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Asian/Americans That You Never Learned About In History Class

Many Asian Americans were the center of monumental moments in American history, yet we do not hear their names often. The lack of Asian/American representation across history in many industries silences Asian/American stories and achievements. It is important to recognize and highlight Asian/Americans in American history in order to properly give credit to the unheard and inspire Asian/American youths by giving them multi-dimentional role models in every industry that break stereotypes. Here are 9 people who are a crucial part of America's story!

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1. China Machado

China Machado, born Noelie Dasouza Machado was the first person of color to appear on the cover a major American fashion magazine. She was born in Shanghai, China and is of Chinese Portuguese descent. Her modeling career took off when she moved to Paris and was asked to model for Balenciaga, the famous fashion house. Unfortunately, Balenziaga was out of town thus she was sent to Givenchy, another famous brand, to fill in for a sick model. She had no experience as a model so she “copied the girl in front of [her]” while walking down the catwalk. Immediately a hit, Givenchy asked her to become a regular model for the house. In three short years she was the highest-paid runway model in Europe, raking in $1,000 a day. When the famous photos that could eventually grace the cover of Harper’s Bazaar’s February 1959 issue were shot, publishers warned that “everyone in the South will quit subscriptions” because of her race. China Machado opened the door for diversity in fashion and led the way for future generations of models of color. Even today, the issue of diversity within the fashion community is a hot topic as critics call for more models of color in campaigns and on the runway. Asians, as well as other ethnicities of color still get very little exposure in the fashion industry which is harmful as it sends out a message to society that you cannot be fashionable or attractive if you are a person of color.

2. Tommy Kono

Before there was Arnold Schwartzenegger, there was Tommy Kono. Tommy Kono was an American weightlifter in the 1950’s and 1960’s and was crowned Mr. Universe three times during his career. He set many world records and was Schwarzenegger’s inspiration to pursue his own bodybuilding career. Kono was born in Sacramento, California in 1930 and his family was moved to Tule Lake internment camp in 1942 because of their Japanese descent. During his internment Tommy Kono started weightlifting with his neighbors and friends. Kono was drafted but kept home from the Korean War because of his Olympic potential, and in 1952 and 1956 he won gold medals at the Summer Olympics. In his weightlifting and bodybuilding career, he held 26 world records and seven Olympic records across various weight classes. Kono's achievements deserve to be more well known not only because of his impressive records but also because his career shatters the stereotype that Asian men are not masculine. Often in Western media today, Asian men are depicted as weak or unathletic despite the fact that it is impossible and wrong to pigeonhole a whole race and gender as one-dimentional and monolithic. It is important to give exposure to Asian men who defy those restrictive stereotypes in order to change the narrative to a more realistic one where an Asian man can be many different things and not just "weak".

3. Flossie Wong-Staal

Flossie Wong-Staal is a Chinese-American molecular biologist and virologist who had a crucial part in determining that HIV causes AIDS and was the first scientist to clone HIV. Wang-Staal was born Yee Ching Wong in China in 1947 and fled Hong Kong after the rise of Communism in the last 1940s. During her Catholic school education in Hong Kong her teachers encouraged her to move to America and change her name to an English one to help with the transition. Her father therefore chose the name Flossie. She attended the University of California at Los Angeles and in 1983 her team of scientists identified HIV as the cause of AIDS. Wong-Staal then cloned HIV two year later and completed the genetic mapping of the virus. Her research was monumental to AIDS research and she continues to work at the University of California at San Diego as a Research Professor. Women unfortunately are largely uncelebrated for their contributions to science and women of color are especially ignored. Science is often thought of as a "man's job" and often when women make moves in the industry they are not given credit for it. It is important to give Wong-Staal the credit she deserves in order to acknowledge Asian women's many contributions to science.

4. Sessue Hayakawa

Sessue Hayakawa was known as the first Hollywood male sex symbol and was one of the biggest stars during the silent film era. Hayakawa was born in Chiba Prefecture, Japan in 1889 and studied political economics at the University of Chicago after a failed navy career in Japan. He decided to quit school during his second year and went to Los Angeles to wait for a transpacific steamship when he discovered the Japanese Theatre in Little Tokyo and became interested in acting. He started acting in Los Angeles and was offered a part in a silent movie and decided to stay in the US. The Typhoon, his 1914 film debut, was an instant hit and his second film The Cheat propelled him into stardom. He was a heartthrob among American women for his appearance but also for the typecast roles he played as “exotic villains with sexual dominance”. He was the top leading man in Hollywood and eventually opened his own production company after getting tired of the typecasting he faced as an Asian man. Unfortunately, in the 1930s his career began to dwindle because of “talkies” or films that weren't silent and increasing anti-Japanese attitudes in America. Though he worked in Europe and took a few roles in Hollywood even after World War II, he generally retired from acting in the 1960s. It is interesting to see an Asian man be the pinnacle of physical attractiveness in Western media because nowadays Asian men are depicted as anything but sexy. Asian men and Asians in general hardly get exposure in the media; in 2014 only 5.1% of speaking or named roles in film, TV, and webseries were given to Asian actors. Though many of his roles were typecast, Hayakawa achieved the amazing feat of being Hollywood's first male sex symbol and leading man. Such an achievement deserves immense recognition within the industry.

5. Willie Fung

Not as celebrated an actor was Willie Fung, a Chinese immigrant who played 125 supporting roles in 1930s American films. Fung was born in Canton, China and most of the movies he was featured in were Westerns and dramas. He made his film debit in 1922 in Hurricane’s Gal. He played a man named “Sing”. Most of his roles are as cooks or servants, and he was not even credited for most of his work. Some of the credited roles, however, are listed as “Chinese”, “Wong”, “Chinese Cook”, and other stereotypical and one-dimensional names. He was told by filmmakers that he “would always be the servant” but continued to work nonetheless. His career record is drastically different than that of Sessue Hayakawa despite their work being only a couple of decades apart. Fung is an inspiration to all Asian actors, who even today find difficulty finding work that is not typecast, one-dimentional, or racist. His prolific filmography is a testament to the struggle for Asian/Americans working in Hollywood even today.

6. Ellison Onizuka

Ellison Onizuka was an American astronaut who was the first Asian American to go to space. Onizuka was of Japanese descent and grew up in Hawaii. He obtained a degrees in Aerospace Engineering from the University of Colorado at Boulder and was part of the U.S. Air Force ROTC. In 1970 Onizuka entered the US Air Force where he was a flight test engineer and test pilot. In 1978 he was selected for the astronaut program at NASA and started his astronaut career. His first space mission was the laugh of mission STS 51-C on Space Shuttle Discovery, which was the first space shuttle mission for the Department of Defense. Unfortunately, during the failed take off of the mission STS 51-L on the Space Shuttle Challenger, Onizuka along with all six of the other crew members were killed.

7. Iris Chang

Iris Chang was an Asian American journalist known for her 1997 book about the Nanking Massacre. Chang’s parents who were university professors emigrated from Taiwan and raised Chang in Illinois. During her college years at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Chang worked as a New York Times stringer, where she would provide reports and photos to the publication. In one year, she wrote six front page articles for the New York Times and went on to continue her journalism career at Associated Press and the Chicago Tribune. Later, she decided to become an author focusing largely on Chinese Americans in history. Her second book, The Rape of Nanking, discussed the atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army towards Chinese people during the Second Sino-Japanese War. She was inspired to write the book after hearing her own grandparents’ stories about their experience during the massacre. The book exposed many details of the atrocity and after its publication Chang campaigned for the Japanese government to apologize for the Imperial army’s actions and pay compensation. She became a notable public figure and activist for Chinese Americans.

8. Iwao Takamoto

Animator Iwao Takamoto helped create many American classics, from Scooby Doo to Cinderella. Nakamoto’s father had emigrated from Hiroshima and raised his son in Los Angeles. Takamoto’s family, however, was moved to an internment camp after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. There, teenage Takamoto learnt basic illustration from two other internees and became interested in the industry. After the war he applied to work at Disney and eventually worked as an assistant an character designer for Cinderella, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp, Sleeping Beauty, and many more legendary films. After his departure from Disney he worked at Hanna-Barbera Productions and was the man responsible for the character designs of Scooby Doo, Penelope Pitstop, and Astro (from The Jetson’s). Asian people's contributions to the entertainment industry are often ignored, and it is important to recognize Takamoto's work in many of America's favorite animated stories.

9. Kuanchang Kao

Kuanchang Kao was a Taiwanese-born man living in Rohnert Park, California during 1997. He worked as a quality control engineer and lived with his wife and three children. In April 29, 1997, Kao was drinking at his usual bar celebrating his new job when he was involved in two arguments with another bar customer. The other customer first argued with Kao when Kao told him in conversation that he was Chinese, not Japanese and the man replied “You all look alike to me”. Later in the night, the patrons got involved in a brawl and Kao got stabbed in the face with a dart. The police were called and Kao was sent home. Once home, Kao stayed outside and was crying out “Neighbors, please help me!” while holding a wooden stick. Neighbored called 911 due to the drunken disturbance and police arrived. Officer Mike Lynch drove towards Kao at a high speed and stopped abruptly close to Kao in attempt to intimidate him, but Kao was provoked and hit the car with the wooden stick. As backup arrived and Kao’s wife came outside to calm Kao down, Officer Jack Shields shot Kao after telling his wife to step away. Kao’s wife was a medical professional but was restrained from helping Kao and it is not known whether the officers attempted to perform CPR on Kao. Kao’s body was left in his driveway until noon. Officer Shield claimed he feared for his life and that Kao was waving the wooden stick around in a “threatening martial arts fashion” despite the fact that Kao never learnt martial arts and had no training paraphernalia in his house. Today, in the midst of protests against police brutality and movements like Black Lives Matter, it is interesting and saddening to know that Kuanchang Kao’s story is still largely unheard.

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