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7 Historic AAPI Sites That Reveal Contributions to America’s Past

Parks, monuments, memorials explore Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage and culture

Iolani Palace

David L. Moore - HI / Alamy Stock Photo

Iolani Palace

En español | From building the first transcontinental railroad to sacrificing their lives during World War II, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have long been a part of U.S. history.

Many of these contributions have been overlooked, glossed over or largely forgotten. But there are parks, monuments and memorials all over the country that recognize their contributions and experiences, and those places are worth a visit.

To celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, as well as to draw more attention to these landmarks, the U.S. National Park Service has curated an itinerary of national parks and historic places that recognize the important roles that those from the AAPI community have played. From Alaska’s historic canneries to the home of an internationally renowned Japanese American furniture designer in Pennsylvania, these places reflect the rich and diverse history, culture and heritage of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders — and they make unique destinations to visit and explore.

In addition to the National Park Service’s suggestions, these seven important sites below tell part of the story of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders’ contributions to our culture and history. Because of COVID-19 safety precautions, some locations are open for limited hours or with restrictions. Be sure to check before visiting. 

Angel Island Immigration Station

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Immigration station

Angel Island

Location: San Francisco, California

A scenic ferry ride from San Francisco, Angel Island was once known as the “Ellis Island of the West.” From 1910 to 1940, the Angel Island Immigration Station processed immigrants who crossed the Pacific Ocean, many of them from China, Japan, Korea, India and Russia. But unlike Ellis Island, many of these immigrants were detained in cramped barracks on the island for two weeks to six months — and in a few cases, years — because of anti-Asian immigration laws. With the city of San Francisco just beyond reach, Chinese immigrants, who made up the bulk of the detainees, carved poetry on the walls, lamenting, “With a gentle breeze I arrived at the city, thinking all would be so at ease. How was one to know he was to live in a wooden building?” Tours of the Immigration Station are currently unavailable due to COVID-19 safety precautions, but the buildings, along with the Angel Island Chinese Monument, can still be viewed from the outside. The former land of the Indigenous Coast Miwok tribe, Angel Island State Park also offers hiking and biking trails, camping and amazing vistas of the San Francisco skyline and bay.

Chinese Wishing Trees in the KidPLACE exhibit at the Wing Luke Museum.

Paul Christian Gordon / Alamy Stock Photo

Chinese Wishing Trees in the KidPLACE exhibit

Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience

Location: Seattle, Washington

The Wing Luke Museum, a National Park Service Affiliated Area, features a rotating collection of displays that capture the Asian American and Pacific Islander experience, including a Cambodian Killing Fields Memorial, an ongoing exhibit called "Vietnam in the Rearview Mirror" and an upcoming look at the impact of COVID-19 and how it has shaped AAPI communities. Located in Seattle’s historic district, the 60,000-square foot, three-story museum was founded in honor of Wing Luke, a Chinese immigrant and the son of a laundryman and grocer. Luke served during World War II (earning a bronze medal) and was the first person of color elected to Seattle’s City Council. Luke died in 1965, at age 40, in a plane crash. The museum was created posthumously based on his vision. Can’t make it to Seattle? You can book a 30-minute virtual tour.     

Replicas of the historic Jupiter and Number 119 steam engines

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Golden Spike National Historic Park

Location: Promontory, Utah

From 1865 to 1869, some 10,000 to 15,000 Chinese laborers built the most challenging portion of the first transcontinental railroad. Starting in Sacramento, California, they worked their way up, over and through the Sierra Nevada, many of them losing their lives as they blasted through granite rocks, navigated narrow cliffs and weathered snowy avalanches. The Golden Spike National Historic Park marks the place where the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad met, connecting the continental United States by railway for the first time. On May 10, 1869, the railroad barons celebrated the occasion by hammering in a “golden spike,” now on display at the visitor center, along with replicas of the locomotives that once traversed the rails.

Mess Hall at Minidoka National Historic Site

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A mess hall once used to feed residents at the Minidoka Relocation Center

Minidoka National Historic Site

Location: Hunt, Idaho

Signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt during World War II, executive order 9066 forced more than 120,000 Japanese Americans to leave their homes behind and relocate to incarceration camps such as the Minidoka War Relocation Center. The sprawling 33,000-acre site housed nearly 9,400 people under the watchful eye of military police stationed in eight guard towers. Now part of the National Register of Historic Places, the Minidoka National Historic Site features a 1.6-mile walking trail that takes you around the camp, including a historic baseball field and the Honor Roll display, which lists the Japanese Americans who served during World War II while their families were incarcerated at Minidoka.

Exhibits within the Japanese Cultural Center

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The Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii

Honouliuli National Historic Site

Location: Oahu, Hawaii

Established by President Obama in 2015, the Honouliuli National Historic Site calls attention to the fact that Japanese Americans in Hawaii were also rounded up during World War II, a part of history that’s largely been overlooked. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Honouliuli Internment Camp began jailing several hundred Japanese Americans, as well as thousands of Japanese and European prisoners of war. “We have to see and hear these untold narratives to fully understand World War II,” says Honouliuli National Historic Site Superintendent Hanako Wakatsuki. Still in development, the site is currently closed to the public, but the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii in Honolulu offers an exhibit that shares the history of the incarceration camp.

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Throne Room at Iolani Palace

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The throne room at Iolani Palace

Iolani Palace

Location: Honolulu, Hawaii

Stately and grand, Iolani Palace was once the home of King Kalakaua and Queen Kapiolani, and served as Hawaii’s official royal residence. Built in 1882 and modeled after palaces Kalakaua had seen during a tour through Europe, Iolani Palace incorporated state-of-the-art (for the time) indoor plumbing, electric lighting and an early telephone. Located in downtown Honolulu, with guided and self-led tours available (advanced booking required), the palace is a symbol of Hawaiian independence: The last queen of Hawaii, Queen Liliuokalani, lived there until U.S. military forces overthrew her in 1893, seized control of the island and eventually made it the 50th state in 1959.

Day of Action at The Forty Acres

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The Forty Acres

Location: Delano, California

The Forty Acres, a National Historic Landmark, honors the work of César Chávez, leader of the farm labor movement that fought for better wages and safer working conditions. But it is also connected to a significant part of Filipino American history: In 1965, a group of Filipino farmworkers, led by Larry Itliong, began striking against the grape growers in Delano. Chavez, leading a collection of Mexican farmworkers, soon joined them, and the two worked together to pressure the grape growers to raise wages, protect laborers from pesticides and improve other working conditions. The Forty Acres, the headquarters for the strike, became a health clinic and community center for the farmworkers, including a retirement home for Filipino farmworkers.

Ellen Lee is a contributing writer who covers race, gender and identity. Her work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic and Real Simple.

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