Behind the scenes: AsiaTown goes all in to celebrate 10 years of the Cleveland Asian Festival

When Cleveland Asian Festival founders Lisa Wong, Johnny Wu, and Vi Huynh first started talking about celebrating Cleveland’s Asian community in 2010, they didn’t know what to expect.

“Lisa threw out [the idea of] a big party,’” recalls Wayne Wong, the festival’s emcee and this year’s performance chair. “It wasn’t about any particular ethnicity—Chinese, Japanese, or Korean—but about the entire community and a celebration of Asian culture.”

 

Cleveland Asian FestivalThe team knew they wanted a high-energy community event that showcased Asian culture in Cleveland and introduced people to AsiaTown. Enter the vision of a one-day event with food, vendors, and entertainment.

“At the beginning, we weren’t sure anybody would show up,” says Wong. “Looking back, it was pretty ambitious to start a brand-new festival. But we believed Cleveland [would have] an interest in what we were putting together.”

They called it: That first year, more than 10,000 people came to the festival—creating an annual May tradition that is still going strong. By the second year, organizers expanded the festival to two days and saw 31,000 attendees.

In recent years, the Cleveland Asian Festival has attracted between 40,000 to 50,000 visitors to AsiaTown during the weekend-long event that now boasts nationally-known musical acts, popular dance competitions, and the always-popular egg roll eating contest (which Jeff Asbury , aka Notorious P.I.G., has won four of the last nine years).

Additionally, a number of new businesses and shops have opened in the neighborhood since the festival’s start.

The 10th annual Cleveland Asian Festival happens this coming weekend, Saturday, May 18 and Sunday, May 19, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Egg roll eating contestBut before the crowds start to gather at the free event, there is a lot of work to do. A core group of leaders and up to 200 volunteers—some of whom have worked all 10 festival years—work tirelessly behind the scenes to pull off the event.

There are about a half dozen committees—from finance and security to vendors and performances—that meet throughout the months preceding the festival. Volunteers go through a daylong orientation over three days the week prior to the event.

“It’s a big deal to put on a show like this,” says Wong. “We really rely on our volunteers. For some of us, it’s literally nonstop.”

The night before the festival starts, Cleveland Police shut down Payne Avenue and ensure no cars are parked in the lots earmarked for free festival parking. Volunteers chalk out each vendor’s space and set up tables and chairs.

It may take a small army to pull off the festival, but Wong says the work is worth it. “Strengthening the identity of AsiaTown is what we’re trying to do,” he says. “For people who didn’t even know there is an AsiaTown in Cleveland, we’re putting it on the map.”

As emcee of the festival, Wong says he always informally polls the crowd when he’s on stage, asking them to raise their hands if they’ve been to AsiaTown before. “Twenty-five to 30 percent have never been to AsiaTown,” he says. “Multiply that by nine years, and there are a lot of people who still don’t realize what this neighborhood has to offer.”

While Wong says the food and cuisine is always the most popular attraction, the live entertainment on the two stages is a close second. This year, 45 acts will perform throughout the weekend, including the Shaolin Monks from Henan, China who will demonstrate traditional Shaolin Gong Fu, showcasing various fighting routines, weaponry, and martial athletic skills.

Other acts include Polynesian, Korean, Indian, and traditional Chinese dancers, along with a Japanese martial arts demonstration.


The OCA Greater Cleveland Dragon Dance Team and the Kwan Family Lion Dance are popular highlights to the festival, but it takes a great deal of preparation, says Wong, who is a member of the Dragon Dance Team (along with his 16-year son, Alex, who serves as the drummer and has volunteered at the festival since he was six years old).

The team performs eight to nine times a year across Northeast Ohio, Wong says, but they will practice for a solid month leading up to Chinese New Year and the Cleveland Asian Festival.

“Before the festival, we come up with new moves to add to the routine,” he explains. “We always want to improve the performance of the show.”

The increasingly popular Asian-Pop (or A-Pop) Dance Competition finalists were announced yesterday. The top three vote-getters—along with two judges’ choice selections—will perform on the Lantern Stage on Saturday at 5:30 p.m. to compete for a $2,000 top prize. Second and third place winners take $1,000 and $500, respectively. The finalists are Pink Soda Official, Soju, Solar Dance Team, SYNR-G, and Thunder Stealers

 

Wong says the variety of entertainment is meant to provide a diverse mix of acts from both around the world and in Cleveland. Click here for a complete schedule of performances.

As the final preparations are being made for the 10th Cleveland Asian Festival, Wong says one indicator of the festival’s success in bringing awareness to AsiaTown shows in the permanent banners that now fly in the neighborhood.

“The festival is growing and changing with the community,” Wong says. “These signs capture the whole area and they have become a prominent feature of the community.”

Read more articles by Karin Connelly Rice.

Karin Connelly Rice enjoys telling people's stories, whether it's a promising startup or a life's passion. Over the past 20 years she has reported on the local business community for publications such as Inside Business and Cleveland Magazine. She was editor of the Rocky River/Lakewood edition of In the Neighborhood and was a reporter and photographer for the Amherst News-Times. At Fresh Water she enjoys telling the stories of Clevelanders who are shaping and embracing the business and research climate in Cleveland.
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