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8 Amazing Asian American and Pacific Islanders We Should All Know About

May is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, during which we celebrate, learn and teach about Asian American and Pacific Islander cultures, languages and people. We have compiled a list of eight trailblazing, innovative and fierce Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders for this AAPI month.

Kalpana Chawla

Kalpana Chawla was the first Indian-born woman to go into space. Chawla was born in Karnal, India but immigrated to the United States and became a citizen in the 1980s to earn her masters and doctorate in aerospace engineering. She earned her doctorate in 1988 and began working at NASA’s Ames Research Center.

In 1994, she was selected as an astronaut candidate by NASA. Chawla wanted to inspire more girls like her to take interest in space. During her time as an astronaut, NASA invited two girls each year from Chawla’s secondary school to take part in the Summer Space Experience Program.

Her first mission was in November 1997. She and the rest of the crew on the Space Shuttle Columbia researched how the weightlessness of space affected physical processes and observed the sun’s atmosphere. In January 2003, she returned to space on a mission again in the Space Shuttle Columbia. This time, the crew focused on biological experiments, such as how certain fish and insects responded flying in space. The crew completed over 80 experiments in just 16 days. Upon entry back into earth, the Space Shuttle depressurized, killing everyone inside. Since the tragedy, Chawla has had asteroids, hills on Mars and spacecrafts named after her. She also has a memorial at the University of Texas Arlington College of Engineering.

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Joyce Chen

Joyce Chen was a chef, restaurant owner and TV personality known for introducing Chinese food to Americans and the United States. Chen began her culinary career at the age of 18 in 1935 in China. When Chen and her family moved from Shanghai to Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1949, she started cooking for Chinese students at Harvard and MIT who missed home cooked meals. She also cooked for her children’s school events.

Her food was so popular that she opened her first restaurant in 1958 called “Joyce Chen Restaurant.” It was a buffet style restaurant of both Chinese and American food, allowing customers to sample a bit of everything and try new food. She also created a menu that had dishes in both Chinese and English and in numbers so that anyone could order, no matter what language they spoke. It also helped staff communicate more easily within the restaurant.

In 1960, she began teaching cooking classes, and in 1962, she published her first cookbook which included healthy recipes and information about Chinese cuisine and traditions. She was partly so popular because she was adamant about serving and making healthy food, rejecting common and unhealthy practices in the 1960s like using Red Dye #2. Throughout her career, Chen opened many restaurants and sold various cookware and sauces in stores. Chen created the Peking Wok, a flat-bottom pan with a special handle, coined the term “Peking Raviolis” or “Ravs” instead of pot stickers, introduced polyethylene cutting boards (high-quality plastic) and was the first to serve soup dumplings anywhere in the U.S. Chen revolutionized cuisine in the United States and introduced the country to many now-staple dishes of Chinese origin. Next time you eat some soup dumplings in Baltimore, you can thank Joyce Chen! and

Vicki Draves

Vicki Draves is one of three Olympians on our list, and one of two record-breaking Olympic divers on this list. Draves is considered one of the greatest divers in Olympic history. She grew up in San Francisco as Victoria Manalo. When she was 16, a racist diving coach told her she could not compete or train with other kids unless she changed her last name, so she took her mother’s maiden name “Taylor.” (At 19, she began training with her future husband and started competing under “Manalo” again until they were married, after which she took his name “Draves.”) Dealing with her first diving coach was not the only time she experienced racism in diving. When training, Draves could only use the public pool once a week when people of color were allowed to swim. Afterwards, the pool staff would drain the pool and refill it for the white people.

Despite these obstacles, Draves won national championships in diving and made Olympic history. At the 1948 London Olympic Games, Draves won gold in the 3-meter springboard and the 10-meter platform. She was the first woman to sweep the diving events and the first Asian American to win an Olympic medal. Draves retired from the Olympics soon after and performed in traveling water extravaganza shows across the United States. After that, she and her husband started a swimming and diving training center. In 1969, she was elected into the International Swimming Hall of Fame. It seems that Draves was destined to succeed. In Tagalog, a wide-spoken language in the Philippines, and in Filipino “manalo” means “win.”

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Duke Kahanamoku

Nicknamed “The Duke,” Duke Kahanamoku is the second of three Olympians in our list. His Olympic career spanned over 20 years, during which he won six Olympic medals in four different Olympics. He is known for popularizing surfing around the world, but especially in the United States.

Kahanamoku was born in Honolulu in 1890. He swam and surfed, beginning as a child. He was one of only a few Native Hawaiians who still surfed at the time because foreign missionaries almost eradicated surfing from the Hawaiian islands by the end of the 19th century.

Kahanamoku was an incredible athlete. In his first swimming races, in 1911, he broke three freestyle world records by a whopping 4.6 seconds. In 1912, he won two Olympic medals for swimming in the Stockholm Olympics and set the record for the gold medal. In 1914, he introduced surfing to the United States, Australia and New Zealand. In 1920, he won two more Olympic gold medals for swimming. He also recommended that surfing get added. In 1925, he saved eight drowning men off the coast of California, causing U.S. lifeguards to start using surfboards in their rescues. In 1932, at the age of 42, he won a bronze medal as an alternate for the U.S. water polo team.

Kahanamoku lived in Los Angeles for a while. During that time, he appeared in 30 Hollywood movies and established Southern California as a hub for watersports. He was inducted into the swimming, surfing, and U.S. Halls of Fame, making him the first person to be inducted into both swimming and surfing Halls of Fame. He is considered the father of modern surfing.

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Yuri Kochiyama

Yuri Kochiyama was a political and civil rights activist. Her father died when she was a young adult. Right after the Pearl Harbor bombing, he was arrested and detained in a hospital and labeled a “prisoner of war” after receiving surgery. He died quickly after his arrest. Shortly thereafter, on President Roosevelt’s Executive Order, she and her family were sent to a concentration camp in Arkansas. This experience and her father’s death caused her to sympathize with and understand political activism. However, she didn’t begin her career in activism until the 1960s.

After being released from the concentration camp, Kochiyama moved to New York. In the early 1960s, she began her activism career in Harlem, participating in the Asian American, Black and Third World movements. She founded Asian Americans for Action to build a movement that would connect with the Black liberation movement, hoping that Asian Americans and Black Americans would band together to fight similar oppressions. Kochiyama held weekly open houses for activists in her Harlem apartment.

In 1963, she met and became friends with Malcolm X, joining the Organization for Afro-Americans. In the 1980s, she and her husband Bill worked in the movement for reparations for Japanese-Americans. This bill was signed into law by President Reagan in 1988. Most of Kochiyama’s work focused on political prisoners, especially Black, Puerto Rican, Indigenous American, Asian American and white people who were involved in the same movements as her.

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Sammy Lee

Sammy Lee is the third and final Olympian on this list. He was the first Asian-American man to win an Olympic gold medal. As a young child, Lee decided that he was going to be an Olympian, but he faced many obstacles on the journey there. Like Draves, the pool in Southern California he belonged to was segregated in the 1930s. Non-white people could only use it on Wednesdays. Rather than letting that deter him, Lee found a coach who would help him. He ended up practicing his diving over a sand pit, giving him stronger leg muscles and therefore higher jumps— part of the reason he was so successful.

As an adult, Lee attended Occidental College on the wishes of his father but continued to practice diving. This paid off because he did eventually make the Olympic Team. The games were canceled twice because of World War II, but he was finally able to compete in 1948 at the age of 28. He performed a triple somersault in the 10-meter platform dive and, with a nearly perfect score, secured the gold medal. He also won a bronze in the 3-meter springboard. Lee competed in Helsinki four years later, winning his second gold medal, and making him the only Asian-American to win two consecutive Olympic gold medals in platform diving.

Lee practiced as an ear, nose and throat doctor for 35 years. He also coached diving students and Olympic divers and mentored the Olympic gold medalist Greg Louganis. He was named America’s outstanding amateur athlete of 1953. He was elected to the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1968 and the United States Olympic Hall of Fame in 1990.

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Katherine Luzuriaga, M.D.

In 2013, Katherine Luzuriaga was named one of the most influential people from TIME magazine. Luzuriaga was part of a team of researchers who found the first functional cure for HIV-positive infants. This could indicate a future with no HIV-infected children at all. While this one case does not certify a treatment, the findings were considered a medical breakthrough.

Luzuriaga is a pediatric allergist, immunologist and professor at the University of Massachusetts. She has spent most of her career working on pediatric HIV/AIDS research. She has been influential in research on how HIV is transmitted to newborns during birth and on therapy for infected infants.

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Haing S. Ngor

Haing Ngor was born in Cambodia. As an adult, during civil unrest, he became an obstetrician and gynecologist and set up his own practice. In 1975, the Khmer Rouge guerilla rebels took over the capital. The group believed that all Western influences needed to be purged from the country, so they sent millions of people to labor camps and executed anyone considered an intellectual. Despite being a doctor, Ngor was not executed and survived the torture and grueling forced labor of the camp by convincing those in charge that he was a taxi driver. The rest of his family, including his wife and newborn son, were murdered or died in the camp.

In 1979, the regime collapsed, and Ngor fled to Thailand before moving to the United States. Before she died, Ngor promised his wife that he would tell the world about the atrocities that happened in Cambodia. Thus, he auditioned for “The Killing Fields,” a movie which came out in 1984 and depicted the Cambodian Holocaust. He was cast as the journalist Dith Pran. He won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor as well as other awards for the film. He was the first non-professional actor to win an Academy Award since 1946.

Ngor acted in other films and co-wrote “Haing Ngor: A Cambodian Odyssey.” He used his fame and money to help others, supporting two clinics and a school in Cambodia. He also worked as a counselor who helped Cambodian refugees in Thailand, France and Belgium until his death in 1996.

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Thank you for learning with us! We hope you learned something new that you can also teach your kiddos. You can check out previous articles in this series here and here.

Learn More: Book Recommendations from the Pratt Library

The Enoch Pratt Free Library created a list of book recommendations for Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and here are the reccomendations for kids' books. (Plus a few from the fiction and nonfiction suggestions for adults that we love!) All books are available at the Pratt Library.

Books for Children

Books for Adults

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