In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and the recent racially charged discrimination towards the Asian-American community due to the COVID-19 pandemic, below are several crucial, historical AAPI figures who have shaped America today. Many have used their outlets of entertainment, sports, activism and personal experiences to shape the world for many Asian Americans today and paved the way for racial and ethnic equality.
ANNA MAY WONG
Anna May Wong, whose given name is Wong Liu Tsong, is widely considered as the first Chinese American film star. Growing up outside of Los Angeles’ Chinatown, she and her older sister persistently suffered racial bullying. Wong taught herself how to act by studying films at local movie theaters. First as an extra in “The Red Lantern,” and soon landing a role in “The Toll of the Sea,” she developed a fan base over time. She pioneered the American film industry when many states had anti-miscegenation laws, racial conventions which prevented on-screen biracial displays of affection or embracement, and yet American filmmakers continued to refuse to give her a romantic leading role. And for Chinese roles, Hollywood producers would prefer Hungarians, Mexicans and Native Americans, which ultimately caused Wong to leave the States in 1928 and find success.
Chinese American Vincent Chin was beaten to death in the summer of 1982 by two white men. His death inspired a push for Asian American rights. Chin was born in Guangdong province in China, grew up in Detroit and worked in his hometown in computer graphics. He was working in Detroit when automotive manufacturing was in decline and many American auto workers blamed Japanese car manufacturers. Thus, when he and his friends went to a strip club to celebrate his engagement, Chrysler Foreman Ronald Ebens and his son, Michael Nitz who had recently lost his job at Chrysler beat Chin to death, mistaking him for Japanese. All the men received a $3,000 fine and no prison time.
While Chin’s murder didn’t make national news, Ebens and Nitz’s lack of sentences sparked protests across the country; before there were some instances of pan-Asian American activism, but his murder marked a turning point for all Asian American communties who previously didn’t identify with “Asian American” interests.
Olympic gold medal-winning Hawaiian surfer and swimmer Duke Kahanamoku, or in full known as, Duke Paoa Kahinu Mokoe Hulikohola Kahanamoku, was known as the greatest freestyle swimmer in the world for several years. He was famously known for developing the flutter kick, which replaced the scissor kick. Kahanamoku is considered the father of modern day surfing, as he is solely credited with the popularization of surfing across the globe in the 1920s.
He has set three swimming world records in the 100-yard freestyle (from 1913 to 1917) which have been universally glorified. He became a Hawaiian icon, as he founded the first surf club, was voted Sheriff of Honolulu over 10 times and his funeral in 1968 was the biggest Hawai’i had ever seen.
DR. HO FENG-SHAN
Ho Fen-Shan was the Chinese Consul-General in Vienna who issued Chinese visas to Jews in Vienna, despite clear order from his superiors. There was an intense pressure for 185,000 Jews to leave the country after Austria’s annexation to Nazi Germany, and Nazis required Jews have entry visas or boat tickets in order to leave. Unfortunately, many of the world’s nations refused to change their restrictive immigration policies. Because of his work, Ho is considered the “Chinese Schindler” as many people believe he saved more than 5,000 lives, and was probably the first diplomat to truly take action to save the Jewish community.
The visas Ho gave out were unique, as they were solely for Shanghai, an open port city without immigration controls and was occupied by the Japanese army, thus anyone could enter without a visa. His visas didn’t require everyone to travel to Shanghai, as they were able to use them to escape to other countries such as the United States, Palestine and Philippines.
DALIP SINGH SAUND
Dalip Singh Saund was a American politician who served the 29th District of California for 6 years, and was the first Sikh, Asian and Indian American elected as a voting member of the United States Congress. Saund was first a lettuce farmer and a distributor of chemical fertilizer in the Imperial Valley of California. When he achieved his American citizenship in 1949 and was elected judge of Justice Court in the Westmoreland Judicial District in Imperial County, California, he was denied his seat for not having his citizenship for one year. He was elected as judge once again in 1952 and also served as a California delegate to the Democratic National Conventions.
Throughout these elections Saund’s ethnicity, race and religious beliefs were a constant issue and interfered with his candidacy. He ran up against considerable racial sensitivity in California, as he was labeled as a “card-toting Communist,” “a Sikh Hindu born in India with dark hued skin.”
GRACE LEE BOGGS
Another Detroit-based activist, Grace Lee Boggs was a first generation immigrant from Guangdong, born in Rhode Island in 1915 and raised in New York with her father. She is considered to be one of the nation’s oldest human rights activists, for causes spanning civil rights, labor, feminism, the environment and many others for seven decades. For years she and her husband, James Boggs — a black autoworker, writer and radical activist — identified closely with Black Power advocates across the nation. It was to the point where the Federal Bureau of Investigation was said to monitor their activities.
She adopted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s nonviolent methods and utilized this mantra in Detroit as she strove for racial and economic justice through non-confrontational ways. Thus, when Detroit’s economy and population took a sharp decline, Boggs became the symbol of resistance. Furthermore, she founded food cooperatives and community groups to support the elderly, devised tactics to combat crime and promoted civic reforms in columns for the local weekly paper.
WONG KIM ARK
Little is known about Wong Kim Ark himself, but he is known for the Supreme Court Case United States v. Wong Kim Ark and set the precedent for children of immigrants, regardless of parental status. Ark was a cook who was born in 1873 and was raised in San Francisco eight years after the discriminatory Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. After twenty years in the United States, he moved back to China. When Wong attempted to return to the U.S., he was denied entry, as he was not a citizen.
It was the 6-2 majority decision in which justice Horace Gray stated because Wong was born in the U.S. and his parents weren’t employed in any diplomatic or official capacity under the Emperor of China, the 14th Amendment’s Citizenship Clause guaranteed him citizenship rights and those rights could not be limited by Congress. Wong helped establish the parameters of citizenship by jus soli, the overall status of citizenship for children born in the United States to non-citizens.
In 1975, Peter Yew asked the police to stop beating a 15-year-old who they stopped for a traffic violation. Due to his interference, Yew was beaten on the spot, taken back to the police station, stripped, beaten again and was arrested on charges of resisting arrest and assault of an officer. Yew was a Chinese-American living in New York City’s Chinatown, and his beating caused one of the largest protests in Chinatown’s history, as 15,000 community members took the streets to fight against police brutality against the Chinese American community. They demanded an end to discrimination in employment, housing, education, health and all other social services for minorities, working people and especially against Chinese Americans.
Prior to Yew, there were a series of police shootings and stop-and-frisks aimed towards shaking Chinatown’s Chinese community. Yew’s incident was the last straw, unleashing Chinatown’s political strength.
BHAGAT SINGH THIND
Bhagat Singh Thind is most famously known today for his attempts to achieve American citizenship. He immigrated to the United States from the Punjab region of modern day India and, in 1918, joined the U.S. army, giving him citizenship in the state of Washington. However, his status was quickly annulled by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. When he applied once again in Oregon in 1919, his case was sent up to the Supreme Court and was heard in 1922.
Thind was unanimously ruled against and the decision was considered to be a matter of racial prejudice. The court ruled Asians were not white, and thus Thind was ineligible for citizenship. However a few months earlier in lower court rulings on racial eligibility, Takao Ozawa, a Japanese-American argued for his citizenship based on his skin tone and character, but was denied due to his “anthropology and racial science” which classified him as non-Caucasian. Thind showed society that Asians have not been accepted into the conversation about citizenship eligibility, and made one question what it means to be “white” in America.