Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month: AdvancingLeaders Through Opportunity

By Greg Hugh

The story behind how May became Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month (or AAPIHM for short) evolved slowly to become a National Month before the U.S. recognized the contributions and achievements of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in the United States. The origins of this commemoration trace back for decades but only got serious attention back in 1992 following a few key events and movements.

Asian Immigration to the United States: The history of Asian Americans in the United States dates back to the 19th century when immigrants from China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and other Asian countries started arriving in significant numbers. These immigrants faced discrimination, exclusion, and violence, particularly in the form of laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was the first significant law to restrict immigration into the United States based on nationality.

Recognition and Advocacy: Despite the challenges, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders made significant contributions to various aspects of American society, including culture, arts, science, technology, business, politics, and more. Over time, activists and community leaders began advocating for the recognition of these contributions and the celebration of Asian Pacific American heritage.

The Push for Recognition: In the late 1970s, several events contributed to the formal recognition of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. One significant event was the resolution introduced by Representatives Frank Horton of New York and Norman Y. Mineta of California in Congress in 1977, calling for the President to proclaim the first ten days of May as Asian/Pacific Heritage Week. This timing was chosen to coincide with two important dates: the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants to the United States on May 7, 1843, and the completion of the transcontinental railroad, where the majority of the workers were Chinese immigrants, on May 10, 1869.

Presidential Proclamation: In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a joint resolution designating the annual celebration. Over time, the observance was expanded from a week to a month, and in 1992, May was officially designated as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

Celebration and Education: Since then, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month has been an opportunity to celebrate the rich diversity and cultural heritage of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the United States. It’s also a time for education, advocacy, and reflection on the challenges and triumphs of the AAPI community.

Overall, the story behind Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is one of recognition, resilience, and celebration of the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to the fabric of American society. It’s a time to honor the past, celebrate the present, and work towards a more inclusive future.

This year’s theme, selected by the Federal Asian Pacific American Council, is “Advancing Leaders Through Opportunity,” which builds on a leadership advancement theme series that began in 2021.

Cynthia Choi, co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action and co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate says the month is a time to speak out, share stories and debunk myths about Asian communities, she said. But it’s not the only time to celebrate Asian culture or diversity.

“Our history is also filled with incredible stories of resilience, of persistence, of determination, to fight for our basic rights,” Choi told NPR. “This is a celebration of our history, of our culture … and all the different ways in which our community has really demonstrated that we’re not only here to stay, we are a part of this fabric — a part of this country.”

Before it was a month, it was a week

The month was the brainchild of Jeanie Jew, a former Capitol Hill staffer, who shared the idea with Rep. Frank Horton, who introduced the legislation that formed it.

Jew’s great grandfather, M.Y. Lee, left China for the United States in the 1800s before he helped build the transcontinental railroad, according to Time. Lee became a prominent businessman in California and later traveled to Oregon. He was killed during a period of unrest and anti-Asian sentiment.

“Mrs. Jew turned a personal tragedy in her family history into a positive force,” Horton later told Congress in 1992.

In 1977, Horton introduced a resolution that would establish Pacific/Asian American Heritage Week. Sen. Daniel Inouye introduced similar legislation to the Senate.

In the following year, Horton, with cosponsor Rep. Norman Mineta, introduced another related resolution that passed. President Jimmy Carter signed it in October of 1978.

The resolution “authorized and requested” the president to proclaim the 7-day period beginning May 4, 1979 as Asian Pacific American Heritage Week. It also called on Americans, and especially educators, to observe the week with “appropriate ceremonies and activities.”

Congress later passed legislation to extend the observance to a month in 1990. Two years later, Congress passed another public law to annually designate May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

Why May was chosen to commemorate AAPI heritage

The legislation to annually designate May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month referenced two key dates: May 7 and May 10.

May 7, 1843, marks the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants to the United States. And May 10, 1869, or Golden Spike Day, recognizes the completion of the first transcontinental railroad in the U.S., which had significant contributions from Chinese workers.

The railroad stretched from the West Coast to the East Coast, and 15,000 to 20,000 Chinese immigrants were a major part of its construction, according to Initially, construction superintendent James Strobridge deemed the immigrants unfit for the job. But the railroad needed workers, and many white people weren’t interested.

Conditions were brutal in the Sierra Nevada, and Chinese workers weren’t receiving the same pay as their white counterparts, according to the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project. Unlike white workers, Chinese workers had to pay for their own food and had to work longer hours, according to the project.

The railroad was fundamental to the development of the American West, according to It cut travel time across the U.S. from months to less than a week.

This year’s theme: Advancing Leaders Through Opportunity

The Federal Asian Pacific American Council — a nonprofit that supports the interests of Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in the federal and D.C. governments — selected the theme: Advancing Leaders Through Opportunity.

The theme builds on the Advancing Leaders series, which began in 2021 and will run through 2024. Last year’s theme was Advancing Leaders through Collaboration.

“When you have diversity at the leadership table, the magnitude of what you can accomplish is enormous,” Fahmida Chhipa, FAPAC’s vice president, told NPR. “You really expand yourself in the horizons to have something creative and innovative.”

The council says this year’s theme “further highlights FAPAC’s efforts in advancing leaders in the Federal and DC governments,” according to a press release.

Choi also emphasized the importance of collaboration.

“We do need to center the experiences of those who’ve been disproportionately impacted,” she told NPR. “And when government not only listens but implements the recommendations of communities who are closest to those who are being impacted right now, you get better results.”

It’s ironic now that we have finally achieved recognition through AAPIHM, the Asian community is still faced with combating Asian hate and racial discrimination.

Stopping Asian hate is crucial. It’s essential to foster understanding, empathy, and respect for all individuals regardless of their race or ethnicity. Solidarity and active efforts toward education, advocacy, and standing against discrimination are vital steps in creating a more inclusive and compassionate society.

Join us in celebrating AAPI Heritage Month by attending some of the many fine events being held by a variety of AAPI organizations which are listed throughout our website or patronize any of the fine Asian dining establishment through the Twin Cities and treat yourself to an authenticate ethic meal of your choice.

Also, please free to submit any type of AAPIHM event to [email protected] for our consideration so it can be shared on CHINAINSIGHT.INFO.


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