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A new festival honors Asian culture in Asheville

WNC AAPI members at the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival.
Mike Talyad
WNC AAPI members at the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival.

The first Asian culture festival in recent history – and possibly, ever – debuts in Asheville this week.

For organizer Heena Patel, the festival represents a new wave of solidarity and connection among the Asian community in Western North Carolina. It also reflects a collective response to shared grief.

“WNC AAPI was founded in the aftermath of the Atlanta spa shooting,” she told BPR. “It came out of an event that was put on by folks to gather together in our grief.”

Patel’s voice cracked with emotion as she reflected on how the group has evolved over the last few years. The collaborative originally formed in 2021 in response to shootings and deaths of eight people, six of Asian descent, at several massage parlors in Atlanta.

“To me, this festival is a way to more loudly say to the larger community ‘we are here.’

And I hope that it will become a homing device for others who identify as Asian,” she said. “To be able to connect with others here and find that sense of belonging, and allow us all to see each other more deeply.”

The event is produced by the Western North Carolina Asian American Pacific Islander (WNC AAPI) community. The ten-day lineup kicks off Friday, Jan. 12 and runs through Sunday, Jan. 22, with daily programs that include film screenings, panels, cooking workshops, tea ceremonies, and a closing night gala with live music from Ma Mockingbird & the Gypsy Swingers and a fashion show.

Shunyu Huang, another festival producer said the event will help Asian residents honor each other's stories.

“The vision for the festival is for the people in the Asian community to see each other," she said. "We don't have a lot of visibility when it comes to our own peers.”

“There has been a lot of negative news, like Covid being called the ‘Chinese virus’ and mass shootings targeting Asian folks in the country,” she said. “We really need something that celebrate us instead of just grief or centering racism.”

Nearly all of the 25+ performers at the festival reside in WNC and represent cultures from places like Vietnam, China, Tibet, Philippines, Korea, Lebanon, India, Pakistan, and Malaysia.

Huang, who is from the Chinese province of Guangdong, will help lead an evening of mountain folk music from China, Tibet, and Lebanon on Sunday, Jan. 14. Poetry and storytelling will accompany the songs.

The songs Huang will share are ones that make her “heart tremble” and bring her a sense of home, she said.

While some ticketed events – such as the kimchi-making workshop and Chinese cooking class – have moved to a waitlist, a few performances are primed for larger crowds. UNC Asheville will host larger audiences for a film screening of the documentary “Blurring the Color Line” and a panel discussion about “Growing Up Multiracial.”

New Belgium Brewing will also host a storytelling event “The Lands We Knew,” led by siblings Mike and Alina Talyad about colonization, diaspora, and the Nawaya Village project.

For more information on the Asheville Asian Culture Festival’s lineup, see https://www.wncaapi.org/festival2024.

Laura Hackett joined Blue Ridge Public Radio in June 2023. Originally from Florida, she moved to Asheville more than six years ago and in that time has worked as a writer, journalist, and content creator for organizations like AVLtoday, Mountain Xpress, and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. She has a degree in creative writing from Florida Southern College, and in 2023, she completed the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY's Product Immersion for Small Newsrooms program. In her free time, she loves exploring the city by bike, testing out new restaurants, and hanging out with her dog Iroh at French Broad River Park.