Reports of racism and xenophobia, along with the disproportionate way that COVID-19 has been impacting our communities, are bringing an increased sense of urgency to May 2020’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month celebrations. They echo some of the reasons for establishing the original designation over 40 years ago. The now month-long event was first celebrated for just a week: the week of May 4, 1979.
Efforts to establish the first Asian Pacific American Heritage Week were coordinated by the Asian Pacific Congressional Staff Caucus and National Coalition for an Asian Pacific American Proclamation, led by Ruby G. Moy, Chief of Staff for Representative Frank Horton (R-NY), and Jeanie Jew, a Capitol Hill staff member whose grandfather, M. Y. Lee, had immigrated to the U.S. from China to help build the transcontinental railroad and was later killed in Oregon during a period of anti-Asian unrest. According to Representative Horton, this inspired Jew’s belief that “not only should Asians understand their own heritage…all Americans must know about the contributions and histories of the Asian-Pacific American experience in the United States” (Rep. Horton (NY). “Asian/Pacific-American Heritage Month,” Congressional Record 138 (4 Oct. 1992) p. 31364–access for UHM users via HeinOnline).
In 1977, Horton and Representative Norman Mineta (D-CA) introduced legislation in the House of Representatives designating the first week in May as a time to celebrate the contributions of Asian and Pacific Americans to the United States. They invited Senators Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga to introduce it at the same time in the Senate.
Letter from Rep. Frank Horton inviting Senators Daniel Inouye and Spark Matsunaga to propose a Senate resolution designating the first Asian Pacific American Heritage Week, June 28, 1977. Senator Daniel K. Inouye Papers.
Inouye and Matsunaga agreed, and introduced S.Res.72 on July 19, 1977. The following year, H.J.Res.1007 “authorizing and requesting the President to proclaim the 7-day period beginning on May 4, 1979, as “Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week” passed both House and Senate and was signed by President Carter on October 5, 1978, becoming Public Law 95-419.
The first Asian Pacific American Heritage Week was celebrated from May 4-10, 1979. This period was selected in order to commemorate May 7, 1979, the 136th anniversary of the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants in the United States, and May 10, 1979, the 110th anniversary of “Golden Spike Day,” honoring the contributions of Chinese Americans to the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad.
Left: Ruby G. Moy and Senator Spark Matsunaga at a reception to honor the Congressional sponsors of the Asian Pacific American Heritage Week legislation, May 3, 1979. Right: Representative Norman Mineta, Senator Daniel Inouye, Dr. Clifford Uyeda and Mike Masaoka of the Japanese American Citizens League, and Senator Spark Matsunaga. Photo credit: Planned Photography, Vince Finnigan & Associates. Senator Spark M. Matsunaga Papers.
Among the week’s events were film screenings, martial arts and ikebana demonstrations, a wayang kulit performance, poetry readings, and a broadcast of interviews with author and playwright Frank Chin, and Golden Pearl band members Nobuko JoAnne Miyamoto and Chris Ijima (Ijima later taught in UH’s William S. Richardson School of Law). There was a disco, and, on the other side of the continent, a fun run around Lake Merritt.
Flyers for Asian Pacific American Heritage Week events, May 1979. Senator Daniel K. Inouye Papers.
There were plenty of policy events as well. Then-Representative Daniel Akaka gave a talk on education and the Native Hawaiian community. The U.S. Commission on Civil Rights hosted “a two-day consultation on a variety of Asian and Pacific American civil rights-related issues, including census undercount, immigration/refugees, women’s issues, territorial people’s concerns, selected issues in employment, education, housing, and mental health.”
After 1979, Asian Pacific American Heritage Week was annually proclaimed by the President, and in 1990 was extended to an entire month. In 1992, Representative Horton introduced H.R.5572, which permanently designated the month of May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. Original co-sponsors of that legislation included Hawai‘i’s Representative Patsy Mink and Representative Neil Abercrombie, along with Rep. Norman Mineta (D-CA), Rep. Robert Matsui (D-CA), Rep. Susan Molinari (R-NY), Rep. Eni F. H. Faleomavaega (D-AS-At Large), and Rep. Ben G. Blaz (R-GU-At Large). The bill was signed by President George H. W. Bush on October 23, 1992, becoming Public Law 102-450.
This year, APAHM celebrations are all happening online. Just like 1979, there are film screenings, panel discussions, performances, and–of course–dance parties.
The Senator Daniel K. Inouye Papers and the Senator Spark M. Matsunaga Papers are part of the Hawai‘i Congressional Papers Collection in UH Mānoa Library’s University Archives & Manuscripts Department. They are open for research.
Robert W. Wilcox (Hawaiian Independent Party/Home Rule Party) was Hawai‘i’s first Territorial Delegate to the U.S. Congress. He served from 1900 to 1903 and was the first Asian Pacific American to serve in Congress. Learn about other APAs in Congress at Asian Pacific Islander Americans in Congress, an online exhibition maintained by the House of Representatives Office of the Historian and Office of Art and Archives. (It will come as no surprise that Hawai‘i is very well represented in this list.)