Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month

Posted by on May 8, 2024 in People and Culture, Stuff You Should Know

May is a month-long celebration of the cultures and contributions of the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) community. People from many diverse backgrounds make up this sizable group. Asian Americans include Americans who can trace their heritage to any of the countries in Asia. Native Hawaiians come from the Hawaiian Islands. Pacific Islanders living in the United States include people from the numerous island countries in Melanesia, Micronesia, and Polynesia. Together, the AANHPI community includes more than 70 different ethnic groups and speaks more than 100 languages. 

Traditional shops, lanterns and people in the street in Chinatown near downtown San Francisco, California with a fiery sunset
San Francisco, California’s Chinatown district

A Week Becomes a Month  

In the late 1970s, Jeanie Jew worked as a congressional staffer. As a Chinese American, she noted that Black Americans and Hispanic Americans were recognized nationally, but that there was not a similar observance for Asian Americans. Jew’s great-grandfather, M. Y. Lee, had emigrated from China to the United States in the 1800s. Along with numerous Chinese immigrants, Lee helped build the transcontinental railroad. After working to construct the railroad, he became a successful businessman in California. Lee was committed to the success of Chinese immigrants in the United States. When Chinese immigrants were struggling for success in Oregon, Lee traveled north to lend his aid to their cause. Unfortunately, he was killed during the anti-Asian unrest in Oregon at that time. Discovering this knowledge inspired Jew to actively support broader knowledge of Asian American and Pacific American history.

Jew shared her story with Representative Frank Horton and advocated for an Asian/Pacific American heritage week. Representative Horton and Representative Norm Mineta co-sponsored a bill in the House of Representatives to do just that. Senator Daniel Inouye and Senator Spark Matsunaga co-sponsored a similar bill in the Senate. In 1978, Congress passed a resolution establishing the first week in May 1979 as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week.  

In 1990, Congress expanded the observance to a month. And then in 1992, Congress passed a law making the celebration an annual month-long event every May. The name has changed since then. It is now called Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.  

What Is Significant About May? 

May was selected because of two historic events. On May 7, 1843, the first known Japanese immigrants arrived in the United States. Secondly, on May 10, 1869, the transcontinental railroad was completed. Chinese immigrants were essential to the construction of the railroad. It is estimated that between 12,000 and 20,000 Chinese immigrants worked in hazardous conditions on the western portion of the railroad. 

Celebrations Today 

Many national institutions are celebrating the accomplishments of AANHPI communities in May. The Smithsonian, the Library of Congress, the National Parks, and the National Archives are hosting in-person and online events that include art exhibits, interviews, stories, and digital reconstruction of historic Asian American neighborhoods. You can use this website for more information on these celebrations.   

There are also local celebrations in communities throughout the United States.

Dig Deeper What types of local celebrations are planned for Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month? Do some research to find events in your community.