Residents join city’s first ever ASAPIA Heritage Month arts festival

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Yiming Fu/The Daily Northwestern

Artist and activist Melissa Raman Molitor chats with community members at Evanston’s first Asian, South Asian Pacific Islander Heritage Month arts festival. Molitor partnered with many local groups and businesses to organize the event in three weeks.

Yiming Fu, Assistant City Editor

On Saturday, residents filled Sherman Ave. with red lanterns, origami cranes and multicolored koinobori carp streamers fluttering through the air during Evanston’s first Asian South Asian Pacific Islander American Heritage Month Arts Festival.

At the event, vendors gave out free snacks from countries across Asia, and others sold paintings and packets of Indian spices. The streets were filled with pedestrians visiting booths and watching performances. 

Speakers discussed various topics, including the Asian American experience in Evanston, the need to integrate Asian American histories into school curricula and the importance of pushing back against harmful stereotypes such as the “perpetual foreigner” and the “model minority.” 

“Increasingly, I think we need to claim our history and insist that it be part of American history,” said Evanston/Skokie School District 65 school board member Soo La Kim, a speaker at Saturday’s event.

Additionally, a Mugai Ryu Iaido group from the Japanese Culture Center demonstrated sword techniques, and members of Tsukasa Taiko performed a taiko drumming set. Mugai-Ryu Iaido is a traditional, feudal-era style of Japanese swordsmanship, and taiko drumming has its roots in Japanese religious ceremonies, court and theater.

Drummers play their drums in the middle of a city square. There are two rows of drummers in front with larger brown drums, and one row of drummers in the back with smaller drums.
Members of Tsukasa Taiko perform a taiko drumming set in Fountain Square. (Yiming Fu/The Daily Northwestern)

Local artist and activist Melissa Raman Molitor organized the event to increase visibility and representation for ASAPIA Evanston residents.

Molitor said bringing Evanston’s ASAPIA community together through the festival was particularly important with the rise of anti-Asian racism and violence in the last year. She then addressed Mayor Daniel Biss, who attended the event, saying she hoped the festival will become an annual event. 

Earlier this month, former Mayor Steve Hagerty officially proclaimed May as Evanston’s Asian, South Asian, Pacific Islander American Heritage month. 

Molitor said she wanted to organize an arts festival in particular — with an emphasis on food, performance and visual arts — because art can make discussions around racism and equity more accessible, and it can bring more voices into the fold. 

“Art supersedes language,” she said, “especially when words fail.”

Multi-colored carp cutouts hang on clothespins in downtown Evanston.
Attendees decorated koinobori carp streamers, which are typically flown to celebrate Children’s Day in Japan. (Yiming Fu/The Daily Northwestern)

Molitor said Evanston has very few spaces that center the Asian American community, and she hopes the arts festival will help ASAPIA residents to connect with each other and feel a greater sense of belonging in the city. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 9.4 percent of Evanston residents identified as Asian alone. Molitor said that number is not completely representative because there are many mixed-race ASAPIA Evanston residents who would not have checked the “Asian, alone” box.

Kim told The Daily that before the festival that she had only known a “handful” of Asian Americans in the city. The event, she said, provided a powerful opportunity to connect with other Asian families in the area. 

She said she hopes the art festival and other future events will have a similar impact on her kids, who are multi-racial.

“I want them to be able to see and explore all aspects of their identity, and occasions like this are an opportunity to do that — an opportunity to have conversations and to have them introduce parts of themselves to their friends,” Kim said.

Evanston Township High School junior Sophie Yang, one of the event’s speakers, said growing up, she was embarrassed of her Japanese culture. It wasn’t until high school, when she joined the ETHS Asian Heritage Alliance and began having more conversations with her peers, that she became more willing to speak out against the microaggressions and stereotypes she has experienced. 

She said seeing the diversity and amount of people who attended the festival made her optimistic. 

“We all come from different backgrounds, have different stories and perceive the world in different ways,” Yang said. “But we’re united in the fact that we’re here today.”

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