San Francisco celebrates Asian heritage through community bonds

Inspirational Achievement Award recipient Robert Handa. photo by Mark Shigenaga

After a virtual celebration in 2020 and an outdoor celebration in 2021, the 2022 Asian Pacific American Heritage Awards returned to the Herbst Theater in San Francisco’s Civic Center May 4 under the theme of “forging community bonds.”

Performers from the Samoan Community Development Center led a Samoan warrior chant to open the ceremony emceed by Dion Lim, a reporter and anchor for ABC7 KGO-TV, and featured the annual proclamation signing by San Francisco Mayor London Breed to officially signal the start of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month.

The official city celebration, led by the APA Heritage Celebration Committee, honored two organizations and three individuals this year: the Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center, Kearny Street Workshop, Robert Handa, Rudi Soriano and Martin Yan.

Celebrating the 44th anniversary of the event since President Jimmy Carter signed into law the first ever Asian/Pacific American Heritage Week in 1978, Claudine Cheng, founder and director of the APA Heritage Foundation, also spoke in remembrance of former U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, who passed away the previous day.

“Without Norman Mineta fighting and Frank Horton and other members of Congress that unanimously supported this resolution, we would not be celebrating this occasion every year,” she said. “And all through his life, he was inspiring. He was breaking barriers where Asian Pacific Americans have never gone before, and he was paving the way for us. He was, for those of you who had an opportunity to have met him, he’s very soft spoken, extremely personable, extremely humble. But when he was fighting for our rights, fighting for our opportunity, he was always formidable, tenacious, out there fighting for us every day.”

Many of the speakers spoke to the rise in anti-Asian hate and the importance of this year’s celebration theme.

“I’ve covered, tirelessly, the hate, discrimination, the xenophobia toward our brothers and sisters, our aunties and uncles and it has been nothing short of heart wrenching and a challenge every day,” Lim said. “But I always say you have to celebrate the wins. You have to celebrate the celebrations and amplify them when you can. And that is what we are doing here in this auditorium today.”

Among the honorees, two organizations celebrated community milestones. The APICC celebrated 25 years while Kearny Street Workshop celebrated its 50th anniversary.

According Mihee Kim, co-director of Kearny Street Workshop, her organization was founded in 1972 during the height of the Asian American cultural movement. It is the oldest Asian Pacific American multidisciplinary arts organization in the country.

The organization, she said, has changed over the years depending on the artists taking lead at the time, including artists such as Mark Izu, Nancy Hom and Bob Hsiang in past years.

“We were founded in the International Hotel in Chinatown, and some of the stories that come out of that are about how to use arts for activism and how to work with arts in our communities,” she told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “Today, I’d say a lot of our work is about just connecting Asian American artists to different resources that they otherwise might not have.”

Meanwhile, APICC also celebrated its 25th year. The organization was initially founded by representatives of five nonprofit art groups: Asian American Dance Performances, First Voice, Asian Improv aRts, the Asian American Theater Company and fellow honoree Kearny Street Workshop. Vinay Patel, its current executive director, said his organization started by serving the full spectrum of Asian Pacific American arts organizations and individuals.

“We did that through just doing a simple calendar, just gathering everybody’s events and putting it in a mass calendar as a way to show the rest of the world the breadth and the extent of the work that’s being done that no one single organization would be able to do,” he told the Nichi Bei Weekly. “Over the last 25 years, you’ve seen an explosion of the number of artists that are drawn to San Francisco, Asian American artists that are drawn to San Francisco, and the number of arts organizations that are here today celebrating our heritage, and so we’re very proud that we contributed a small part in that trajectory and that history.”

Handa, Soriano and Yan received Inspirational Achievement Awards. Soriano, a Filipino dance choreographer and founder of LIKHA-Pilipino Folk Ensemble, was not present at the ceremony. His group accepted his award in his stead.

The program honored Handa, a reporter for NBC Bay Area, for his work on “Asian Pacific America,” a weekly talk show that highlights the newsmakers and issues pertinent to the San Francisco Bay Area Asian American and Pacific Islander community.

“At one time, trying to start a show about Asian American and Pacific Islander issues was not seen as something that even the community would watch,” Handa said. “And after almost eight years, we have proven that wrong.”

Handa told the Nichi Bei Weekly some journalists are “a journalist who is Asian” and others are “Asian journalists.” He considered himself one of the latter.

“With Asian issues these days, with Asian hate and the things that are going on, it gives you a chance to kind of feel like, ‘You know what, I’m gonna go out and do these stories to help the community, mobilize the community and take it a step further than sometimes you do on a lot of other stories,’” he said.

Chef Yan, star of “Yan Can Cook,” recounted the last 50 years of Asians in media. He hoped his show, started in 1978, helped broaden the American palate. He recalled a time when Asians were called “orientals” and Hollywood actors would put on yellow face to portray them on movies and television. For food, he recalled a time when Japanese food was instant ramen and Chinese food was fried rice and chop suey.

“These days, you will find fresh bean sprouts. Regular and organic tofu in the middle of Kansas,” he said. “Everything you can find, they’ve come a long way.”

Along with the honorees, the University of California, Berkeley’s Korean Performance Group performed dancing to K-pop music and six-year-old Juliette Leong sang the national anthem during the event. Following the theme of “forging community bonds,” the awards ceremony capped off with its annual cultural procession featuring the song “Getting to Know You” from the “King and I.”

The annual awards and reception helps kick off the city’s celebration of APIA Heritage Month in San Francisco. In partnership with the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco Public Library and CAAMFest, a number of related events are happening throughout the city. For more information about the events, visit https://apasf.org.

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