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Greater Rochester’s Asian community is growing fast --- and celebrating


Earlier this month the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, a Washington-based civil rights group, released a study it commissioned about the representation of Asians on TV. It found very few Asian characters to analyze. The biggest problem for Asians in pop culture isn't even misrepresentation. It's under-representation.

That's not hard to see. Remember All American Girl? The sitcom about a Korean family that starred comedienne Margaret Cho did not exactly win over audiences. Ten years later we're still waiting for another all-Asian cast on TV.

There are black and Hispanic families --- too few, and a little late, yes. But where are the Asians?

A couple of years ago, Rochesterian Vivien Haowas wondering the same thing. She was waiting for her friend Alice Hsu in the local history section of the library. To kill time, she started browsing the collection. "She found a lot of stuff on African Americans and the Women's Movement, even the Polish Americans and the Italians," says Mimi W. Lee. "She went, 'Where's the Asians?' She found this small little envelope with a few Xerox copies. She said 'There must be more than this.' That started the conversation going."

In 2002 Hao and Hsu founded the Asian/Pacific Islander/American History Project (APA-HiP), whose mission is to document the history of Asian Americans in Greater Rochester. Lee, a technical support specialist at Kodak, is this year's public relations chair and last year's president.

APA-HiP has two main projects: the Oral History Project, a collection of videotaped interviews with Asian Americans, and the Document Heritage Project. The group received a grant from the New York State Documentary Heritage Program to survey the community's collection of historic documents --- old menus, meeting minutes, newsletters, photos --- and is discussing housing an eventual collection at the University of Rochester.

And for the past three years the group has organized local celebrations of Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month in May.

"We're pan-Asian, we cover all the groups," Lee says. "We're interested in all Asians. We're one united voice. Unfortunately, if we take each one individually we don't have much power. But together we are 2.4 percent of the population. That could make or break an election."

Asians make up about four percent of the population nationally, but the local numbers are growing. There are 20,000 Asian Americans in the six-county area, and in MonroeCounty the number of Asians jumped 48 percent between the 1990 and 2000 censes. Also, as Lee points out, a lot of Asians in the area are students, a population that is hard to measure.

Despite the growing numbers, Lee has found it difficult to do her public relations job to promote the Asian Heritage Month events. Getting press last year, she says, "was like pulling teeth."

"A lesson learned is you have to speak up," she says. "If you don't speak up, maybe they don't know. For example, last Saturday was the 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. The [D&C] wrote an article on Sunday. But they only did that because I wrote about it in my Speaking Out piece on Friday. And then I called them and said, 'Wouldn't it be nice if you said something about the Vietnamese community?' 2,600 and growing. A lot of them came because of the refugee camps. Bring it back in and say, 'Who are the people in Rochester that you need to really promote?'"

The Chinese School of Rochester is one of two schools in the area teaching Chinese children on Saturday mornings (this one is geared towards children of immigrants from mainland China; the other is more for second-generation Taiwanese). The students learn Mandarin and take electives in dance, art, and sometimes martial arts.

The school, housed in Brighton's TwelveCornersMiddle School, was founded in 1995, when it had about 50 students. Now there are 200 students, ages 4 to 16, in 19 classes. "It's growing year by year," says principal Xing Li. The children move through 12 Mandarin books before they graduate, getting them to a fourth- or fifth-grade reading level. Most of the students are the children of Chinese immigrants, though there are about two dozen students who were adopted from China.

"China has a long history and heritage, cultural heritage," Li says. "Parents felt obliged to pass on this cultural heritage to the next generation. And also, of course, in America now we all have put more emphasis on diversity, which is a very good thing, and we want to take advantage of that."

The school has a class for adults, mainly filled with professionals doing business with Chinese companies.

Li moved to Rochester 14 years ago from Shanghai to attend Rochester Institute of Technology. He now works for Xerox and thinks more and more Asians may be moving to Rochester for the same reason any one else might. "Rochester is a good place to raise a family," he says. "We know the schools are good."

Eleven-year-old Jessica Zou is in the seventh book in Chinese school, and in fifth grade at her Fairport elementary school. She likes Chinese school even though it can get pretty hard memorizing new words on top of her other homework.

"I think it's a good thing to come here," she says, "because people learn about their culture and how people make a lifestyle in China." There are only about four or five other Asian kids in her Fairport school, but Jessica says it doesn't bother her.

Maybe it's easier to be part of a minority most of the time if one day of the week you're in the majority.

Just after 9 a.m. on a recent Saturday, minivans started converging on TwelveCornersMiddle School's parking lot. Inside you could hear kids' yells, the squeals of sneakers on hallway floors, and parents greeting each other.

Some of the parents sat on desks in one of the classrooms, talking or playing cards. A group of grandparents set up camp in the school foyer and plugged in a radio to practice tai chi. Later, they set up a mah-jong game at a folding table. In the gym, a group of men played basketball. The whole school became an impromptu Chinese community center. After classes, all the tables were put back, the classrooms relocked, the Mandarin books and mah-jong tiles packed up.

"Identity Through Art" is the theme for this year's Rochester Asian Heritage Month. APA-HiP made and screened a documentary about six Rochester Asian-American artists, they put up a photography exhibit at St. JohnFisherCollege, they are sponsoring two short film nights at RochesterMuseum and ScienceCenter, and they helped organize the Asian Pacific American Heritage Family Day at MemorialArtGallery full of performing and visual arts. That day drew 1,245 people --- an all-time MAG Family Day record.

"We are contributing in so many different ways that people don't necessarily consider," says Amy Hsi, current APA-HiP president. "OK, we're doctors, we're engineers; we're also artists. You can't put a label on us. There are so many things that we do and we are."

For the Identity Through Art documentary, Hsi and Lee and film directors RehemaTrimiew and Yoshihiro Shimizu felt it was important to explore issues of identity. When you ask an artist who she is, what comes first, ethnic or artistic identity?

"It's always a concern that we have," Lee says. "Everyone's always concerned about who they are."

The film includes interviews with Pakistani collage artist Mara Ahmed, Indian classical dancer Parvatha Chidambaram, Korean actor Hara Kang, Cambodian ceramic artist CheaPeng, Chinese glass artist Nancy Gong, and Japanese calligraphy and Ikebana artist Yasuko Spence. They all talk about the intersection of identity and art, tradition and creation. It is Gong who says, "The Asian-ness of my art is very subtle. It's like, 'Who am I?' I'm half this, I'm half that. I'm a mix. So I think my artwork is that as well."

It was also important to the filmmakers to talk to artists living and working in the Rochester area. "Local talent is very important," Lee says. "I always ask people, 'Do you know the Ying Quartet? Do you know Linda Sue Park?' We have tons of people."

The documentary was first screened at the family day at the MemorialArtGallery, May 1. That day was a kaleidoscope: children and adults in national dress, dancers, yo-yos, theater, paper lanterns, puppets, storytelling, Mehndi, pottery, and calligraphy.

There were representatives from Rochester groups many people may not know exist: the KoreanEthnicSchool, ChineseDanceAcademy, Filipino American Association of Rochester, Families with Children from China, Taiwanese Association of Rochester, Pakistani American Society of Rochester, and GENseng, SUNY Geneseo's Asian American theater group.

"Any time we are able to present parts of our heritage to the community at large, it is a positive thing," says Dr. C. PadmanabhKamath, chairman of the Indian Classical Music and Dance Society at the IndiaCommunity Center.

For the past 10 years the ICC has been offering programs of classical Indian music and dance in the two main styles, North and South Indian. Most of the artists are visiting from India, on tour through the United States.

"Rochester is becoming quite well-known as one of the places where there are high-quality musical programs," Kamath says. All the money to pay the artists --- up to $35,000 last year --- is raised through the ICC membership. Families contribute anything from $100 to $6,000. For concerts that draw an average of 70 people (twice that on average for dance programs), it's a significant investment.

"We love this music," Kamath says. "There are at least 150 to 160 dedicated people in the community who love this music." He says because the ICC is always available as a venue and the artists are already on tour, the concerts are easy to arrange. "It enriches our lives," he says. "It's a win-win situation."

The ICC, located in Penfield, also has built a campsite adjacent to the Center with enough cabin-room for more than 100 people. Over the summer up to 400 kids will spend time camping there, most of them at Hindu Heritage Camp.

Kamath likes the idea of Asian Heritage Month because, very simply, it introduces people. "We are a part of this community," he says. "Any time people interact with other people they begin to feel much more comfortable. This is the only way to do it. You can't do it by reading. The best way is to get to know other people."

Kamath hopes more people will start attending the concerts at ICC (some local dancers were at the MAG Family Day, giving people an idea of what to expect). Kamath's seen it happen before, with both Indians and non-Indians: People wander in for one event and become regulars.

Rochester doesn't have an Asian commercial center like the Chinatowns in cities like Toronto or New York. We may never have one; we may not be that kind of place. But there are more and more Asian-owned businesses cropping up, more and more places for people to visit, shop, recreate, speak a familiar language, or buy familiar food.

"The thing I find amazing," Hsi says, "is I'll be somewhere and notice there's like this tiny little Asian market. And they just keep sprouting. And people are pretty resourceful. They will start a shop, or make some sort of community center, so they can help each other out."

A stretch along South Clinton Avenue is becoming something of a social center. For 21 years there has been the India House, India House Vegetarian Cafe, and India House Store constellation owned by the Sud family. ChanderSud says the location has served them well: It's close to University Avenue and the arts district and it's close to the University of Rochester. People walk in from the neighborhood to shop and eat; they also drive in from all over MonroeCounty.

Cuong Luc, originally from Vietnam, opened the Little Saigon DVD and CD store just down the street from India House at 976 South Clinton Avenue six months ago. He chose his location because it's across the street from OceanGarden, an Asian grocery store. Business has been a little slow, but Luc cites the almost 3,000 Vietnamese people living in the area and hopes they might eventually find his shop.

Lee sees evidence of a growing community --- even if it's not contained in one bustling part of the city. There are groups of Asian-American professionals at Kodak and Xerox; she goes to a Chinese church, where services are in English, Cantonese, and Mandarin; there are Korean and Japanese schools. "It depends on where you look," she says.

The key to helping others see it, she thinks, is talking about and documenting the community's contributions.

"A lot of the concern was how do we as Asian Americans assimilate in the society," she says. "I think there's also a lot of interest in keeping and retaining. We're thinking that with our history, and documenting our heritage, we can say, 'Hey, this happened.' We need to know what happened. If you don't know what happened, you're scratching the ground again."

Asian Pacific American Month events

Daily Lives photo exhibit is on display through May 31 at the Lavery Library at St. JohnFisherCollege, 3690 East Avenue. (385-8165)

Nancy Gong will give an illustrated lecture on Thursday, May 12, at the MemorialArtGallery, 500 University Avenue, at 7:30 p.m. $2

PepsyKettavong will give a presentation on Sunday, May 22, at the RochesterMuseum and ScienceCenter, 657 East Avenue, at 2 p.m.

A short film night on Tuesday, May 17, will be held at Rochester Museum and Science Center, 657 East Avenue, at 7 p.m. $5.