific American Heritage Week passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Jimmy Carter on October 5, 1978. President George H.W. Bush extended the celebration for the full month on May 7, 1990, and designated it as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in Proclamation 6130. Learn about resources available from Milner Library and other organizations to celebrate virtually.

The 30th anniversary takes place amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has brought deep-seated anti-Asian biases with an alarming increase in anti-Asian racism and rhetoric. These challenges serve as critical reminders for the need of the teaching, inclusion, and visibility of AAPI experiences in America’s historical narrative. For this month, and all year long, we applaud Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders that have shaped and continue to contribute to America’s rich heritage and history.

History Makers

Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar (1910-1995) was an Indian American astrophysicist. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics with William A. Fowler in 1983. The Chandrasekhar Limit is named after him.

Kalpana Chawla

Kalpana Chawla (1962-2003) was an American astronaut, engineer, and the first Indian American woman to go to space. Chawla was the first woman to study aeronautical engineering at Punjab Engineering College. She then earned a master’s degree from the University of Texas at Arlington and a doctorate in aeronautical engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1988. She was one of the seven astronauts that lost their lives in the Space Shuttle Columbia incident in February 1, 2003. She was posthumously awarded the Congressional Space Medal of Honor in 2004.

Tammy Duckworth is the first female veteran with a disability elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. She has served as the junior U.S. Senator for Illinois since 2017. She is the first U.S. senator to give birth while in office and the second female Asian American. She represented Illinois’s 8th district in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2013 to 2017. She retired at the rank of lieutenant colonel from the Reserve Forces after 23 years of service in 2014.

Duke Kahanamoku (1890-1968) was a native Hawaiian competitive swimmer and five-time Olympic medalist. He is credited with popularizing the sport of surfing.

Chloe Kim is a Korean American snowboarder. She became the youngest woman at 17 to win an Olympic snowboarding gold medal at the 2018 Winter Olympics.

Wonsook Kim is a Korean American artist and Illinois State University alumna (’75, MA ’76, MFA ’78). In September 2019, the University’s  College of Fine Arts and School of Art was renamed to the Wonsook Kim College of Fine Arts and the Wonsook Kim School of Art.

Larry Itliong

Larry Itliong (1913-1977) was a Filipino American labor organizer and co-founder of the United Farm Workers. He played a pivotal role in the Asian American Movement in the late 1960s-1970s.

Ang Lee is an Academy Award-winning director, producer and screenwriter whose films include Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain.

Mabel Ping-Hua Lee

Mabel Ping-Hua Lee (1896-1966) strongly advocated for women’s suffrage and equal rights. When the 19th Amendment was passed granting women the right to vote in 1920, it did not include women of color. She only received the right to vote when the Chinese Exclusion Act  was repealed in 1943. Lee attended Barnard College and was the first Chinese woman to receive a PhD in economics from Columbia University in 1921.

Maya Lin is a Chinese American architect and sculptor best known for her design of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Gary Faye Locke is an American politician and diplomat. He was the 21st governor of Washington (1997–2005) and served as the United States Secretary of Commerce (2009–11). Locke is the first governor in the continental United States of East Asian descent and the only Chinese American ever to have served as a governor of any state. He was also the first Chinese American to serve as the U.S. ambassador to China.

Patsy Takemoto Mink (1927-2002) was the first woman of color and the first Asian American woman to serve in Congress. Mink was the first Asian-American to run for U.S. President.

Viet Thanh Nguyen is a Vietnamese American novelist. Nguyen won the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for his first novel, The Sympathizer.

I.M. Pei (1917-2019) was one of the most renowned architects of the 20th and early 21st centuries and known for his geometric designs that merged grace with technology. His iconic projects include the Louvre Pyramid and the National Gallery of Art’s East Wing.

Tye Leung Schulze (1887-1972) was the first Chinese American woman to vote in the U.S., a year after California granted women the right to vote in 1912. She began her career translating for victims of human trafficking in San Francisco’s Chinatown. She later became the first Chinese American woman federal government employee as the matron and interpreter at the Angel Island Immigration Station.

Joseph, Emily, Mamie, Frank & Mary Tape, circa 1884

In the California Supreme Court case Tape v. Hurley (1884-1885), the Tape family successfully won the right for their daughter Mamie to attend public school, which was a major civil rights victory for Chinese Americans.

Chloe Won, known professionally as Chloe Flower, is an American-born composer, producer and classical pianist. She was awarded the 2013 Creative Impact Award for her work on Anti-Human Trafficking and music education by Cast LA. In August 2019, she was selected as a Steinway Artist.

Anna May Wong (1905-1961) was the first Chinese American movie star and challenged racism and stereotypes in Hollywood. She was born in 1905 in Los Angeles, California to second generation immigrants.

Tyrus Wong

Tyrus Wong (1910-2016) was a Chinese American artist and known for his paintings on Disney’s 1942 animated film Bambi.

Dr. Chien-Shiung Wu (1912-1997) was a renowned physicist who made important contributions to the Manhattan Project and conducted groundbreaking experiments that disproved the law of conservation of parity. She was the first woman to serve as president of the American Physical Society.

Jerry Yang is a Taiwanese American internet entrepreneur. He is the co-founder and former CEO of Yahoo! Inc.


Read part one of this series.