Monday, May 1st, 2023
By: Sylvia Yang
Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, once known as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, became a national celebration of the contributions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, comprising of the Asian continent and Pacific Islands of Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia, in the United States.
The month of May was chosen to commemorate two dates:
This celebration started off with a slice of the month, where Representative Frank Horton of New York and Norman Mineta of California introduced House Joint Resolution 540 to declare the first ten days of May as Pacific/Asian American Heritage Week in 1977. Similar efforts were made by Hawaiian Senators Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga later that same year for Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week, but neither resolution passed.
The next year, Rep. Horton introduced House Joint Resolution 1007, which proposed that the President should proclaim a week including the two key dates as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week. President Jimmy Carter signed the joint resolution, after it was passed by the Senate, so that the first celebration took place on May 4th, 1979, over a 7-day period.
In 1990 Congress passed Public Law 101-283 that extended the observance from a week, a little short of the initial ten-day proposal, to the entire month of May. Annual proclamations had to be passed by the President until 1992, when Public Law 102-450 was passed by Congress and President George H. W. Bush designated Asian Pacific American Heritage Month as an annual title for May.
Horton gave credit where credit was due, highlighting that a former Capitol Hill staffer Jeanie Jew first suggested the idea to him in the mid-1970s. Jeanie Jew’s fight for this month came from her personal history, where her own great-grandfather, M.Y. Lee, played a part in building the transcontinental railroad that was completed in 1869. The railroad allowed for quick development of the American West by shortening a month’s worth of travel to a week at a drastically lower expense. However, the work came at the hefty cost of safety due to harsh weather and environmental conditions, accidents, as well as disease. Furthermore, the Chinese workers received lower wages than their White counterparts and were tasked with the most dangerous work, resulting in a strike to improve working conditions.
2. “The 1,000-mile Tree, a solitary pine in Wilhelmina Pass, or the narrows of Weber Canyon, marking the 1,000th mile west of Omaha on the First Transcontinental Railroad construction by the Union Pacific Railroad. Weber County, Utah. 1869.”
Many immigrants, including those of Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino descent, also spent long workdays at Hawaiian sugar cane plantations with the plantation owners having strict control over them. European American overseers, the only people who held positions of authority, would ensure that company rules were followed, such as no talking, smoking, or even pausing to stretch. If these rules were broken, fines or even whippings were imposed. Private lives were only so private, where workers lived in company housing and shopped at company stores. Furthermore, up until 1900, plantation workers were bound to contracts and faced jail-time if they did not finish their term. Many Japanese immigrants also contributed to the agricultural scene in California, by bringing Japanese farming methods from Japan. It is reported that “by 1920, Japanese immigrant farmers controlled more than 450,000 acres of land in California” and “brought to market more than 10 percent of its crop revenue.”
Amongst other scientific, artistic, culinary, and economic contributions, it is noteworthy that thousands of AAPI members served the U.S. Army in World War I and many received distinctions and other awards for their bravery. Amidst these soldiers were Japanese Americans but, despite this, when the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred, Japanese Americans were seen as a threat and prominent figures were arrested as security risks. In 1942, President Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 allowing the U.S. military to relocate those in military areas. The Civilian Exclusion Order that came a month later in March targeted the Japanese and required them to be evacuated and placed in relocation camps. After the chaos of negative press, military searches, and abuse, thousands of Japanese Americans were uprooted and moved to internment camps in places chosen for their remoteness. The camps were not a particularly kind sort of haven, with watchtowers, barbed wire, and armed guards surrounding the vicinity. There was nothing physical to return to as they were required to liquidate their assets, resulting in hurriedly sold houses, farms, stores, and restaurants. By the end of the war, 125,000 Japanese Americans had spent time in these camps. Yet, in the face of discrimination, Japanese Americans volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army in World War II to prove their loyalty and patriotism to America.
3. “Arcadia, California — 4 April, 1942. Japanese Americans from the San Pedro Pacific Electric Railway (Red Cars) station arrived at the Santa Anita Race Track to await internment processing.”
Despite the contributions of the AAPI community, the discriminatory laws and prejudice made life in the U.S. difficult if not impossible. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 banned Chinese laborers from immigrating to the U.S. over the course of the next 10 years. Those already in the country who wished to leave and re-enter had to obtain certifications, and Congress limited the rights for Chinese resident aliens to be granted citizenship. The next 10 years were renewed by the Geary Act of 1892, where new restrictions were added for Chinese residents to obtain a certificate of residence or face deportation. The Japanese Americans who were doing well on agriculture in California were targeted by the Alien Land Act of 1913, that prohibited “‘Aliens ineligible to citizenship’” from owning agricultural land and limited their lease term. Furthermore, the Immigration Act of 1924 limited the number of immigrants that could be admitted, to only 2% of a specific nationality already living in the U.S. and recorded. The laws determining the accessibility of the United States to immigrants has a long and complex timeline.
The hardships for those who successfully entered and remained in the U.S. continued, where they were met with discrimination as highlighted by the Pacific Coast Race Riots of 1907. The pervasive anti-Asian sentiment is made eminent by how the riots occurred across states against the Japanese in San Francisco, South Asians in Bellingham, and Chinese and Japanese immigrants in Vancouver, Canada, all within the same year. The violence and discriminatory acts that Asians faced are also exemplified by other significant events such as the Rock Springs Massacre of 1885, the Tacoma Riot of 1885, the Seattle Riot of 1886, and the Chinese Massacre of 1871. The timeline of events highlighting systemic racism faced by the AAPI community spans as long as the targeted laws against them.
Jeanie Jew sought for the recognition of the contributions and achievements of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, especially due to the injustices that this population faced. Now, the millions of members in America that are comprised of the AAPI community have May as a dedicated month to celebrating the ancestral history and contributions of the community in present day America. The Asian American Dream (AAD) works with the same goals to celebrate the potential of underserved Pan Asian American undergraduates. AAD provides the tools, guidance, and supportive network to propel these students into achieving their own vision of the Asian American dream, in a time when this is not only possible but also celebrated.
Check out more information about AAPI Heritage Month here and other contributions made by the AAPI community here.
1. https://picryl.com/media/central-pacific-transcontinental-railroad-tunnel-no-38-milepost-18058-cisco-2 (Cover Photo)