S.F. celebrates innovators and a decade of Asian Pacific American heritage

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With the trumpeting of a conch shell horn, San Francisco’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month celebration held its 10th annual awards ceremony May 5, lauding three innovators in the Bay Area’s Asian Pacific Islander American communities. The ceremony and reception, held in the Metreon building’s City View, in downtown San Francisco, celebrated the start of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.

Ten Years of Success and Onward
The colorful event — which boasted some 500 attendees — honored three individuals under the “Celebrating Innovations” theme. Claudine Cheng, founder and chair of the APA Heritage Celebration Committee, said the awards honor individuals who “are innovators, … a catalyst for change to making the world a better place.”

Cheng said the event has changed its theme each year to honor different aspects of Asian Americana. As a testament to the celebration’s decade of success, her committee now enlists 34 members, compared to the 16 in its inaugural year.

The ceremony is a part of the city’s APA Heritage Month Celebration, which takes place during the national celebration. Emcee Rick Quan of ABC7 said then-Mayor Gavin Newsom challenged Cheng and the celebration committee to show the rest of the United States “how APA Heritage Month should be done.”

The ceremony lauded Diosdado Banatao, a pioneer in personal computers and a contributor to the educational and financial development of Filipino and Filipino Americans; Jonathan Leong, a small business leader and founder of Asian American Donor Program and Seiichi

Tanaka, grand master of San Francisco Taiko Dojo and progenitor of taiko as a performance art in the United States. The honorees accepted their awards at the reception attended by an entourage of Asian elected officials serving San Francisco, foreign dignitaries and business leaders.

David Chiu, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors president, called the city the “Asian American capitol of the United States.” He said the large number of Asian Americans in city leadership today owed thanks to the community. “None of us would be on our stations, but for the 160-year history of our diverse communities, … the struggles, … the triumphs, … the successes that every single person in this room represents.”

Mayor Ed Lee also spoke briefly. Noting the importance of the month-long celebration, he expressed his hope to work with national leaders for immigration reform. “The Asian American immigration story is alive and well,” he said. “When we get to our places, we keep the door open for everyone else.”

The Awardees
Banatao pioneered the personal computer chip set and graphics acceleration architecture, the basic key components in personal computers used today. According to the celebration committee, Banatao is both a successful engineer and venture capitalist. He currently serves as managing partner of Tallwood Venture Capital, and is co-founder to several technology startups in the Silicon Valley.

Banatao, who was born in the Philippines, came to the United States and studied at Stanford University before his claim to fame in Silicon Valley. Banatao told the Nichi Bei Weekly that he has helped set up scholarships to aid Filipino Americans in attending the top science universities and helped launch the Center for Information Technology Research at the University of California, Berkeley College of Engineering.

He has also used his philanthropy and expertise to help his native Philippines, being named the Philippines’ first Special Envoy of Science and Technology. Banatao is currently focused on his nonprofit organization, PhilDev, which strives to offer technological assistance and investment in the Philippines to stimulate economic growth. “It’s not just giving money like most philanthropic organizations, this is about using science and technology to drive economic development and entrepreneurship,” he said.

Banatao said he believes he and other Asian Americans have a “major responsibility” in doing what is right. “While we celebrate our heritage, it’s really being proud of where we come from. … If our previous generation didn’t do well, what are we going to talk about?”

Leong is an entrepreneur known for his work in various Asian American nonprofits and within the small business community. He is the former head of the Asian American Theater Company and a former delegate to the White House Small Business Conference. A second generation Chinese American and a graduate of San Francisco State University, Leong owns and operates restaurants in the Bay Area, a commercial insurance company and is the Asian American Donor Progam chairman. “I’m used to doing two-three things at a time,” he told the Nichi Bei Weekly. Along with his ability to juggle his work, Leong said he is unmarried and employs a “good staff” that keeps his businesses and organizations running.

He was honored for his work with AADP, which holds bone marrow registration drives in the Asian Pacific Islander communities. According to the committee, prior to Leong’s work, the National Marrow Donor Program listed only 123 Asian donors and made finding compatible donors for Asian Pacific Americans nearly impossible. As the founder and chairman of the National Council of Asian Business Associations, the Asian American community approached Leong to help start AADP.

“People think I knew someone with leukemia or something; that wasn’t the case.” Leong said he was approached to start the organization because he had experience in setting up other nonprofit organizations. He said he will continue to work on gathering donors until there is no need for the organization.

“There is no such thing as an ‘Asian,’” he said in his acceptance speech. “There are Chinese, Vietnamese, Japanese, Korean, Filipino, and we must approach you individually as such.” Leong called for the audience to become donors themselves. While the registry now lists more than 800,000 APIs in the United States, Leong said he still needs more to register. “We’re looking at the solution … you are the solution,” he said.

Tanaka is a nationally recognized musician and pioneer of kumi daiko.

Tanaka studied under Grand Master Daihachi Oguchi of Osuwa Daiko and played for San Francisco’s Cherry Blossom Festival in 1968. Starting as the lone drummer that year, he would go on to found the San Francisco Taiko Dojo and teach more than 10,000 men, women and children at the dojo, many of them becoming instructors and notable performers themselves, according to the celebration committee.

As a musician, Tanaka has played with Tony Bennett, Bobby McFerrin, Dave Brubeck, Art Blakey and Tito Puente. He has been named a National Heritage Fellow by the National Endowment for the Arts and received the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays from the Emperor of Japan.

While Tanaka accepted the award with a speech, he said,“I’d rather play taiko than speak.” He expressed his appreciation to those who put up with him throughout the years.

Prior to taiko becoming a well-known art, Tanaka said he had to move his dojo around due to the noise complaints. “I want to express my appreciation for the neighbors standing the noise, and my wife and son for having such a noisy father.”

In closing, Tanaka said he wished to continue playing. “I got this award, which means I can’t retire. I will have to keep contributing to the community,” he said.

Toward the end of the evening, two cakes were presented, one for Lee’s 62nd birthday and another for the award ceremony’s 10th year. Dancers from Lily Cai Chinese Dance Company led a closing performance and multi-ethnic procession featuring the twirling of colorful silk scarves.

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