Last year during Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, I spent some time sharing how people can read fiction from and about Asian American and Pacific Islanders to better understand and connect with the unique experiences of those in this community. And while reading about fictional characters and experiences has the great outcome of increasing understanding and empathy, it also focuses heavily on fictional accounts, rather than giving readers a chance to learn about the real-life accomplishments and stories of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in our communities. With this year’s AAPI Heritage Month theme being “Advancing Leaders through Collaboration,” this month is a great time to learn more about the historical and present-day Asian American and Pacific Islander leaders and influential figures that helped shape the world we have today. 

Let’s start with a literary example, Dhan Gopal Mukerji, who was the first Indian American man to become a man of letters (someone who made a living from scholarly or literary pursuits). He moved to the United States in 1910, and went on to write twenty-five books in just twenty years, including the children’s book Gay Neck: The Story of a Pigeon, for which he became the first and, at least to date, the only Indian American to win a Newbery Medal. In addition to children’s books, he wrote plays, books of poetry, works of fiction, and essays, and he was a vocal activist for the Indian Independence Movement. His works have not only influenced literature, but foreign policy and Indian American human rights since the 1920s. 

But besides literary impact, there’s been tons of other important historical figures! Consider Native Hawaiian swimmer and surfer, Duke Kahanamoku. Kahanamoku, born in 1890, became the first Pacific Islander to win a medal at an Olympics, when he won Gold in 1912 in the 100-meter freestyle swimming competition. One of the best freestyle swimmers to ever compete, Kahanamoku is also credited with popularizing surfing in the United States, Australia, and more when he brought his board with him on swimming expeditions around the world. He is even credited as introducing surf boards as a rescue tool for lifeguards, after he saved eight people from a capsized fishing boat off the coast of Newport Beach in 1925! He was also the first person to be inducted into both the Swimming Hall of Fame and Surfing Hall of Fame. 

Thinking about culinary impact, did you know one Chinese American woman is credited for the rise in modern Chinese food across the United States? Cecilia Chiang, a Chinese American immigrant to 1961 San Fransisco, opened a Mandarin Chinese restaurant at a time when most of the United States was only familiar with an Americanized version of Cantonese cooking. Initially quite unpopular, she gained the praise of a few Chinese critics and overnight found immense success, eventually leading to Chinese restaurants around the country adopting a more Mandarin style of Chinese food in America, which is still commonly found today. If you’ve been to a Chinese restaurant, chances are you’ve had food that was influenced by Chef Chiang.

Perhaps most influential in the course of world history, Chien-Shiung Wu is commonly regarded as the first lady of physics. Emigrating from China in 1936 to get a PhD in physics, she was the only Asian to work on the Manhattan Project, with her work being one of the pieces that lead to the creation of the first nuclear bomb. She went on to further research and discoveries in regards to beta decay in atoms, the structure of hemoglobin, and the progress of sickle cell anemia, and she assisted on a project that led to a 1957 Nobel Prize for her colleagues (although her contributions were overlooked by the awards committee). She also won the first Wolf Prize in Physics, won a National Medal of Science, and served one year as president of the American Physical Society.

And there are so many more firsts and influential figures that can’t be fit into just one blog post. From Flossie Wong-Staal, the Chinese American virologist who cloned HIV and helped find the link between HIV and AIDS, to Isabella Aiona Abbott, who was the first Native Hawaiian woman to get a PhD and went on to discover over 200 species of algae, and even within the last few years with Kamala Harris, the first Indian American Vice President, there are countless Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders that are changing the country and the world.  

If you’d like to learn more about the Asian American and Pacific Islander leaders in our communities this month, consider checking out one of the articles or books on this list:

AAPI Heritage Month: Leaders & Impactful Figures