Tsukasa Taiko drummers at Fountain Square (Photo by Akari Yamada)

The Evanston ASAPIA Heritage Month Arts Festival was held under blue skies and festive red lanterns on May 22 at Fountain Square in downtown Evanston. This festival, sponsored by the Kitchen Table Stories Project, Asian American Caucus, and City of Evanston, showcased multiple expressions of Asian, South Asian, and Pacific Islander American cultures.

This was a family-oriented festival with multiple opportunities for hands-on engagement. Attendees were given a pack of sidewalk chalk to create their own mandalas on surrounding sidewalks. This community art project was inspired by the symbolism of circles and connection in South Asian Indian culture.

Speakers at the festival (Photo by Akari Yamada)

There was a sea of fluttering koi behind the Family Art Table, sponsored by Kids Create the Change, where people of all ages painted delicate watercolor designs on paper koi/carp, a traditional symbol of the health and resilience of children in Japan.

Youth change-makers were present at the Embody Wares Table and the Asian Racism Takedown Table showcasing art-based solutions to social issues. Another popular stop was the Food Culture Table with individually wrapped snacks and candies such as lychee jelly from Taiwan, Korean rice crackers, and Japanese Pocky sticks donated by members of the Kitchen Table Stories Project.

Many attendees stopped by a booth to buy Indian spice packets and sauces from Kalpana Waikar of Inspired Indian Cooking and Sam Rattapoonas of Nakorn. Several restaurants had special offers in conjunction with the festival including 527 Café, Koi Fine Asian Cuisine, Lao Sze Chuan, and Mt. Everest. 

Melissa Raman Molitor, festival organizer and founder of the Kitchen Table Stories Project, thanked attendees for recognizing the importance of visibility and representation of the ASAPIA community in Evanston and the role of the arts in this work. She said, “The arts are accessible and approachable, and a way we can connect with each other and learn about each other. Sharing our stories is the best vehicle for understanding and empathy.”

Left to right, seated: Gus Anderson, Sam Darer; standing: Will Molitor, Oona O’Brien, Mia Darer, and Julia Darer (Photo by Akari Yamada)

There were two cultural performances. Practitioners of Iaido from the Japanese Culture Center  showed technical skills using a Japanese long sword. Kids bobbed and swayed to the beat of the next performance by the Tsukasa Taiko Drumming Ensemble from the Asian Improv aRts Midwest. They were proud to showcase their young performers, some from Evanston, especially after a year of pandemic-related isolation, according to Curatorial Director Kioto Aoki.

Evanston resident Jen Likhite, whose family has South Asian, Indian, and Filipino heritage, said, “My kids loved everything about the festival. They particularly loved making the koi and hearing the drummers. Being around other kids with shared experiences and being able to express themselves through art is so valuable.”

The program included remarks by local leaders and youth perspectives. Mayor Daniel Biss said, “I simply wanted to acknowledge the pain that our siblings in the Asian, South Asian, Pacific Islander American community have been going through, and to say that as Mayor, my view is the opposite. … a view of knowing that we are who we are because of who is in our community.

“We want to name that and emphasize that, and double down on that as we conceptualize the Evanston that we want to be.” Mayor Biss then read his Proclamation designating the month of May as Evanston Asian, South Asian, Pacific Islander American Heritage Month, which was his first act as Mayor.

Josina Morita, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District Commissioner and Founding Chair or the Illinois Asian American Caucus, said, “It’s an exciting time to see Asian Americans stepping into public office. … To have Asian Americans at the table at every level of government, to speak up for our communities, and advocate and build bridges with other communities has been so powerful. The best way to celebrate Asian American Heritage Month is really to educate ourselves, our friends, our neighbors on who we are as Asian Americans.”

Commissioner Morita drew attention to the Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History Act (TEAACH Act). Illinois is poised to become the first state to require Asian American history in K-12 public schools. She said she believes the TEAACH Act will have a transformational impact on the advocacy and leadership of young people.

Soo La Kim, School District 65 Board Member, said she agreed. She did not see herself, as a Korean American, reflected in books and textbooks in her childhood in New York. “The school district, District 65, with the implementation of Black Lives Matter week and LGBTQ+ week has made great strides in reflecting a truer history of who we are. And the eventual plan is to have those lessons our educators have so thoughtfully put together integrated into the full curriculum – not to be separated out into separate weeks, but to be fully integrated,” she said. “I think that that will also be the case for Asian American history with the TEAACH act.”

Northwestern University senior Amy Yang spoke about her upbringing in California and Shanghai, China. A creative writing major specializing in non-fiction, she emphasized the role of ASAPIA groups engaging in cultural expression through theater and dance. ETHS Junior Sophie Yang touched on growing into her mixed Chinese and Japanese heritage. Then she added, “I’m so happy to stand today among these amazing leaders and excited to see real change like the TEAACH Act happening. And I’m so thankful for the Asian Heritage Alliance Club at school because it provides a space for students to discuss shared issues and topics, but also just to exist as who we are. And that space continues to be where I, and many of my peers, are finding our voices and exploring our identities with the guidance and wisdom of our wonderful staff sponsors.”

“I see myself reflected in faces and find stories I can relate to here,” said Ami Shah, a District 65 teacher of South Asian descent. “This festival brings a welcome exposure to Asian and South Asian cultures. It’s exciting and moving.”