Asian Pacific American Heritage: Notable People

Famous Firsts

Wong Chin Foo


   Wong Chin Foo


Sometimes referred to as the Chinese Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Wong Chin Foo (1847-1898) is credited as the first person to use the term "Chinese-American" and advocated for equal rights for Chinese-American citizens following the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Wong is famous for his debates with anti-Chinese labor leader Denis Kearney and his speeches in defense of Chinese-Americans.

Patsy Mink


   Patsy Mink


Patsy Matsu Takemoto Mink (1927-2002), a third-generation Japanese-American, was the first woman of color and the first Asian-American elected to Congress. Holding office in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1965-1977 and again from 1990-2002, Patsy would also run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972 and held several other political offices throughout her career.

Bruce Lee


   Bruce Lee


In 1964, Hong Kong-American Bruce Lee provided the first significant American demonstration of Chinese kung fu at the inaugural Long Beach International Karate Championships. Lee has been called the most influential martial artist of all time and is said to have helped change the way Asians and Asian-Americans were portrayed by Hollywood. The Green Hornet (1966-67) became the first popular American TV show to depict Asian martial arts. Bruce died at 32 just before the premiere of his film Enter the Dragon (1973) for Warner Bros.

Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka   

   Emma Gee
   Yuji Ichioka


Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka founded the Asian American Political Alliance in 1968, publicly coining the term "Asian American" and uniting many ethnic groups under a single umbrella. Although the organization itself was short-lived, their fight for the equality of Asian-American citizens continues to have a lasting impact on American society today.

Daniel Inouye


   Daniel Inouye


Until November 2020, Daniel Inouye was the highest-ranking politician in Asian-American history. During World War II, he served in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, composed of American soldiers of Japanese ancestry. He was the recipient of the Congressional Medial of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Bronze Star, and the Purple Heart with Cluster. Daniel served as a U.S. Senator in Hawaii for nearly 40 years and became the Senate's president pro tempore in 2010. In 2013, after his death, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

Anna May Wong


   Anna May Wong


Anna May Wong was the first Chinese-American Hollywood movie star. Anna was credited in 64 films and TV shows, including Shanghai Express (1932), in which she co-starred with Marlene Dietrich. Her career spanned over 40 years and continues to influence contemporary entertainers today. Her dramatic story is loosely portrayed by the TV series Hollywood (Netflix, 2020).

Kamala Harris


   Kamala Harris

In November 2020, Kamala Harris became the first person of South Asian descent to become the Vice President-elect of the United States. Her career in politics includes four years as a United States senator and six years as the Attorney General of California. She is also the author of several books, including The Truths We Hold (2019), Smart on Crime (2009), and the children's book Superheroes are Everywhere (2019).

Ling Tan

   Ling Tan



Born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Ling Tan became the first supermodel from Southeast Asia in the 1990s and has lived in New York City for over 20 years. She has appeared in hundreds of fashion shows and worked with many major industry photographers, besides appearing in numerous magazines and ad campaigns. She has also been seen in occasional TV roles, such as Sex and the City and Blue Bloods.

Notable People

Authors and Artists

Amy TanAmy Tan

Amy Tan is a Chinese-American writer who rose to fame in the literary world with the publication of her 1989 novel, The Joy Luck Club. Her many other works include The Kitchen God's Wife (1991), The Bonesetter's Daughter (2001), and The Valley of Amazement (2013). The 1993 film adaptation of The Joy Luck Club was the first major Hollywood film since Flower Drum Song (1961) to feature a majority Asian cast.

Carlos BulosanCarlos Bulosan

Carlos Sampayan Bulosan (1913-1956) was a Filipino-American poet, novelist, and labor organizer known for his classic memoir America Is in the Heart (1946) and his 1943 essay "Freedom from Want," among other works. His writings were rediscovered in the 1970s and have earned a lasting place in Asian-American literary history.


Maya LinMaya Lin

Maya Lin is the sculptor and artist who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Her work also includes the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. Maya's parents emigrated to Ohio from China in the late 1940s.



Kevin KwanKevin Kwan

Singaporean-American. Internationally bestselling author of the Crazy Rich Asians trilogy (2013 - 2017) and Sex and Vanity (2020). The 2018 film adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians became the first major Hollywood film in 25 years to feature a majority Asian cast. 


Adele LimAdele Lim

Adele Lim is a Malaysian film and TV writer-producer based in Los Angeles. In 2000, she got her start writing for Xena: Warrior Princess and has been active in the industry ever since. In 2018, she was credited as one of two main screenwriters for Crazy Rich Asians, and most recently she has co-written the script for Disney's Raya and the Last Dragon (2021). She is also known for her activism in the AAPI community and on behalf of women.

Viet Thanh NguyenViet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen is a Vietnamese-American writer and professor at the University of Southern California. His novel The Sympathizer (2015) won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2016. His others books include Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War (2016) and The Refugees (2017). A sequel to The Sympathizer, titled The Committedwas released in March 2021.

Activists and Entertainers

George TakeiGeorge Takei

Famous for playing Mr. Sulu in the original Star Trek TV series (1966-1969), George Takei has become a prominent voice for human rights activism. His more recent projects include the award-winning Broadway musical Allegiance, which tells the story of the Japanese-American internment camps through events from Takei's own life. His books include To the Stars (1994), Oh Myyy! (2012), and the graphic novel They Called Us Enemy (2019).

Margaret ChoMargaret Cho

Margaret Cho starred in the 1994-95 TV series All-American Girl, the first primetime American sitcom to feature an Asian-American family as its primary protagonists. In addition to numerous other film and TV roles, Cho is famous for her stand-up comedy routines, her writings, her podcast, and her political and social activism.


Hasan MinhajHasan Minhaj

Hasan Minhaj was born in 1985 in Davis, California to Muslim parents who immigrated from India. He is especially well-known for his Netflix show Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, which has garnered him multiple awards. He has also made numerous film and TV appearances and was the keynote speaker at the 2017 White House Correspondents' Dinner. He has been featured as one of TIME's "100 Most Influential People."


Tamlyn TomitaTamlyn Tomita

Tamlyn made her screen debut as "Kumiko" in The Karate Kid Part II (1986), released her album "Sweet Surprise" a year later, and has since gone on to star in numerous roles for TV and film, including Berlin Station (2016-2019), The Good Doctor (2017 - Present), and Star Trek: Picard (2020). She is also known for her political and social activism. Her film projects Only the Brave (2006) and Come See the Paradise (1990) depict the lives of Japanese-American soldiers and ordinary citizens during World War II.

Ming-Na WenMing-Na Wen

Born in Macau to a Malaysian Chinese father and a Chinese mother, Ming-Na Wen burst onto the American pop culture scene in 1998 as the voice of Fa Mulan in Disney's Mulan after appearing in films such as The Joy Luck Club (1993) and Street Fighter (1994). She has also held starring roles in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013-2020) and The Mandalorian (2019-2020) and was officially named a "Disney Legend" in 2019. 

Jason MomoaJason Momoa

Hawaiian-born actor Jason Momoa's credits include starring roles in Game of Thrones (2011-2019), Aquaman (2018), Stargate: Atlantis (2004-2009), Baywatch (1989-2001), and Dune (2021). Jason made headlines for performing the traditional Maori war dance called "haka" at the Aquaman premiere.


M. Night ShyamalanM. Night Shyamalan

Born in India but raised in Penn Valley, Pennsylvania, M. Night Shyamalan is a filmmaker known for popular films like The Sixth SenseUnbreakableSigns, Lady in the Water, and The Village that often feature twist endings. He is also the co-founder of the M. Night Shyamalan Foundation, which according to its website, "supports the grassroots efforts of emerging leaders as they work to eliminate the barriers created by poverty and social injustice in their communities."

Constance WuConstance Wu

Award-winning actress Constance Wu has played several notable roles in film and TV, including Jessica Huang in TV's Fresh off the Boat (2015-2020), the first primetime American sitcom since All-American Girl (1994-95) to feature an Asian-American family. She was also the lead actress in Crazy Rich Asians (2018), which grossed over $238 million at the box office and became the first major Hollywood film since The Joy Luck Club (1993) to boast a majority Asian cast.

Steven YeunSteven Yeun

Born in Seoul to South Korean parents, Steven and his family moved to Canada and then to America in the late 1980s. He is best known for his breakthrough acting role as Glenn Rhee on The Walking Dead (2010-2016). His starring role in the South Korean film Burning (2018) received widespread critical praise. Minari (2020) portrays the life of a Korean-American family in the 1980s trying to assimilate themselves into American culture; the film earned strong reviews and was nominated for six Oscars, winning one.

Lilly SinghLilly Singh

Lilly Singh has made a name for herself in several capacities, including comedy, acting, YouTube broadcasting, and talk shows. Singh is well-known by her former YouTube username, iiSuperwomanii. Though she spent most of her life in and around Toronto, she moved to Los Angeles in 2015 and continues to release work through her production company, Unicorn Island Productions. She is also the host of A Little Late with Lilly Singh on NBC.


Nora Lum, better known by her stage name "Awkwafina," has become one of the most successful young rising stars in Asian-American pop culture. Her career began taking off in 2012 when a rap song on her YouTube channel went viral. Instantly recognizable by her husky voice, Awkwafina has starred in several major films in recent years, including Crazy Rich Asians (2018), Ocean's 8 (2018), The Farewell (2019), and Marvel's Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021). She is also the star of her own semi-autobiographical TV series, Awkwafina is Nora from Queens (2020 - ).

Famous Firsts (Cont.)

Wataru MisakaWataru Misaka

In 1947, Wataru Misaka became the first Asian-American and the first person of color to play in what would later become the National Basketball Association (NBA). A "nisei" or second-generation Japanese-American, Wataru was drafted during World War II and became a staff sergeant. He died in 2019 at the age of 95.


Marilyn StricklandMarilyn Strickland

Born in Seoul to a Korean mother and an African-American serviceman stationed in Korea, Rep. Strickland became the first Korean-American woman elected to Congress and chose to honor her mother's heritage by wearing a traditional Korean hanbok to her swearing-in at the 117th Congress in Washington, D.C. on January 3, 2021.