It’s no secret that Asians have not always been huge in the media. I remember being surprised when I first saw an Asian on a TV commercial years ago, and that’s when it dawned on me that I rarely ever saw Asians on television, much less on a national advertisement! Today, it seems that the media has exploded with Asian Americans starring not only in commercials, but also TV series, competitions, movies and more.

Yet, when I started looking for famous “firsts” achieved by Asian Americans, it wasn’t easy, which means we’ve still got a long way to go. But despite that, I was still able to find some interesting stories about the Asian Americans who have gotten the ball rolling…

1. First Asian American to Win an Academy Award

Yul Brynner

Five Famous Firsts: Yul Brynner


In 1956, Yul Brynner became the first person with an Asian background to win an Academy Award for Best Actor for his role in The King and I. Born in Russia, Yul possesses a mix of Swiss, Russian, and Jewish ethnicity but is also of Mongolian and Buryat descent, which accounts for his partially Asian background. Since then, we’ve had several other Asian Academy Award winners and nominees sprinkled here and there.


2. First Asian American NBA Player

Wataru “Wat” Misaka

Five Famous Firsts: Wataru "Wat" Misaka


Wataru “Wat” Misaka was not only the first Asian player in the National Basketball Association – he was the first ever non-Caucasian player in the NBA, known then as the Basketball Association of America or (BAA). A 5’7” point guard, the Japanese American played for the New York Knicks, the same team that the more recently famed Asian American basketball star Jeremy Lin plays on as well.


3. First Asian American to Win a Gold Medal for the United States

Dr. Samuel (“Sammy”) Lee

Five Famous Firsts: Dr. Samuel "Sammy" Lee


Dr. Samuel (“Sammy”) Lee is the first Asian American to win an Olympic gold medal for the United States and the first man to win back-to-back gold medals in Olympic platform diving. Born in California and of Korean descent, Sammy was forced to practice diving in a sandy pit in his backyard because of racial discrimination at the public pool. Still, his hard work and determination earned him multiple medals and a spot in the U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame.


4. First Asian American Woman to Win a Gold Medal for the United States

Kristi Yamaguchi

Five Famous Firsts: Kristi Yamaguchi


Speaking of gold medals, Kristi Yamaguchi was the first Asian American woman to win a gold medal for the United States. She had individual victories at the 1991 and 1992 World Figure Skating Championships and the 1992 U.S. Nationals before her gold medal win at the 1992 Olympics. She went on to win the World Professional Figure Skating Championship four times between 1992 and 1997.


5. First Asian American to Win an Oscar, Golden Globe, and BAFTA

Ang Lee

Five Famous Firsts: Ang Lee


Born in Taiwan, Ang Lee traveled to the United States after college and became the first Asian to win an Academy Award for Best Director for the film Brokeback Mountain. He also directed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, for which he received a Golden Globe for Best Director; the film won four Oscars and four BAFTA awards and was the highest-grossing foreign-language film in American history. Today, Ang Lee is the first person of Asian descent to win an Oscar, Golden Globe, and BAFTA for Best Director, and the only director to win two Best Film Awards (Golden Bear) at the Berlin International Film Festival.

While all of these “firsts” were great feats, none of them were achieved without some hardships. Each person on this list has had to overcome adversity, but in the end they were all able to break down racial barriers and accomplish amazing goals. These performers and stars paved the way for other Asian to accomplish even more.

There are lots of famous firsts yet to be accomplished by Asians. Maybe one day we’ll see a Kollaboration star up on a list of famous Asian firsts. So, to all of you of Asian or Pacific Island descent…what famous first will you achieve?