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Icons in Asian American Culture

In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, we highlight 12 people who made a difference in politics, entertainment, sports and more

Daniel Inouye

The Hawaiian native became the most powerful Asian American in American politics. After serving in the 100th Battalion/442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II, Inouye was elected to Congress when Hawaii achieved statehood in 1959. He was serving his ninth term as a U.S. senator when he died in 2012.

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call/Getty Images

Anna May Wong

Wong at one time was a world-famous Hollywood actress who fought for leading roles for Asians. She was born and raised in Los Angeles and became a star during the silent film era. In the 1950s she was the first Asian American to star in a TV series, The Gallery of Madame Liu-Tsong.

Everett Collection

Wat Misaka

The New York Knickerbockers drafted the Japanese American college star in 1947 as the first nonwhite professional basketball player. The 5-foot-7 point guard led the University of Utah to the 1944 NCAA and 1947 NIT championships, serving two interim years in the U.S. Army occupation of Japan.

Paul Kitagaki Jr./Sacramento Bee/ZumaPress/Newscom

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Dalip Singh Saund

A Sikh born in Punjab, India, in 1899, Saund became the first Asian American elected to the U.S. Congress. He came to the United States to study at the University of California, Berkeley, and received a master’s degree and Ph.D., both in mathematics. He became a U.S. citizen in 1949 and was elected to the House of Representatives in 1956.

David F. Smith/AP Photo

Amy Tan

Born to Chinese immigrants in Oakland, Calif., best-selling author Tan’s first novel, The Joy Luck Club, was inspired by her mother’s first marriage in China. The book has been published in 35 languages and was a hit Hollywood movie in 1993.  

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Patsy Mink

The Japanese American, born and raised in Hawaii, became in 1965 the first Asian American woman and first woman of color elected to Congress. She was a principal author of the Title IX Amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1972, which helped bring women into the world of sports.

Karin Cooper/AP Photo

Angela Perez Baraquio

Miss Hawaii of 2000 was named the first Asian American, first Filipino American and first teacher to win the Miss America pageant. She lives in California and has been a public speaker and active opponent of abortion since her reign.

J. P. Aussenard/WireImage/Getty Images

Norm Mineta

Mineta has a long résumé with many firsts. They include being the first Asian American mayor of a major city (San Jose) and the first Asian American in a presidential Cabinet — secretary of commerce under Bill Clinton and secretary of transportation under George W. Bush.

AP Photo

Ellison Onizuka

Hawaii-born Onizuka was the first Asian American to reach space. He began his career as an Air Force test pilot and engineer and was selected to the NASA astronaut program in 1978. He was a crew member on the Discovery space shuttle in 1985 and died in the 1986 explosion aboard the shuttle Challenger.

AP Photo

Indra Nooyi

The chairman and CEO of PepsiCo is one of the most powerful women in the world. Nooyi was born in India, began her career there and joined PepsiCo in 1994.

Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Susan Ahn Cuddy

Cuddy, 99, was born in Los Angeles to the first Korean married couple to immigrate to the United States (1902). During World War II Cuddy became the first female gunnery officer in the U.S. Navy. She later worked for Naval intelligence and the National Security Agency. The Asian American Justice Center gave her its American Courage Award in 2006.

Reed Saxon/AP Photo

Michelle Phan

Born in 1987, the Vietnamese American entrepreneur is one of the most successful stars in social media. She began posting videos of herself giving makeup tutorials in 2005, and today she ranks among the top video producers on YouTube. She’s also launched an empire of other fashion-related sites.

Anthony Behar/Sipa USA/AP Photo

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