Recognizing Asian American and Pacific Islander American Achievements

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The month of May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, but every month here at Gale we drop a new batch of notable names from the arts, literature, politics, and sciences into our landmark Gale In Context: Biography database. This May, celebrate the heritage of Asian American and Pacific Islander American people (AAPI) by catching up with the honors accorded to individuals with histories hailing from across the Asian continent and from the islands of the Pacific islands.

The comedians Ali Wong (born 1982) and Steven Yeun (born 1983) are the leads in Beef, the darkly comic Netflix series that premiered in April. Wong, the San Francisco–raised daughter of a Chinese American anesthesiologist, made her breakthrough as a stand-up comic in the 2016 special Baby Cobra, filmed for Netflix when she was seven months pregnant. Yeun was born in South Korea and grew up in the metro Detroit area, where his parents ran a chain of beauty-supply stores. In 2021, he became the first Asian American actor to be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor for his lead in the acclaimed coming-of-age film Minari, from writer-director Lee Isaac Chung (born 1978), a Korean American.

The stories of AAPI performers from bygone decades are concentrated and easily searchable in Gale In Context: Biography and provide a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of Asian representation in Hollywood. Yeun’s Oscar nomination can be linked to the work of veteran actor Sessue Hayakawa (1889–1973), a Japanese American who in 1958 became the first male actor of Asian heritage to be nominated for an Academy Award, in the Best Supporting Actor category, for the World War II drama The Bridge on the River Kwai. At the 2023 Academy Awards, there were several notable AAPI talents recognized, including Michelle Yeoh (born 1963), the Malay Chinese star of Everything Everywhere All at Once, who became the first Asian American woman to take home the Best Actress honor and is also the first Malaysian winner in any Oscar category. 

AAPI people have also made noteworthy contributions to America’s built environment. Leading that list is the revered architect Minoru Yamasaki (1912–1986), who did not live to see his twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City destroyed in the 9/11 attacks. In May 1981, news headlines around the world reported that the design submitted by a 21-year-old Yale University student, Maya Lin (born 1959), had been selected as the winning commission for the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, DC. 

New York City test-prep tycoon Andrew Yang (born 1975), the son of Taiwanese immigrants, was not the first Asian American to declare himself a candidate for the White House when he sought the 2020 Democratic Party nomination; that honor goes to Hiram L. Fong (1906–2004), a U.S. senator from Hawaii who was a contender for the presidential ticket at the 1964 Republican National Convention. Fong was the son of Cantonese immigrants to Hawaii and became the first Asian American elected to the U.S. Senate in 1959. Another Hawaiian lawmaker, Patsy Takemoto Mink (1927–2002), holds the honor of becoming the first Asian American woman to win election to the U.S. House of Representatives. Mink, the daughter of Japanese Americans, also made a bid for the White House when she entered the 1972 Democratic Party primary race. 

Millions of American women who play sports have Patsy Mink to thank for her efforts to secure passage of Title IX, the landmark 1972 civil rights act that prohibits discrimination by gender in schools that receive federal funds. One of those athletes is Julie Chu (born 1982), the daughter of a Chinese immigrant, who in 2002 became the first Asian American woman to compete with the U.S. women’s hockey team at the Winter Olympics. Another winter-sports phenomenon is Apolo Anton Ohno (born 1982), from a Seattle-area Japanese American family, who retired from speed skating after the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and 13 years later, still holds the record for the most medals won by any American athlete in the history of the Winter Games.

Gale In Context: Biography most certainly holds the record for the longest and exhaustively comprehensive range of biographical essays of not only notable Asian American and Pacific Islander Americans from all fields but also from leaders and trailblazers from all continents! Come back often to find enlightenment through their inspiring stories.

About the Author

Carol Brennan has been writing biographical entries for Cengage/Gale since 1993. If she’s not writing, she is either at yoga or walking her dachshund. Carol consumes an alarming volume of podcasts and audiobooks weekly.

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