Famous Firsts by Asian Americans

From politicians to professional athletes

by Shmuel Ross
Norman Mineta, Katherine Sui Fun Cheung, Patsy Takemoto Mink, Anna May Wong, and Ellison Onizuka

Notable Asian Americans »

Asian-American Firsts: Government

  • U.S. representative: Dalip Singh Saund, 1956, representative from California. The first female Asian American elected to Congress was Patsy Takemoto Mink, elected in 1964 as a representative from Hawaii.
  • U.S. senator: Hiram Fong, 1959, one of Hawaii's first two senators.
  • U.S. female senator: Mazie Hirono,2013, was elected to the U.S. Senate from Hawaii, making her the first Asian American female senator. Also the country's first Asian-American woman elected to the Senate. In addition, she's the first U.S. senator born in Japan-and the second woman of color to serve in the Senate.
  • Federal court judge: Herbert Choy, 1971, appointed to the U.S. court of appeals for the ninth circuit.
  • U.S. ambassador: Julia Chang Bloch, 1989, appointed ambassador to the Kingdom of Nepal.
  • State legislator: Wing F. Ong, 1946, elected to the Arizona House of Representatives.
  • Governor: George R. Ariyoshi, 1974, governor of Hawaii. The first on the mainland was Gary Locke, elected governor of Washington in 1996.
  • Mayor of a major U.S. city: Norman Yoshio Mineta, 1971, in San Jose, California.
  • Member of presidential cabinet: Norman Yoshio Mineta, 2000, appointed secretary of commerce. In 2001, he became the first cabinet member to switch directly from a Democratic to Republican cabinet—becoming secretary of transportation—and the only Democrat in George W. Bush's cabinet. The first female Asian-American cabinet member was Elaine Chao, appointed secretary of labor in 2001.
  • Vietnamese-American member of Congress: Anh Cao won a special election for a seat in the House of Representatives, representing New Orleans, Louisiana, in December 2008.

Asian-American Firsts: Aviation

  • Female aviator: Katherine Sui Fun Cheung, licensed in 1932.
  • Astronaut (in space): Ellison Onizuka, first spaceflight in 1985. Died in the 1986 Challenger disaster.

Asian-American Firsts: Science and Medicine

  • Isolated epinephrine (adrenaline) from the suprarenal gland: Jokichi Takamine, 1901.
  • Invented pulse transfer controlling device leading to magnetic core memory: An Wang, 1949.
  • Cloned the AIDS virus: Flossie Wong-Staal, 1984.

Asian-American Firsts: Film and Television

  • Movie star: Anna May Wong, who starred in the 1921 film Bits of Life and many other movies.
  • Academy Award winner: Haing Ngor, Best Supporting Actor of 1984 for his role in The Killing Fields
  • Host of own network TV series: Anna May Wong, 1951, The Gallery of Madame Liu Tsong
  • Star of own network sitcom: Pat Morita, 1976, Mr. T and Tina

Asian-American Firsts: News Reporting

  • First network news reporters: Ken Kashiwahara and Connie Chung, 1974. In 1993, Chung became the first Asian American to be a nightly news anchor for a major network (CBS).
  • First anchor of a national radio program: Emil Guillermo, 1989, host of NPR's All Things Considered.

Asian-American Firsts: Other

  • First to command a combat battalion: Young Oak Kim, of the 100th Infantry Battalion, 1943.
  • First selected in the first round of NFL draft: Eugene Chung, 1992, selected by New England.