May is officially Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, an homage to Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) accomplishments, but the origin story of this special month is our cautionary tale for the 21st Century. For Jeanie Jew, a former national president of the Organization of Chinese American Women, the absence of the contributions of AAPIs in the US’s bicentennial celebrations in 1976 set her on a quest to rectify this blindness. However, the stories of her grandfather and his peers ignited the flame which fueled her passion for this nation and continue to burn in the memories of many AAPIs who descended from those who worked the land and laid the railroad tracks at the turn of the 20th Century.
In 1977, Jeanie Jew and Congressional staffer Ruby Moy sought the help of Congress members Frank Horton (R-NY) and Norman Mineta (D-CA) who successfully introduced House Resolution 540 to designate the first 10 days of May as a time to recognize the achievements of AAPIs. US Senators Daniel Inouye (D-HI) and Spark Matsunaga (D-HI) initiated a similar bill, Senate Resolution 72, in the same year with President Jimmy Carter signing the Joint Resolution (Public Law 49-419) on October 5, 1978. By October 28, 1992, with unanimous support from both the House of Representatives and the Senate, President George Bush signed Public Law 102-450 which permanently designated the whole month of May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
Two important historical events justified May as the choice month: the first major migration of Japanese into the US on May 7, 1843 and the completion of the transcontinental railroad, largely built by Chinese immigrants, on May 10, 1869, also known as “Golden Spike Day.”
Jeanie’s grandfather, M.Y. Lee, was part of the wave of Chinese immigrants who lifted and set down heavy iron rails and hammered the stakes into the ground which allowed the social and economic engine of the US to roll from coast to coast. During the 1800s and much of the 20th Century, US citizens blamed Chinese and other AAPI immigrants for their domestic woes. For these white citizens, AAPI immigrants conjured images of opium dens, rat-eating sexual deviants preying on white women, and “coolie” labor who robbed them of livelihood and devoured, like locust, the riches of the land. AAPIs were not seen as the successful “model minority” currently bandied about today. Despite having helped built the first US transcontinental railroad that enabled the nation’s economy to expand westward, Jeanie’s grandfather was spat upon and cursed. He was later killed for speaking out on behalf of Chinese immigrants.
AAPIs would become the first group to be racially profiled in US immigration law with the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned Chinese workers from entering the US and several subsequent laws such as the 1917 Asiatic Barred Zone, which restricted most immigrants of AAPI descent.
The adoption of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month was a partial dream fulfilled for Jeanie Jew. She would reflect, “My dream continues. Hopefully I’ll live long enough to see more of my dream realized. It is a journey, it is a dream; it is an Asian American dream for us to continue because each generation puts their stamp on what this month means to them.”
With the recent passage of SB1070, which opens the gate to racial profiling, and the adoption of an educational policy that seeks to ban ethnic studies and teachers with an accent to teach English in Arizona, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month becomes a crucial time for needed remembrance and reflection in the 21st Century. To truly celebrate the struggles and contributions of AAPIs in this country, we need to stop repeating history. We need to continue to courageously speak like Jeanie’s grandfather and fully realize her dream now.