May 21, 2021

11 Books That Illuminate Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage

Asian and Pacific Islander Americans (APIA) have played a long and vital role in the history of the United States. Often, the narratives about APIA history in the United States start and end with the influx of tens of thousands of immigrants and settlers—largely from China and the Philippines—to California in the 1850s to mine gemstones and minerals. But the range of experiences and accomplishments for all Asian and Pacific Islander Americans spans the centuries before and after, shaping the country not just with gemstones, but milestones as well.

An entire library could not exhaustively capture these communities' diverse experiences over hundreds of years of American history. Nonetheless, in honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (celebrated every May), we have curated a list of books that provide insight into some of the many places and stories where APIA people have made their mark.

San Francisco's Chinatown neighborhood

photo by: David Yu, Flickr

A view of Chinatown in San Francisco.

American Chinatown: A People’s History of Five Neighborhoods by Bonnie Tsui (2009)

Chinese business owners and residents formed their own communities in cities across the United States. From New York City to Los Angeles, these Chinatowns are pillars of local commerce and culture. This book chronicles five different Chinatowns across the country and describes just how important these neighborhoods are to Asian American history.

Voices of Angel Island: Inscriptions and Immigrant Poetry, 1910-1945 by Charles Egan (2020)

Numerous immigrants to the East Coast passed through Ellis Island, but on the West Coast, there was Angel Island Immigration Station. This island was a hub for Asian immigrants entering the continental United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act, WWII internment policies, and xenophobia resulted in many individuals facing discrimination and brutal questioning when they came to Angel Island. This book highlights different immigrants’ experiences at this historic gateway to the United States.

Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad by Gordon H. Chang (2019)

During the Gold Rush, some Chinese immigrants called California gam saan: gold mountain. This book digs into the history of the Chinese railroad laborers who navigated dangerous working conditions to build America’s transportation infrastructure.

photo by: Library of Congress

Manzanar, a National Historic Park, is one of the many locations that tell the story of Japanese internment and incarceration during World War II.

Farewell to Manzanar by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston and James D. Houston (1973)

In this powerful memoir, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston describes life in the Manzanar internment camp. During WWII, the United States government incarcerated over a hundred thousand Japanese Americans in ten internment centers across the country. The first of these was Manzanar, where Jeanne Wakatskuki Houston and her family were among ten thousand people forced to survive brutal living conditions.

Manzanar is now a National Park and Monument, but its association with anti-Japanese policy continues to haunt Japanese American survivors and their descendants.

A History of American Samoa by the Amerika Samoa Humanities Council (2009)

In the early 1900s, the United States colonized islands in the Pacific Ocean. But American Samoa has a deep history of Polynesian culture and empire long before the United States docked ships there. Unfortunately, much of the American Samoa’s history has been overlooked in mainland U.S. policy and education.

This textbook blends Samoa and Manu’a oral histories with other historical accounts of this region. The authors highlight various cultural sites in American Samoa such as geographic landmarks, villages, and historical locations across the chain of islands.

Asian Americans in Michigan: Voices from the Midwest by Sook Wilkinson and Victor Jew (2015)

Though many historians focus on the West Coast as the epicenter of Asian American life and immigration, APIA communities emerged and thrived nationwide. This book provides insight about Asian Americans in Detroit, from the community-building efforts in the area to the social conflicts that sometimes emerged when different Asian American communities, such as Japanese and Chinese Michiganers, made the city their home.

Place Names of Hawaii by Mary Kawena Pukui, Samuel H. Elbert, and Esther T. Mookini (1976)

Native Hawaiians and their colonizers have many names for locations across the islands. After all, residents speak around 130 different languages! Recording Hawaiian language and dialects is an important method of cultural preservation. This book lists the different Hawaiian and English names of spots around the state. The authors also provide contextual information about why many of these places—however well-marked or innocuous—are important to Hawaii’s history.

A wide variety of physical locations including sacred indigenous sites, shores, streets, memorials, and museums all appear in this guide.

Little Manila is in the Heart: The Making of the Filipina/o American Community in Stockton, California by Dawn Bohulano Mabalon (2013)

Filipino immigrants were among the first Asians to arrive in the continental United States. As early as the 1580s, Filipino individuals have called California home. Stockton, California, became a vibrant community of Filipino immigrants in the agriculture industry. In this city, Filipinos created a neighborhood called Little Manila that spans four blocks. For around a century, Stockton’s Little Manila has been the core of California’s Filipino community.

In this book, Mabalon writes about how immigrants first formed Little Manila and how it grew into such a vital location for Filipino Americans.

Delano: The Story of the California Grape Strike by John Gregory Dunne (1967)

Many people have learned of Cesar Chavez’ leadership role in unionizing farm workers throughout California. However, it is not as well known about the Filipino Americans who helped catalyze this labor rights movement. This book describes the Filipino and Mexican Americans who stood together during the California Grape Strike of 1965. The grape strike would go on to inspire worker advocacy and organizations like the United Farm Workers union across the country.

View of a busy street in Chicago filled with stores that serve Indian and other South Asian specialties.

photo by: Erstwhile.Human CC BY-SA 2.0 Wikimedia

A view of Little India on Devon Street in Chicago, Illinois, in 2006.

Asian-Indians in Chicago by the Indo-American Center of Chicago (2003)

Many people think of Polish and other Eastern European immigrants when they visit Chicago. But travelers may be surprised to see a wide variety of Indian markets and cultural sites in the Windy City. Around 150,000 Indian immigrants call Chicago home, which has the largest Indian immigrant community in any U.S. city outside of New York City.

The Indo-American Center of Chicago chronicles the journey of Indians in Chicago from the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act to Little India on Devon Avenue, a massive 15-block community of Indian neighbors and business owners. For nearly eighty years, this strong Indian community has helped build Chicago into a haven for South Asian immigrants.

I Hotel written by Karen Tei Yamashita, illustrated by Leland Wong and Sina Grace (2010)

The International Hotel, nicknamed the I Hotel, has stood witness to a full century of civil rights battles in San Francisco. Shortly after the hotel opened in 1907, it became an important source of low-income housing for Filipino immigrants. Over time, the International Hotel remained a vital fixture of San Francisco’s Kearny and Chinatown neighborhoods.

Yamashita writes about how the International Hotel is a landmark for Asian American civil rights history. Her book hones in on the 1960s, when activists with the Yellow Power Movement met in and near the hotel.

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Laken Brooks is a current graduate student at the University of Florida. When Laken is not teaching or researching, she enjoys traveling, visiting free little libraries, and going to archives.

We believe all Americans deserve to see their history in the places that surround us. As a nation, we have work to do to fill in the gaps of our cultural heritage.

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