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Asian Pacific American Trailblazers

Asian Pacific American Month

You should know May is Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month and it’s time to honor remarkable historical figures that were left out of our history classes.

This month, take a moment to research important figures like Wing Luke and Princess Bernice Pauahi Bishop. Looking for more ideas? Listed below are just a few heroes to help you get started. These three American trailblazers broke through glass ceilings and they were the first in their fields. Their stories can inspire us all.

3 Firsts to Celebrate for Asian Pacific American Month

Anna May Wong, Movie Star

Anna May Wong was born as Wong Liu Tsong in 1905 in Los Angeles. Wong was educated in Chinatown, but often skipped school to watch films. She got her first role at the age of 17, when she stared in Toll of the Sea, “a silent version of Madame Butterfly.” From there she went on to star in Shanghai Express, Dangerous to Know, and other movies filmed in Hollywood, London, and Berlin. She was a glamorous Hollywood actress and the first major movie star of Chinese heritage.

Wong had a successful career despite the racist challenges she had to navigate, including racist typecasting. Later in life, she once told a journalist, “I was so tired of the parts I had to play. Why is it that the screen Chinese is always the villain? And so crude a villain—murderous, treacherous, a snake in the grass.”

Wong paved the way for other Asian actors and actress. She’s truly an inspiration.

In 1961, Anna May Wong passed away. To learn more, check out this article from the Washington Post.

Isabella Aiona Abbott, Educator and Ethnobotanist

Born in Hāna, Hawaiʻi in 1919, Isabella Aiona Abbott was born to a Chinese father and a Hawaiian mother. From a very young age, she had an interest in seaweed. In Hawaiian culture, seaweed, especially limu kala, is a flavorful food source. This interest followed her to school. She was the first Native Hawaiian woman to receive a Ph.D. in science and became a leading expert on Pacific algae.

Abbott was credited with discovering over 200 algae species. She received the 1997 National Academy of Sciences Gilbert Morgan Smith Medal for excellence in published research on algae. And she was the first woman on the biological sciences faculty at Stanford University. Her work was transformative. A genius of red algae is named after her: Abbottella. Unfortunately, she passed away in 2010. You can learn more about “First Lady of Limu,” Isabella Aiona Abbott, here.

Sammy Lee, Olympic Champion

Born in 1920 in Fresno, California, Sammy Lee was the son of Korean immigrants. Lee was facing racial prejudice—in fact, he was only using his community pool one day a week. Still, Lee became a champion swimmer. He competed in the London 1948 Summer Olympics and won gold for the 10m platform diving category. Four years later, he competed in the Helsinki 1952 Summer Olympics and won his second gold medal. Currently, Lee is the only Asian American to win two consecutive Olympic gold medals.

Sammy Lee’s achievement didn’t end on the diving board. He later went on to become a successful doctor specializing in ear, nose, and throat health.

Trailblazer, Sammy Lee passed away in 2016. To learn more, check out this article from the Washington Post.

Bonus. Want to learn more about Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month? Check out this Mindful article.

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