History Lesson: The Asian Festival
It’s that time of year when Columbus is awash in fantastic festivals and fairs! For many, the unofficial kick-off of the season of Comfest, PRIDE Fest, Festival Latino, Jazz & Ribs Fest, Red White & Boom, Greek Festival, Pumpkin Festival & Oktoberfest is upon us – the Asian Festival. Only 19 years old, this celebration has grown from 12,000 attendees back in 1994 to over 100,000 today.
In April of this year, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Yung-Chen Lu Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the Ohio State University, one of the founders of the Asian Festival (along with John Seto, Manju Sankarappa and Becki Krohm) He was attending the opening of the History of Asians in Central Ohio: A Driving Force for Growth exhibition currently in the galleries of the Columbus Historical Society at COSI. Dr. Lu is undoubtedly one of the most generous people I have ever met and when I asked if he could tell me a little about the founding of the Asian Festival – he agreed right away.
We met in early May at a coffee shop outside the CAM International Market on Bethel Road. The story he told me of the early days was not at all what I expected to hear and I am pleased to be able to share it with the readers of ColumbusUnderground.
Dr. Lu was a well known fund-raiser for community service organizations in the early 1990s and was quite involved with the Chinese American Association of Central Ohio (CAACO) Since his retirement from OSU in 2002, he told me he has made that “hobby” something of an unofficial second career.
He told me that the story really began on December 17, 1993. 38 business people and physicians met with him at a private function in the basement of the Kahiki.
20 of them were physicians and he was trying to interest them in starting a clinic that would cater to the needs of Asian Americans in Central Ohio. In no uncertain terms, the crowd assembled said they were not at all interested but agreed to form an ad-hoc group to study the question of what would be needed if such a clinic were to be formed.
As part of that effort, Dr. Lu visited the Life Care Alliance facility and was completely overwhelmed by what they were doing to serve 4,000 meals daily. It was at that point that he had an idea to try and gather some of the elderly Asian people he knew together 1 day a week to socialize as well get a hot lunch. On February 5th, he organized his first social hour for 60 plus Central Ohio Asian elders and discovered that they truly enjoyed their time together but found out that it was a huge job.
These gatherings continued and on July 25, 1994 John Seto from the Ohio Arts Council got in touch with him after a meeting of the Asian-American Community Service Council. He suggested that the two get together to do something fun for the organization. It was at that moment that the spark of the idea for the Asian Festival was struck. Everyone they spoke with met the idea with unanimous enthusiasm and John agreed to be the first Executive Director until a new job pulled him to the west coast in September 1994.
Dr. Lu did not want the idea to die so he agreed to pick up the reigns and set out with a two-fold vision for the festival. He wanted it to showcase Asian culture as well as heritage. Additionally, he wanted it to be a kind of way to give back to the community. Specifically, he wanted there to be a health pavilion for screenings.
He told me that he truly lucked out when Ronald Newsome of Bank One heard about the idea and was the first to pledge $20,000.00 towards it. (Bank One was merged into CHASE in 2004) The leadership he knew at the Columbus Foundation suggested Franklin Park as a venue and the date was set for Memorial Day weekend of 1995.
With the additional support of the International center and the Music Hall on Oak, plans began to take shape and 6 components of the festival were decided on.
Asian Cultural Exhibit that would include hands-on Bonsai exhibitions
Performances celebrating the culture of China, Korea with martial arts demonstrations and Tai Ko drumming
Children’s Area that would feature classic Asian Games
The Health Pavilion that had been Dr. Lu’s dream from the very start
Asian Food Court that would come to include 17 vendors of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Thai, and Laotian food
It lasted just the 2 days and drew 12,000 visitors and continues to grow even today. Part of that growth has included the founding of the Asian Health Initiative in 1997 and exists today inside the Rardin Family Clinic at OSU. in 2011, the Asian festival awarded the first five Asian Festival International Leadership Scholarships to qualifying college bound students and in 2013 will award five more with one special award that will allow a deserving student to travel to Asian countries to learn about them first-hand.
Another accomplishment achieved over the years was the knitting together of the Central Ohio Asian Community – the largest and most diverse in the State of Ohio – which today stands at 56,000 according to my friend Michael Wilkos of the Columbus Foundation. The largest in this group are Asian Indians followed by Chinese and the majority of this population lives in the northern half of Franklin County, with the northwest side having the largest number of Asians (as evidenced by the CAM Chinese Grocery on Bethel and the Patel Brothers Grocery on Sawmill Road)
The list of the achievements of Dr. Lu and the Asian festival leadership is truly impressive. Additionally, he is always one to mentor and foster other leaders. Two of those are Tim Lai and Eliza Ho, perhaps better known as the team behind Dinin Hall, ALTentative, and the principals of the Tim Lai architect firm.
Eliza and Tim are also the designers and curators of the History of Asians in Central Ohio currently on display at the Columbus Historical Society. Rather than delve into this fantastic exhibition that focuses on stories from 9 Asian sub groups (Cambodian, Chinese, Filipino, Asian Indian, Japanese, Korean, Lao, Thai and Vietnamese) and is divided into four sections celebrating the Unsung Heroes, the Educated, the Entrepreneurs and the Creative Class – I would encourage you to visit their labor of love during the Asian festival as the gallery will be open on Monday from noon until 5:00 when the Asian Festival dragon Boats enter the water at Genoa Park just behind our home inside of COSI.
As a small sneak peek, Eliza has loaned me these images to share. It may be difficult to believe, but these are images of the 1942 Flag Day Parade down High Street. For any of you who may be unfamiliar with the landmarks in the background, the Neil House stood across from the Statehouse where the Huntington Building stands today. I am particularly fond of this set and greatly appreciate Eliza and Tim’s willingness to share it!
I asked Dr. Lu why he thought Columbus was the home to such and amazing group of Asian Americans and he shared with me the following story about a group of Chinese Merchants who immigrated to Philadelphia in the 1880s.
They were treated poorly and decided to move west to Pittsburgh. They were treated badly there as well and decided to try Columbus. Here in Columbus they were treated well and the people they met suggested they settle down here. They did and began a Chinese Laundry. They wrote to their friends and family in Toy San Village in Canton province of China about how well they were doing and by 1903, many of them decided to come here as well. In fact, Dr. Lu asserted that the first Chinese-American was born in Columbus in 1905 to a family who had emigrated from that small village.
So enjoy the start of Festival Season at the Asian Festival and if your weekend allows, please stop in to view the exhibition History of Asians in Central Ohio currently on view inside CHS at COSI.
For further information please visit Asian-festival.org.
Exhibition photos courtesy the author. The map is courtesy the report on the State of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Ohio by the AAPI Advisory Council.
Visit the Columbus Historical Society at COSI, 333 West Broad St., Columbus, Ohio. Their upcoming bus tours, Vintage + Vision continue June 15th and go through October 19th, each 3rd Saturday of the month. Go on a journey through the past, present, and future of Columbus. Private tours also available. Join The Columbus Historical Society on June 13th for their Annual Meeting. More information at www.columbushistory.org.