The month of May was chosen to honor Asian/Pacific American Heritage because on May 7, 1843 the first Japanese immigrant arrived in the United States, and on May 10, 1869 the transcontinental railroad was completed with largely Chinese immigrant labor. While these two events are specific to certain nationalities, the heritage month is meant to honor a wide range of peoples, ethnicities, and cultures.

The designation “Asian American” was coined in 1968 and the phrase “Pacific Islanders” was added to it in the 1980s. The intention behind the group term “AAPI” was to create a shared identity and solidarity.  Yet arguments have been made that disaggregating AAPI data can create more valid and just frameworks for policy recommendations and practices. Indeed, the term agglomerates people from two continents and a dozen or more island nations, and in the 1990 census it encompassed more than 30 categories. 

A map and a musical, both created in the 1940s, illuminate some of the roots of today’s popularized conceptualizations about Asian American Pacific Islanders, both disaggregated and generalized. During this era, the United States was casting itself as a friendly, culturally-tolerant protector of the Pacific’s multiple ethnicities and nationalities. Japanese expansionism, including the brutal occupation of Manchuria, was on the rise, while the Philippines were part of the US’s own empire-building efforts.   

The map titled “Peoples of the Pacific” is one of six murals displayed at the “Pageant of the Pacific” Golden Gate International Exposition and also published in a portfolio of prints. Two of these printed maps are in the collection of the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center at the Boston Public Library, where I serve as the organization’s president. The mapmaker was Miguel Covarrubias, an influential artist, caricaturist, and ethnographer from Mexico, known for his scholarly analysis of pre-Columbian art, as well as his ethnographic book Island of Bali.

The map depicts what we would now call a majority-minority world, with more than a 100 figures of disaggregated, diverse ethnicities. A few are humorous caricatures of Americans, such as the portly “Easterner” in New York smoking a cigar, and the blonde, swimsuit-clad woman representing a Californian. Most are carefully drawn non-white and indigenous figures such as a Sioux chieftain in the US West, a Zapotec woman in Mexico balancing a basket on her head, a Sikh wearing a knife in his belt, and a seated Siamese dancer.

The Pacific Islands are central to the map, and here men in loincloths holding spears and bare-chested women predominate. To what extent did these earnest depictions, especially taken together with Covarubbias’s Art Forms and other map murals, expand appreciation for multiple cultures?  How much did they serve to titillate and distance US Americans from an exoticized “other” that later became codified into stereotypes?

Notably, the map legend color-codes the aggregations of “Mongoloids, Caucasoids, Negroids, Polynesians and Melanesians” that were commonly used by ethnographers of the time. These labels hearken back to an 1893 educational chart created by Levi Walter Yaggy that classified humans as Black, Red, White, Yellow or Brown. These artificial color constructs persist today in both unifying (e.g., Black Lives Matter) and insulting (e.g., Yellow Peril) ways.

Detail from Levi Walther Yaggy, “Climatic Chart of the World, Showing the Distribution of the Human Race and the Animal and Vegetable Kingdoms” atlas map (1893) (map reproduction courtesy of the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection)

A decade after the exposition, Broadway audiences were toasting the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical South Pacific. Its plot was based on James Michener’s book Tales of the South Pacific that fictionalized his experiences while serving as a Navy officer in the New Hebrides from 1942 to 1944.  The show, featuring memorable songs like “Some Enchanted Evening,” “Bali-Ha’i,” “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame,” and “I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair,” had a record-breaking, five-year run.

Rodgers and Hammerstein’s anti-racist stance was central to the plot of South Pacific. Over the course of the musical, nurse Nellie progresses from initial horror to acceptance of the idea of marrying into an interracial family. In another plotline, Lieutenant Joe Cable, a White male from Princeton, NJ, reaches the realization in the song “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”that racism is “not born in you! It happens after you’re born …” A Georgia politician claimed the song justified interracial marriage and was a threat to the American way of life, and tried to get the show banned. Eventually, the song became a civil rights anthem, and was even referenced in the musical Hamilton: “I’m with you, but the situation is fraught. You’ve got to be carefully taught; if you talk, you’re gonna get shot!”

Joe is enthralled with Liat, a young Tonkinese woman, in a match proffered by her manipulative mother, whom the seamen call “Bloody Mary.”  Despite Rodgers and Hammerstein’s anti-racist intentions, these portraits of Asian women undoubtedly contributed to the stereotypes of the submissive yet seductive “Oriental” enchantress and the powerful, evil Asian dragon lady. And the characterization of Joe as unable to control his carnal desires when offered an Asian woman is horrifically resonant with the account of a man with a self-confessed sex addiction who shot six women of Asian descent in Atlanta in March 2021.

The “Peoples of the Pacific” map and the South Pacific musical were each crafted with the best of intentions of furthering multicultural education and countering racism in the context of their time. However, their ultimate impact on popularized culture offers a cautionary tale that reminds us to be vigilantly aware of how even the most well-meant cultural expressions can end up perpetuating corrosive stereotypes.

Connie Chin is American born Chinese. She currently serves as president of the Norman B. Leventhal Map & Education Center, and her career has spanned cultural nonprofits, consumer products marketing,...