Editors’ note: Full disclosure, this story is written by contributor Sam Molitor, a high school student who is related to the event’s organizers. For more information on the rest of the events for May, including lantern making and launching, please visit Evanston ASPA here. But this story is about one of the biggest event’s this month.

Credit: Lisa Cyee

Korean pungmul drumming, Indian Bharatanatyam dance and world music blending Indian bhangra and Afro-Caribbean sounds all came to Evanston — mixed with a chance to learning various arts, such as Chinese lantern crafting, Japanese paper folding to make books or the colorful art of mandalas, spiritual symbols.

The Umbrella Arts Festival showcased many different Asian, South Asian, Pacific Islander American (ASPA) cultures through art, music, dance and cuisine in downtown Evanston’s Fountain Square on Saturday, May 14. 

The event was as an opportunity for the community to come together to celebrate ASPA Heritage Month, the arrival of spring and a return to in-person gatherings.

Last year, the first Umbrella Arts Festival (then known as the ASAPIA Heritage Month Arts Festival), was on May 22, 2021. 

This year, the festival was four times larger, tripled the number of performances, increased the number of vendors from four to 25 and included food and drinks.

“From a couple tables to 25 tents, not including performances and speakers, it expanded in such a wonderful way, said Elaine Darer, an Evanston resident of Taiwanese heritage. “The community showed up, the Asian community showed pride, and what an amazing way to demonstrate ASPA Heritage Month in Evanston.”

Mayor Daniel Biss welcomed the attendees to the festival and spoke about the importance of community events such as this. “It was a wonderful event, and a terrific opportunity to highlight the contributions of the Asian American, South Asian American, and Pacific Islander communities to Evanston, as well as to recommit ourselves to stamp out hate and bigotry wherever we see it,” he said.

One of the key goals of the Umbrella Arts Festival is to uplift local ASPA-owned businesses, restaurants, artists and organizations.  The vendors that lined the streets of the festival offered hand-made artwork created by local ASPA artists, and Evanston restaurants with Indian, Thai, Cambodia and Filipino offerings.

People were able to get hands-on with activities: Art making with Angela Lyonsmith and a host of volunteers from Kids Create Change gave visitors an opportunity to create Chinese-inspired lanterns.

Artist Book House offered a book-making activity influenced by traditional Japanese paper folding techniques led by Jamie Thome and Filipinx artist Regin Igloria.

Festival-goers were seen coloring mandalas on the sidewalk, filling the streets with beautiful symbols and words that invoked community and diversity. 

Bollywood Groove’s Ajanta Chakraborty led the crowd in Bollywood dance moves getting everyone pumped up for Funkadesi’s concert, which closed out the festival in celebratory style.

Credit: Lisa Cyee

Guest speakers also included State Rep. and Asian American Caucus Member Jennifer Gong-Gershowitz, Judge Sanjay Tailor and District 65 Board Member Donna Wang Su, who expressed support for the ASPA community and highlighted the importance of the recently passed Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History Act.

The TEAACH Act made Illinois the first state in the U.S. to mandate the teaching of Asian American history in K-12 public schools. According to Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Chicago, the TEAACH Act “ensures that Asian American history is taught in our schools, lays a foundation for cross-cultural education for all students in Illinois and advances racial equity.”

Daniel Aquino, owner of Coffee Lab, Nayon, and Prairie Ave Gallery with his partner Jay Kim, was also a performer dancing the traditional Filipino Tinikling bamboo stick dance. 

Aquino, a Filipino artist, expressed his joy in being part of something that makes ASPA people feel safe to express who they are and where they come from.

Organizations that support ASPA communities like the HANA Center and the Pan Pacific and South East Asia Women’s Association were represented and offered music and art activities for attendees as well.

The City Clerk’s office also had a booth encouraging attendees to register to vote as a reminder that our votes make a difference when it comes to making positive change for the ASPA community.

ASPA umbrella

The new name invokes a visual reminder that the ASPA community is not a monolith, but one that includes many different cultures and ethnicities from more than 40 different countries that fall under the ASPA umbrella.

Darer was the driving force behind Evanston ASPA’s “Snack Shack,” which was a crowd favorite offering snacks and drinks from ASPA countries around the world while raising money to support Evanston ASPA activities and events year-round.

“I loved the snack stand at the festival and had a great time seeing some of my favorite snacks and sampling others… my favorites were definitely the Lychee Jellies and Pocky Sticks,” said ETHS junior Keria Tu, who identifies as Chinese, Welsh and German. she said she feels “it is important to have a place where people belonging to the community can celebrate their shared identities.”

Melissa Raman Molitor, the founder of Evanston ASPA and organizer of the Umbrella Arts Festival, said planning for this year’s event began soon after the last one finished. The response to the 2021 festival was so enthusiastic that it inspired a bigger and more involved event this year. The time and energy put towards this event paid off on May 14 when more than 1,000 visitors to Fountain Square reveled in the celebration of Indian, Filipinx, Chinese, Cambodian, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Taiwanese culture.

“This event is not only about increasing the visibility and representation of our local ASPA community, it’s about creating a space of belonging for our ASPA residents and engaging the community-at-large in experiences that disrupt the stereotypes and racist narratives that cause harm to the ASPA community,” Raman Molitor explained.

This is evidenced in Tu’s admission that living in Evanston she has heard “…insensitive remarks that reinforce negative stereotypes around Asian people, whether it be all Asian people looking alike or that Chinese people eat dogs, which is disappointing to see in a community that prides itself on being so progressive.” Tu believes that these stereotypes come from lack of representation and feels events like the Umbrella Arts Festival are “actively fighting against those negative stereotypes.”

Although the Umbrella Arts Festival was a one-day event, Evanston ASPA has created a calendar of events for community members to find ways to participate in ASPA Heritage Month. 

One of these events includes a Lantern Floating Ceremony that will take place at Arrington Lagoon at dusk on May 31.  Hosted by Kids Create Change, the ceremony is inspired by the lantern festivals and traditions found in many ASPA cultures around the world and is an opportunity for the community to come together to honor and memorialize the losses and challenges brought on by the pandemic that many have had to endure in isolation over the past two years.

The lantern is a symbol of light and hope not only for the ASPA community but for all local residents as we move forward in a quest for a more empathetic, inclusive, equitable, and just community.

This event was sponsored by Evanston ASPA, City of Evanston, Asian American Caucus, Illinois Arts Council, Kitchen Table Stories Project, Evanston Arts Council, Main Dempster Mile, Downtown Evanston, Kids Create Change, Coffee Lab Evanston, Nayon, Prairie Ave. Gallery, Evanston Made, Link Physical Therapy, Commissioner Josina Morita, Evanston Lighthouse Rotary Club, Evanston Community Foundation and George and Katrina de los Reyes GK Chicago Team – Berkshire Hathaway Chicago.

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