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A glance at some Asian-American pioneers

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(CNN) -- At times in U.S. history when immigration and labor laws treated them as second-class citizens, and stereotypes and prejudices flourished, some Asian-Americans found the courage to challenge discrimination in its institutionalized and informal forms. Others gave voice to untold stories from their native countries. Here is a small selection of Asian-American pioneers.

Fred Korematsu

When President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the internment of Japanese-Americans in 1942 in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Fred Korematsu, the son of Japanese immigrants, refused to go. He did not want to be separated from his Italian-American girlfriend. He was arrested later that year and was sent to the Tanforan internment facility, a former racetrack south of San Francisco, California.

A month later, in June 1941, Korematsu, with the help of the ACLU, filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government for violating his constitutional rights. The court ruled against him, and he was sentenced to five months probation. Korematsu appealed his case all the way up to the Supreme Court, which also ruled against him in 1944.

Thirty-nine years later, with the help of a law professor and a team of mostly Asian-American lawyers, a federal judge reversed the decision. In 1998, President Clinton awarded Korematsu the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He died in March 2005.

Anna May Wong

Widely acknowledged to be the first Asian-American movie star, Anna May Wong, the daughter of Chinese immigrants, graced the big screen from the 1920s to the 1960s. Although her roles in the United States consisted primarily of narrow, more stereotypical characters, her career options expanded when she moved to Europe in the late 1920s. There, she worked with talents such as Lawrence Olivier, Leni Riefenstahl and Marlene Dietrich. European audiences admired her sleek good looks and dress.

Her best-known work is likely "Shanghai Express," which she made after returning to the United States in 1930. She died of a heart attack in 1961.

Dr. Haing S. Ngor

Dr. Haing S. Ngor, an obstetrician and gynecologist in Cambodia, fled Phnom Penh in 1975 when the Khmer Rouge took the capital city. To survive, Haing concealed his education and worked as a laborer in the Cambodian countryside. He suffered tremendously under the Khmer Rouge. He was crucified over a low fire, had one of his fingers chopped off, and was forced to watch his wife die in premature labor.

Haing arrived in the United States in 1980 and was approached by British film director Roland Joffé to play the part of New York Times photojournalist Dith Pran in the "The Killing Fields," a movie that told the story of Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge. Haing won an Oscar for this role. He starred in several other Hollywood films before he was shot and killed in Los Angeles in 1996.

Dalip Singh Saund

Dalip Singh Saund was the first U.S. congressman born in Asia. He was born in Amritsar, India, on September 29, 1899, and came to the United States in 1920 to attend the University of California.

He became a U.S. citizen in 1949, and after serving as a judge for several years and also as a delegate to the 1952, 1956, and 1960 Democratic National Conventions, he was elected in 1956 to the 85th Congress. He was re-elected to the 86th and 87th Congresses, but did not win re-election in 1962, after suffering a debilitating stroke. He remained an invalid until his death in 1973.

Sammy Lee

The son of Korean immigrants, Sammy Lee won the gold medal in the platform event in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics, making him the first Asian-American to win a gold medal in any Olympics. He also won the bronze medal in the springboard competition in 1948.

Although Lee, a doctor, wanted to serve in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, one of Gen. Dwight Eisenhower's staff members told him to go compete. "You can go, but you better win," he told Lee, according to the Los Angeles Times.


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Fred Korematsu stands with President Clinton in January 1998, after Korematsu received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

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