Asian Americans Who Have Made a Difference

One made a splash riding waves in Hawaii. Another made his mark walking the halls of Congress. Still another made history designing an American landmark. As athletes, politicians, architects, and scientists, they've not only changed the way we view America—they've transformed the way we experience the world. Meet ten of our country's most accomplished Asian Americans.

Duke Kahanamoku (Photo Corbis)
King of the Waves
Duke Kahanamoku came to be known as the father of international surfing, but the Hawaiian native made his first splash as a swimmer at the 1912 Olympics in Stockholm, Sweden. Born in Honolulu in 1890, Kahanamoku struck gold by setting a world record in the 100-meter free-style and earned a silver medal in the 200-meter relay. He won two more golds at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics, a silver at the 1924 Paris Olympics, and a bronze at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. Kahanamoku's swimming and surfing talents caught the attention of Hollywood, and over the course of nine years, he appeared in nearly 30 movies. Kahanamoku went on to serve as sheriff for the City and County of Honolulu for 26 years. When the legendary swimmer and surfer died at the age of 77, he was remembered for his athletic talent and sportsmanship.

To find our more about Duke Kahanamoku, go to the Outrigger Duke Kahanamoku Foundation

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Dr. Feng Shan Ho (Photo courtesy of the Ho Family Collection ©1997. All rights reserved.
A True Lifesaver
Dr. Feng Shan Ho single-handedly saved thousands of Austrian Jews during the Holocaust. When Dr. Ho arrived in Vienna in 1937 as a Chinese diplomat, Austria had the third largest Jewish community in Europe. Just one year later, however, the Nazis took over Austria and began persecuting Jews. Although they tried to flee, Austrian Jews had nowhere to go because most of the world's nations would not accept Jewish refugees. Against all odds, many would survive thanks to Dr. Ho. As Chinese General Consul in Vienna, he went against his boss' orders and began issuing Jews visas to Shanghai, China. These lifesaving documents allowed thousands of Jews to leave Austria and escape death. After 40 years of diplomatic service that included ambassadorships to Egypt, Mexico, Bolivia, and Colombia, Dr. Ho retired to San Francisco, California. At age 89, he published his memoirs, "Forty Years of My Diplomatic Life." Dr. Ho died in 1997, an unknown hero of World War II.

Read Dr. Feng Shan's biography from the University of Minnesota Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies

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Dalip Singh Saund
A Political Pioneer
Dalip Singh Saund made history in 1956 when he became the first Asian elected to Congress. Born in India in 1899, Saund came to the United States in 1920 to study at the University of California, Berkeley, where he earned a doctorate degree in mathematics. Despite being highly educated, Saund discovered that his career options were limited due to anti-immigrant feelings in the U.S. As a result, he worked in farming for the next 20 years. At the same time, Saund began fighting discriminatory laws against Indians. In 1949, he and other Indians finally earned the right to become U.S. citizens. In 1956, Saund left the fields of California for the halls of Congress. He served three terms in the House of Representatives, working to improve U.S.-Asian relations. Saund's political career was cut short when he suffered a stroke while campaigning for a fourth term. Still, he opened the door for Asian Americans to enter U.S. politics.

To find our more about Dalip Singh Saund, go to http://www.saund.org/dalipsaund/

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Chinese men working on the Union Pacific Railroad in the late 1800s. (Photo courtesy of the Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library)
Men of Steel
In 1863, construction began on the transcontinental railroad—1,776 miles of tracks that would form a link between America's West and East coasts. While thousands of European immigrants worked on the westbound Pacific Union rail, there was not enough manpower to build the Central Pacific line, which snaked through the rugged Rocky and Sierra Nevada Mountains. In 1865, Central Pacific officials hired 50 Chinese laborers to lay down a section of track. Their work was so well done, they decided to recruit more Chinese men. In the end, nearly 12,000 Chinese railroad workers were hired to perform dangerous work that white men refused to do. They dammed rivers, dug ditches, and blasted tunnels through mountain ranges. Hundreds of men died on the job. The Chinese also faced discrimination because they looked different from the white workers. Although they often outperformed other laborers, they were paid less. Despite all of the hardships, the Chinese laborers never quit. Thanks to their hard work, America became the first continent to have a coast-to-coast railroad.

To see photographs of the building of the railroad, click on the Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum

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Steven Chu (Photo © AP Wide World)
A Scientific Genius
As a young child, Steven Chu loved to build things—from model airplanes to metal girders. As he grew older, Chu even hoarded his lunch money to pay for the parts of his homemade rockets. As a senior at Garden City High School in New York, he discovered the thrill of experimentation once again. In physics lab, the Chinese American teen built an instrument to measure gravity. After studying physics in college and graduate school, Chu worked as a scientist at Bell Laboratories for nine years. In 1997, all of Chu's years in the lab paid off when he received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on cooling atoms. Why is this important? Chu explains to Scholastic.com, "The ability to cool atoms down to very low temperatures allows us to hold onto and move them with incredible control. This control has allowed us to make new measurement tools such as precise atomic clocks and sensors that can measure gravity and rotation with extraordinary precision." Today, Chu is the Director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He is also Professor of Physics and Professor of Molecular and Cell Biology at the University of California, Berkeley.

To find our more about Steven Chu, read an interview or download the webcast and go to the Lawrence Berkeley national Laboratory.

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Yo-Yo Ma (Photo © AP Wide World)
A Magnificent Musician
One of the world's great musicians, Yo-Yo Ma began studying the cello at the age of four. As a toddler, he and his parents moved from Paris, France, to New York. At age nine, Ma made his musical debut at the famed Carnegie Hall in New York City. Since graduating from the Julliard School and Harvard University, Ma has played as a soloist with orchestras around the world. Along the way, he has recorded 50 albums and collected more than a dozen Grammy Awards. He is also dedicated to bringing music into the lives of young people through education programs and family concerts. Ma plays two instruments—a 1733 Montagnana cello and a 1712 Davidoff Stradivarius.

To find our more about Yo-Yo Ma, go to Ma's official web site

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Maya Lin (Photo © AP Wide World)
A Monumental Architect
Maya Lin rose to fame in 1981. Just 21-years-old and still an architectural student at Yale University, Lin won a contest to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. Her design beat out more than 1,400 entries. The Memorial's 594-foot granite wall features the names of the more than 58,000 U.S. soldiers who died during the Vietnam War. Each year, four million people visit the wall to pay their respects to these war heroes. Less than a decade later, Lin designed another famous structure—the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama. The monument outlines the major events of the Civil Rights Movement. Today, Lin's designs can be found in several American cities and continue to inspire the entire nation.

To learn more about Maya Lin, go to the Smithsonian Magazine's Web Site

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Amy Tang (Photo © AP Wide World)
A Writing Pro
Amy Tan was born in 1952 in Oakland, California, the daughter of Chinese parents who had immigrated to the United States three years earlier. As a teenager, Tan and her family moved to Europe, where she attended high school in Switzerland. Tan later returned to the U.S. to attend college. She gained international attention in 1989 with the publication of her first novel, The Joy Luck Club, a story about Chinese women and their Chinese-American daughters. The book has been translated into 25 languages and has been made into a movie. In addition to her best-selling novels, Tan has also written two children's books, The Moon Lady and Sagwa. Besides writing, Tan plays in a rock 'n roll band called The Rock Bottom Remainders with several other famous writers, including Stephen King and Scott Turow.

To learn more about Amy Tan, go to Tan's Official Web Site

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Jerry Yang (Photo © AP Wide World)
Web Wizard
A native of Taiwan, Jerry Yang came to America at age 10, knowing a single English word—shoe. After arriving in Los Angeles, Yang's family settled in San Jose, California. Although he admits to having had a short attention span in school, Yang aced his studies and was accepted to one of the nation's top colleges—Stanford University. As a graduate student at Stanford, Yang and classmate, David Filo, created the Yahoo! directory to help their pals hunt down cool web sites. Today, Yahoo! is the world's most frequently visited Web site, with 237 million loyal surfers. Yahoo's kid site, Yahooligans, is popular with young webmasters as well. When he's not tracking down web links, Yang is hitting the links. He is an avid golfer and sumo-wrestling fan.

To learn more about Jerry Yang, click on Yahoo's Media Relations

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Michelle Kwan (Photo © AP Wide World)
Perfection on Ice
For nearly a decade, Michelle Kwan had been skating circles around the competition. The California native bounced back from a disappointing finish at the 2002 Winter Olympics to win her seventh U.S. women's figure skating title in January and her fifth world title in March. Her career 37 perfect scores are the most of any skater in history. When competing, Kwan always wears a Chinese good luck charm around her neck. The charm was a gift from her grandmother. Kwan began skating at age five and won her first competition two years later. Now, at age 22, she is a skating legend, who is admired for both her athleticism and grace on the ice.

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