Helen Zia

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Helen Zia
Born1952 (age 68–69)
EducationPrinceton University (BA)
Tufts University
Spouse(s)Lia Shigemura

Helen Zia is a Chinese-American journalist and activist for Asian American and LGBTQ rights.[1] She is considered a key figure in the Asian American movement.

Life and career[edit]

Early childhood and education[edit]

Zia was born in Newark, New Jersey in 1952 to first generation immigrants from Shanghai.[2][1] At five years old, she began working in her parent's floral novelty business.[3] She entered Princeton University in the early 1970s[4] as a student in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.[3] She was a member of its first graduating class of women.[5] As a student, Zia was among the founders of the Asian American Students Association. She was also a vocal antiwar activist, voicing her Opposition to U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War, a firm believer in feminism, and active in movements creating cross racial unity among low income people of color.

Zia entered medical school at Tufts University in 1974, but quit in 1976. She eventually moved to Detroit, Michigan, working as a construction laborer, an autoworker and a community organizer, after which she discovered her life's work as a journalist and writer.[6]


Zia's time in Detroit overlapped with the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982. Zia played a crucial role in bringing federal civil rights charges against the perpetrators of Vincent's killing and in igniting an Asian American response to the crime through her journalism and advocacy work.[4] At the time, little existed in terms of a cohesive and organized Asian American movement in Detroit, but Zia's journalism helped to galvanize the Asian American community to demand justice for Vincent Chin.[7]

She has also been outspoken on issues ranging from civil rights and peace to women's rights and countering hate violence and homophobia. In 1997, she testified before the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights on the racial impact of the news media.[8]

She traveled to Beijing in 1995 to the United Nations Fourth World Congress on Women as part of journalists of color delegation.[8]

She has appeared in numerous news programs and films; her work on the 1980s Asian American landmark civil rights case of anti-Asian violence is documented in the Academy Award-nominated film, "Who Killed Vincent Chin?" and she was profiled in Bill Moyers' PBS documentary, "Becoming American: The Chinese Experience."[9]

Honors and awards[edit]

Zia was named one of the most influential Asian Americans of the decade by A. Magazine. Zia has received numerous journalism awards for her ground-breaking stories. Her investigation of date rape at the University of Michigan led to campus demonstrations and an overhaul of its policies. Zia received an honorary Doctor of Laws from the Law School of the City University of New York for bringing important matters of law and civil rights into public view.[10]

In August 2020, Zia was one of three recipients of the NAAAP100 Award from The National Association of Asian American Professionals (NAAAP). She received it alongside activist Cecilia Chung, businessman Ryan Patel, and youth advocate Symington W. Smith.[11]

Published work[edit]

Zia's latest work, Last Boat Out of Shanghai: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Fled Mao's Revolution, released in January 2019.

In January 2000, Zia authored Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People,[12][13] a finalist for the prestigious Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize. President of the United States Bill Clinton quoted from Asian American Dreams at two separate speeches in the White House Rose Garden.[14]

She also co-authored, with Wen Ho Lee, of My Country Versus Me, in January 2002, which reveals what happened to the Los Alamos scientist who was falsely accused of being a spy for the People's Republic of China in the "worst case since the Rosenbergs."[15]

She contributed the piece Reclaiming the Past, Redefining the Future: Asian American and Pacific Islander Women to the 2003 anthology Sisterhood Is Forever: The Women's Anthology for a New Millennium, edited by Robin Morgan.[16]

Zia was the executive editor of Ms. Magazine 1989 to 1992 [17][1] Zia also serves on the board of directors for Women's Media Center.[18] Her articles, essays and reviews have appeared in numerous publications, books and anthologies, including Ms., The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Nation, Essence, The Advocate, and OUT.[19]

Personal life[edit]

In June 2008, Zia married her partner Lia Shigemura in San Francisco, making them one of the first same-sex couples to legally marry in the state of California.[20][21]


  1. ^ a b c "Helen Zia." Encyclopedia of World Biography, 2nd ed., vol. 18, Gale, 2004, pp. 421-423. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Accessed 22 Feb. 2017.
  2. ^ Zia, Helen (2001). Asian American dreams : the emergence of an American people (1st pbk. ed.). New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux. pp. 3–5. ISBN 978-0374527365.
  3. ^ a b Zia, Helen; Gall, Susan B. (1995). Notable Asian Americans (1st ed.). New York: Gale Research. ISBN 0810396238. OCLC 31170596.
  4. ^ a b Lei, Judy (13 May 2011). "Hyphen APA Heritage Month Profiles: Helen Zia". Hyphen: Asian America Unabridged. Retrieved 18 July 2015.
  5. ^ "Helen Zia: A Disobedient Daughter and Her Passion For Justice". Women's Media Center. 9 September 2009. Archived from the original on 21 July 2015. Retrieved 18 July 2015.
  6. ^ "Helen Zia". White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Archived from the original on 21 July 2015. Retrieved 18 July 2015.
  7. ^ "History: Who Was Vincent Chin?". American Citizens for Justice. Archived from the original on 6 July 2015. Retrieved 18 July 2015.
  8. ^ a b "Helen Zia - SheSource Expert - Women's Media Center". www.womensmediacenter.com. Retrieved 2019-09-11.
  9. ^ "The Chinese Experience: Challenging the Stereotype". a Bill Moyers special: Becoming American--The Chinese Experience. PBS. Retrieved 18 July 2015.
  10. ^ "Last Boat Out of Shanghai: Helen Zia, Laurence Coderre, and Pacharee Sudhinaraset – Asian/Pacific/American Institute at NYU". Retrieved 2019-09-11.
  11. ^ "Awards: NAAAP100, Inspire, Pride | National Association of Asian American Professionals". www.naaap.org. Retrieved 2020-08-10.
  12. ^ Zia, Helen (2000). Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 0374527369.
  13. ^ "ASIAN AMERICAN DREAMS: The Emergence of an American People". macmillan publishers. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Archived from the original on 2014-12-15. Retrieved 2015-07-18.
  14. ^ "Asian American Dreams". www.goodreads.com. Retrieved 2019-09-11.
  15. ^ Zia, Helen (2002). My Country Versus Me. Hyperion. ISBN 0786868031.
  16. ^ "Library Resource Finder: Table of Contents for: Sisterhood is forever : the women's anth". Vufind.carli.illinois.edu. Retrieved 2015-10-15.
  17. ^ "Helen Zia". White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Archived from the original on 2015-07-21. Retrieved 2015-07-18.
  18. ^ "Board of Directors". Women's Media Center. Archived from the original on 31 October 2014. Retrieved 18 July 2015.
  19. ^ "WHO WE ARE: Helen Zia (Writer, Journalist)". Women's Media Center. Archived from the original on 21 July 2015. Retrieved 18 July 2015.
  20. ^ "Helen Zia: A Disobedient Daughter and Her Passion For Justice". Archived from the original on 2015-07-21.
  21. ^ "Helen Zia & Lia Shigemura". YouTube. apiequality. 19 June 2008. Retrieved 18 July 2015.