Asian Pacific American Heritage Month 2023

With the arrival of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month in May, the National Museum of American History is proud to recognize the diversity of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities and their important contributions. As part of our collective effort to bring greater visibility to AAPIs, NMAH has been steadily building our museum collections to represent its diverse constituencies.  

In the realm of arts and culture, curators Theodore Gonzalves and Ryan Lintelman collaborated on the acquisition of items that help widen our knowledge about Asian Americans’ contribution to the entertainment industry. They have collected objects that once belonged to the legendary silent-era film star Anna May Wong—a makeup kit, a cigarette case, and calling cards.

Makeup kit with mirror
Anna May Wong’s makeup kit, donated to the museum by the actor’s niece. Photo by Anna Wong.

They have also acquired the museum costumes and clothing from dancers/choreographers Dorothy Toy and Paul Wing, who were often billed as the "Chinese American Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire" in films and throughout the country for decades. They were part of a cohort of dancers who appeared at the San Francisco nightclub called Forbidden City USA that served as the inspiration for the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song.

Portrait of man and woman in formal clothing, looking off to the side
Dorothy Toy and her tap dance partner Paul Wing, around 1942

In the domain of work and industry, curator Sam Vong partnered with Little Manila Rising, a nonprofit organization in South Stockton, California, to collect a steamer trunk that once belonged to a Filipino migrant farmworker who was part of the first wave of Filipinos to arrive in the United States in the early twentieth century. The trunk and its contents serve as a time capsule that tells a story of how Filipinos and Filipinas labored in California’s fields and forged a vibrant community between the 1920s and 1960s. Equally important, the collection provides a window into the powerful organizing work of Little Manila Rising and how its community members mobilize the tools of history in their fight against historical marginalization, institutionalized racism, and harmful public policy.    

Together, these new acquisitions are a testament to the important contributions of AAPIs and offer a glimpse into NMAH’s ongoing work to build its AAPI collections.

This year in Asian Pacific American History also marks important anniversaries of historic events in U.S. and world history:

  • On January 17, 1893, 130 years ago, a small group of businessmen assisted by an armed militia overthrow the sovereign kingdom of Hawaiʻi, leading to the annexation of the islands. 
  • April 21 marked the 125th anniversary of the start of the Spanish-American war (1898). While revolutionary Filipino forces signed the Philippine Declaration of Independence on June 12 of that year, announcing their separation from Spanish colonial rule, the U.S. and Spanish governments refused recognition, leading to the U.S.-Philippine war. See the new exhibit, 1898: U.S. Imperial Visions and Revisions, at the National Portrait Gallery, on display through February 25, 2024.
  • The 80th anniversary of the passage of the Magnuson Act (1943) which repealed the 1882 Chinese Exclusion act.
  • The 50th anniversary of the release of A Grain of Sand (1973), a landmark LP (remember those?) of music by young activists at the height of global social movements. The LP is part of the Smithsonian Folkways Recordings collection.

Featured Programs and Resources

“Into the Wikiverse” Edit-a-thon

May 4, 1–3 p.m.

The Asian Pacific American Center, American Women’s History Museum, and National Museum of American History are co-hosting a Wikipedia edit-a-thon focusing on the marginalization of AAPI women in science fiction and pop culture.

Yo-Yo Ma Receives “Great Americans” Medal

May 9, 7 p.m.

Yo-Yo Ma will be recognized for his extraordinary impact as a musician, cultural ambassador, and philanthropist with the “Great Americans” medal, the National Museum of American History’s signature honor. The evening will include an interview with Smithsonian Regent Emeritus David Rubenstein and a medal presentation by the museum’s Elizabeth MacMillan Director Anthea M. Hartig. This capstone Asian Pacific American Heritage Month event will feature a special performance by Ma. Video of the presentation will be available after the program.

The Great Americans Medal award program is supported by Smithsonian Regent Emeritus David M. Rubenstein. The medal is made possible by Museum board member Jeff Garrett.

New Acquisition Cases: Anna May Wong and Chloe Kim

Opens May 15, Third Floor West

Anna May Wong
Groundbreaking Chinese American film star Anna May Wong (1905–1961) fought the anti-Asian prejudice that limited her opportunities in Hollywood by using her stylish, modern allure and acting skills. She persevered, becoming a star and style icon of her era. Wong used this makeup box, cigarette case, and calling card to fashion her image and has endured as a global icon for the ages.

Chloe Kim
Second-generation Korean American snowboarder Chloe Kim wore this outerwear when she won her second Olympic gold medal in the halfpipe event at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. At 17, Kim had become the youngest female gold medalist in snowboarding at the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, following a string of six X Games gold medals. Kim is the first—and currently the only—female snowboarder to land back-to-back 1080s for a perfect 100 points. Off the slopes, Kim serves as a role model for Asian American athletes. 

APA Heritage Month Menu at the Eat at America's Table Cafe

In celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, the museum's Chef Kyre Rochon will feature Asian inspired cuisine at our main cafe's American Table station during the entire month of May (Lower Level).

Yakitori Chicken
Marinated grilled chicken

Char Siu
Chinese BBQ pork

Vegetable Fried Rice

Stir Fried Baby Bok Choy

Sesame Seaweed Salad

Rice Noodle Salad


Viral Histories: Stories of Racism, Resilience, and Resistance in Asian American Communities

Viral Histories is a collection of conversations with community leaders who combat racism while serving on the front lines. During this pandemic, Asian Americans have been experiencing increased racism and hate crimes. While these incidents of increased prejudice and violence occur today, they reflect a long history of how power, prejudice, and public health have intersected throughout American history.

During the week of May 18, 2020, an interview was released every day, followed by a live Q&A with some of the featured speakers. To watch the archived Q&A for each conversation, check the links below each video.

Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II

War Relocation Authority ID tag
ID tag worn by Bill Fuchigami while he was held at the Amache camp in Colorado.

After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the United States entered a war in Europe and the Pacific, the nation was overcome by shock, anger, and fear—a fear exaggerated by long-standing anti-Asian prejudice. Ten weeks later President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, under which nearly 75,000 American citizens of Japanese ancestry were taken into custody. Another 45,000 Japanese nationals living in the United States (but long denied citizenship because of their race) were also incarcerated. Some forty years later, members of the Japanese American community led the nation to confront the wrong it had done—and to make it right.

Righting a Wrong is traveling the country as a touring exhibition.

Righting a Wrong at the National Museum of American History was generously supported by the Terasaki Family Foundation, with additional assistance from the Japanese American Citizens League and AARP.

The exhibition was adapted for travel by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service.

Support of the Museum’s efforts to document and share the history of the Japanese American experience is also made possible by the Japanese American History Endowment. Leadership support for the endowment and the museum’s activities was provided by SF Gassho Trust, Terasaki Family Foundation, Advanced Fresh Concepts, Hawai‘i Air Cargo Inc., Ronald Yoshino, Patti Hirahara, Mary Hirahara, Tom Hoshiyama, and Dr. Himeo Tsumori.

Becoming US

Becoming US is a suite of resources for educators to present more accurate and inclusive immigration and migration narratives. There are five units organized by a theme, each with three case studies for in-depth learning. Within the theme of Policy, we have resources on the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Nested in the theme of Belonging are a case study on Japanese Incarceration during World War II and one on Islamophobia in the wake of 09/11. The case studies include standards of learning, key questions and terms, primary sources, and teacher and student facing documents. 

These resources are supported with grants from the Smithsonian’s Understanding the American Experience Consortium, Youth Access Grants, Smithsonian-University of Maryland Seed Research Grants, the National Park Service, the Kettering Foundation, and the Segal Family Foundation.

Hidden Workers, Forgotten Lives

Laborer's hat
Chinese laborer’s hat, about 1900

The construction of the Transcontinental Railroad was an engineering feat of human endurance, with the western leg built largely by thousands of immigrant Chinese laborers. Chinese workers found some economic opportunity but also experienced hostility, racism, violence, and legal exclusion. In America in the 1800s, Chinese workers were seen as racially inferior to white workers and were paid less and relegated to the most undesirable jobs. The growing anti-Chinese movement at the local level culminated in the passage of the 1882 Exclusion Act, the first federal law to restrict the immigration of a group of workers by the criteria of race and class, and made Chinese migrants “illegal aliens.”

This online exhibition includes objects and narratives that illustrate the history of these "hidden" workers.

Leadership support for American Enterprise was provided by Mars Incorporated, the Wallace H. Coulter Foundation, and SC Johnson.  

Digital programming for the Transcontinental Railroad anniversary was made possible by John and Ellen Thompson.

Additional Resources

For more AAPI-related materials to use in the classroom, please visit our themed landing page on History Explorer, the museum's home for K-12 resources. Visit the site.

See content about Asian Pacific American inventors from the museum's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. Visit the site.

Visit our featured video playlist highlighting AAPI stories on the museum's YouTube channel. See the playlist.

National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) Virtual Bookshelf comprises NEH-supported projects on the Asian-American and Pacific Islander experience. Visit the site.

The Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (APAC) “Standing Together Against Hate” portal provides links to exhibitions and resources from across the Smithsonian museums focusing on Asian-American and Pacific Islander voices: Visit the portal.

Another resource from APAC, Care Package is a collection of creative offerings by artists, writers, and scholars, addressing grief through vision, reflection, and healing. Visit the site.