Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month honors the people’s history, long-standing culture, and the positive effects they’ve had across many countries. Asian Americans’ and Pacific Islander’s (AAPI) heritage goes back thousands of years and has shaped the history of the United States. In addition, their lives have been dramatically influenced by specific moments in their history.
Thanks to the Federal Asian Pacific American Council, the theme for this year’s celebration is “Advancing Leaders Through Collaboration,” to coincide with last year’s leadership advancement theme series. What’s essential to understand is what falls under AAPI.
First, Asian American and Pacific Islander is a name that incorporates all people of Asian, Asian American, or Pacific Islander descent. While terms like these are commonly used, it is essential to note that some cultural identities can overlap in this more extensive classification of AAPI.
Individuals who fall under this group and their descents come from parts of the world that are Chinese, Taiwanese, Indian, Cambodian, the Kyrgyz Republic, Polynesia, Iraq, and Japanese, to name a few. Though many people who are and are not of AAPI heritage find ways to appreciate this rich culture, there’s been a long road to get to that recognition.
Why AAPI Recognition Matters
Many people who are AAPI have influenced society in big and small ways. For example, May commemorates the first immigrants from Japan to the US, May 7, 1843, and the transcontinental railroad’s completion. The efforts to achieve this task were put together by over 20,000 Asian immigrants on May 10, 1869—also known as Golden Spike Day. The railroad stretched from the West to the East Coast of America, but the Chinese laborers worked through harsh and brutal conditions and were paid significantly lower than their white counterparts.
Yet, thanks to their efforts, the railroad was fundamental to the development of the American West and cut travel time to less than a week from its initial months-long journey. However, this hard work would leave a lasting effect across America and Hollywood.
AAPI Heritage Month History
The first steps toward Asian Pacific American Heritage Month began thanks to a Capitol Hill staffer named Jeanie Jew in 1977. Jew shared the idea with Representative Frank Horton, who formed the legislation. The staffer was the great-granddaughter of Chinese immigrant M.Y. Lee. Lee came to America in the 1800s and was a crucial part of the transcontinental railroad build before becoming a prominent businessman in California and Oregon.
With the aid of Representative Norman Mineta, Horton introduced another related resolution that passed, and President Jimmy Carter signed the resolution in October 1978. This act allowed the president to make May 4th, 1979, the first Asian Pacific American Heritage Week, which became an annual celebration. Later in 1990, Congress would pass new legislation that extended the observance to a month and chose May as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month in 1992. However, the impact of the Asian American And Pacific Islanders goes back further.
AAPI History in Hollywood
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been a part of the US film industry since the 1910s. Several Asian American actors were featured in low-budget, forgettable Chinatown mysteries and crude yellow peril thrillers. Ah Wing, born in China in 1851, had made several films before his death as well Anna Chang, born in San Francisco, in 1910, with her debut film appearance in Hollywood with Two Little Chinese Maids (1929). Tokuko “Taku” Nagai Takagi was born in 1891’s Tokyo, Japan, and became the first Japanese to appear professionally in American film. Takagi, Wing, and Chang were just some of the Asian-American actors who would cause a rippling effect across the cinema world.
Japanese actor, Sessue Hayakawa, was born in 1889 and was noticed in Hollywood thanks to legendary director Cecil B. DeMille and his 1915 film, The Cheat. Hayakawa became a matinee idol by playing the villain in movies, but the actor wanted to do more with his talent. So the actor contractually required Paramount to cast him as the hero and sometimes the romantic lead.
Through Hayakawa’s recognition, the actor founded Haworth Pictures in 1918, making him the first Asian to head a US film production company. The company produced movies that drew themes from Japanese philosophy and influenced later generations of Asian American artists. While Hayakawa was making a name for himself, actress Anna May Wong was doing her part.
Anna May Wong
Anna May Wong Wong, born in Los Angeles in 1905, was an actress in silent cinema and beyond. She began acting at the age of nine. Over the years, Wong starred in several films and received top billing in The Toll of the Sea—the first film shot entirely in the two-strip Technicolor—and became the first Chinese-American movie star.
Frustrated with Hollywood’s systems treatment of Asian-American performers, Wong left for Europe in 1928 and found success there. Paramount would eventually offer her a new contract with a promise of more lead roles. Unfortunately, Hollywood wouldn’t look past the stereotypical lens for Wong and she continued to take stereotypical roles but never stopped being outspoken in the press about the need for positive representation of Chinese characters. One positive figure in Hollywood came in the form of a surfer from Hawaii.
One of the most well-known film genres in history was surf films. These movies were prominent in the 1940s and early 1950s, but that might’ve never happened without Pacific Islander Duke Kahanamoku. Kahanamoku was from Honolulu, Kingdom of Hawaii, and competed in 1912’s Stockholm Olympics, 1920’s Antwerp Olympics, and 1924’s Paris Olympics. Through those events, Kahanamoku won various medals in swimming competitions. The legendary surfer appeared in many Hollywood movies but used his influence to popularize the sport in and outside the film industry. The surfing culture has grown exponentially over the decades and is still going strong today. With every creative influencer in front of the camera, there is more behind it.
James Wong Howe
James Wong Howe immigrated to America from China with his family at five years old. Howe fell in love with the art of filmmaking as a cinematographer, where he shot over 125 feature films over fifty years. Two movies that were elevated by Howe’s skills were 1932’s Hud and 1955’s The Rose Tattoo—his hard work was awarded Academy Awards for both films. Howe is also known innovator in deep-focus cinematography, and the use of low-hung ceilings held camera work. Even though the award-winning cinematographer made a massive impact on Hollywood, his work and those before him would inspire Hollywood to take a chance with its first major feature film to have a majority Asian-American cast.
Flower Drum Song
The 1950s and 1960s were content with Asian racist stereotypes or white actors playing Asian characters such as Mickey Rooney in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. Director Henry Koster sought to change that and showed the audience what could be achieved with a predominantly Asian cast in Flower Drum Song. The 1961 American musical was adapted from the 1958 Broadway play of the same name and featured Nancy Kwan, James Shigeta, Miyoshi Umeki, Jack Soo, Benson Fong, and Juanita Hall. The film was nominated for two Golden Globe Awards and five Academy during its release. But unfortunately, it would take more than thirty years for a major studio project featuring a primarily Asian-American cast to be made again.
Named after John Wayne, Wayne Wang was born in Hong Kong in 1949. The young individual studied painting at the California College of Arts and Crafts, exploring film history and production. Wang is considered a pioneer of Asian-American Cinema and was the first Chinese-American to gain a significant position in Hollywood. Wang’s movies have been mainly produced independently and with topics on Asian American culture and domestic life, but his most well-known work was 1993’s The Joy Luck. The movie garnered a lot of crossover success and was the first major studio movie with an all-Asian American cast.
These are just some of the many Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders whose history, stories, and traditions have become more visible in Hollywood. Alice Wu is the first successful Asian-American screenwriter in Hollywood and inspired actresses Awkwafina and Lana Condor. Indian-American filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan made a name for himself in a big way with the cultural phenomenon movie, The Sixth Sense, in 1999 and has been continuously wowing moviegoers with his work.
Harold & Kumar became the first Hollywood franchise led by Asian American actors in 2004. Today, South Korean Director Bong Joo Ho, actors Jason Momoa and Michelle Yeoh, and other hard-working creatives in Hollywood continue to spread stories and the history of their culture. Recently, veteran Chinese-American actor, James Hong, was given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his extensive career in the film industry. It’s important to remember that we continue to honor their legacy and the legacy of other Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. They strive to make society a better place to live and entertainment enjoyable and innovated.