4 trailblazers whose work shaped the APA community today

This Asian American Pacific Heritage Month (APAHM), through colorful illustrations by artist Michelle Lam (MewTripled), we honor four icons whose legacies continue to impact us today. 

Who to thank for APAHM

Jeanie Jew APAHM
Illustration by @MewTripled

Jeanie Jew, a former Capitol Hill staffer and board member of the nonprofit Organization of Chinese Americans-Asian Pacific American Advocates (OCA-APAA), was a determined force that championed groundbreaking policies and transformed representation of the APA community in the U.S.

In 1976, Jew was unsatisfied with the way APAs weren’t included in the recognized communities celebrated during the U.S. bicentennial.

A year later, with the help of U.S. Rep. Frank Horton of New York and his administrative assistant Ruby Moy, a bill with U.S. Rep. Norman Yoshio Mineta of California was introduced and together they launched a countrywide advocacy campaign for the inclusion of an APA week.

To honor key moments in APA history, they proposed the week of May 4 which encompasses historical dates such as when the first Japanese immigrants landed in the U.S. on May 7, 1843 and when the Transcontinental Railroad was finished on May 10, 1869, which Jew’s grandfather helped build and whom she wanted to honor. With this proposal, then-President Jimmy Carter signed a joint resolution into law in 1978 and “Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week” was actualized.

The first transition to the observation of a full month was in 1990 when then-President George H. W. Bush issued a Presidential Proclamation to celebrate APA heritage in May. By 1992, Horton returned and introduced legislation to make “Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month” permanent and this year marks the 30th year since it was passed.

Jew and the OCA-APAA, which was founded in 1973, strive to better the social, political and economic well-being of AAPIs as well as providing knowledge and resources to empower AAPI youth to make future change; such as with the current Stop AAPI Hate movement and COVID-19 pandemic. The nonprofit has since expanded to include over 50 chapters and affiliates throughout the country.

Father of American biotechnology who brought cherry blossoms to DC

jokichi takamine APAHM
Illustration by @MewTripled

Dr. Jokichi Takamine was a brilliant Japanese biochemist who was not only the first to isolate epinephrine (or adrenaline) from animal glands, but also a key figure in building U.S.-Japan relations in the early 1900s.

Takamine was on the track to living his whole life in Japan, but during a business trip, he fell in love with the daughter of a retired military man in New Orleans. They married and he chose to immigrate to the U.S. to be with her, where he furthered his groundbreaking research into fertilizers and enzymes. Throughout his career, he filed many patents, notable ones included the “Process of Making Diastatic Enzyme,” the first U.S. patent on a microbial enzyme, and the isolation of the enzyme Takadiastase, a starch-digesting enzyme with medicinal uses. The isolation of epinephrine also revolutionized surgery by helping to stop hemorrhaging.

In later years, as he expanded his businesses, his focus shifted to bettering Japanese-U.S. relations. During the early 1900s, there was a deep-seated tension between the two countries over immigration policies, restrictions and territorial claims in Asia. Takamine was an active member of the Japanese-American community, founding the Nippon Club in 1905 and the Japan Society in 1907. Takamine believed that cherry blossoms could be a bridge in easing the tensions and in partnership with the Japanese consul and first lady Helen Taft, he coordinated a gift of  2,000 cherry blossom trees from the mayor of Tokyo to the city of Washington, D.C. in 1912. Many of the trees that still stand around the Tidal Basin and in the West Potomac Park today were from this exchange and capture the hearts of visitors and residents each spring.

When Takamine died in 1992 at the age of 67 in New York, his obituaries referred to him as the Japanese Thomas Edison. He has since been thought of as a forgotten father of American biotechnology and a strong supporter of building a friendship between his home country and the country he would come to live the rest of his life in.

Fighting for the “little guys” in Congress

Illustration by @MewTripled

Dalip Singh Saund was the first Asian American, the first Indian American, and the first Sikh American Congressperson. Along with those titles, he was a strong advocate for civil rights and regularly backed small business owners in their need for federal aid.

Saund was a well-educated man, having earned his bachelor’s, master’s and PhD degrees in mathematics, the first from the University of Punjab and the latter two from the University of California, Berkeley.

After graduation, he became a farmer and was an activist who fought for Indians to qualify for naturalization as U.S. citizens. This mission led him to seek out judgeship and eventually a place in Congress, but Saund would face relentless racism throughout his campaigns.

The Washington Post’s editorial board noted that, at the time, “Californians have not always been hospitable to aliens — and especially to aliens of Asian origin.” However, voters looked past ancestry, resonating with Saund’s background and his mission to fight for the “little guys.”

A farmer told the culture magazine Coronet that it was precisely because of his humble beginnings that he and others “sent him to Washington.”

In 1957, Saund was sworn in as California’s 29th district representative and would become known for championing local issues like the plight of small-scale farmers. He served in office until 1963, having suffered from a career-ending stroke, but by then his impact opened the doors of Congress to the possibility of more Asian congress members and more financial stability for small businesses owners. 

Olympic father of modern surfing

Illustration by @MewTripled

Duke Kahanamoku was a three-time Hawaiian Olympic gold medalist and two-time silver medalist who at one point was considered the world’s best freestyle swimmer, as well as the “Ambassador of Aloha” whose grace, sportsmanship, humanitarianism and eye on safety brought immense honor to Hawai‘i.

Having shattered world records with breakneck speeds in 1912 and the 1920s, Kahanamoku was known for developing the flutter kick which transformed the nature of sprint swimming and is still used in modern swimming today. After his first appearance in the 1912 Olympics, he was also considered  a “racial pioneer” for being celebrated throughout the nation as a dark-skinned Pacific Islander among a U.S. Olympic swim team of entirely Caucasian men.

Along with being praised as the father of modern surfing for how he globalized the sport, Kahanamoku is also credited as a hero. In 1925, he rescued eight fishermen from their capsized boat stuck in mountainous waves as it attempted to enter the city’s harbor.

Using just his surfboard, he made repeated trips from shore to the ship, and performed what was called “the most superhuman rescue act and the finest display of surfboard riding that has ever been seen in the world,” according to the then-Newport police chief.

“In Hawai‘i we greet friends, loved ones or strangers with aloha, which means with love,” Kahanamoku said. “Aloha is the key word to the universal spirit of real hospitality, which make Hawai‘i renowned as the world’s center of understanding and fellowship.”

Three statues of Kahanamoku stand around the world in Australia, New Zealand and in the U.S., dedicated to his aloha spirit and his trailblazing in the Polynesian sport.

These iconic APA legacies are brought to you by McDonald’s, a proud supporter of the APA community and spotlighting its incredible history and accomplishments for APAHM. McDonald’s is committed to feeding and fostering the APA communities it serves. The illustrations will be featured at the 626 Night Market in San Francisco, which runs from May 27-29, to further commemorate the contributions and influence of the APA community.

This post was created in partnership with McDonald’s.

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