First published in the May 27 print issue of the South Pasadena Review.
Bright red, dried grass skirts in the style of the traditional Tahitian skirt — spelled more but pronounced “moray” — rustled along the pathway to the tennis courts at Garfield Park as their wearers approached the stage.
Matching hats emblazoned with bouquets of scarlet feathers paraded above eye level while the bare feet of the Tahitian dancers from the Te Aho Nui dance school in Los Angeles moved silently on the pavement. It was impossible to miss the four dancers. Even a dog had stopped and kneeled down on its elbows to investigate and offer playful barks.
However, many people are unable to identify Tahitian dance.
“I think a lot of people get confused,” Leolani Gallardo, a Te Aho Nui dancer, said. “They often mistake Polynesian dance, other islands and Tahitian dance for being Hawaiian. … That’s why it’s important for us to represent the islands of Tahiti with as much love and respect as possible.”
And represent they did. South Pasadena’s AAPI Heritage Month Celebration last weekend not only showcased the myriad Asian American Pacific Islander cultures associated with May, but also added definitions to them.
According to the latest United States Census data, around 34% of South Pasadena’s population is Asian. The AAPI celebration, organized by the South Pasadena Chinese-American Club along with the city, took years to come to fruition.
The idea for an AAPI celebration came about five years ago, but plans were disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. By March this year, the organizing surged ahead with the goal of hosting the event this month — which is AAPI Heritage Month.
“It’s not hard for you to organize something like this,” Yuki Cutcheon, president of the Chinese-American Club. “But it definitely was a lot of work, reaching out to all the different AAPI nonprofit groups that came out here.”
Starting at 11 a.m. on Saturday, thunderous music from L.A. Taiko Ichiza, a Japanese drum ensemble, could be heard from outside Garfield Park. The deep, rolling drumbeats welcomed residents, the city council, several board of education members and representatives from the offices of Congresswoman Judy Chu and state Sen. Anthony Portantino.
Councilman Jon Primuth welcomed the event’s guests with a message in fluent, though admittedly scripted, Mandarin.
“Welcome to the festival,” Primuth said in the Chinese language. “I hope that everyone can learn more about our multicultural Asian backgrounds and the culture that is expressed here at the festival.”
Twenty different AAPI nonprofit groups attended the celebration, including groups that offered mental health services in various Asian languages, while other organizations offered traditional AAPI cuisine.
The South Pasadena High School badminton team hovered over rice cookers and punch bowls containing ingredients for ice jelly, a sweet-and-salty dessert that can feature watermelon, lychee jelly, peanuts, beans and more.
Young members of the Shaolin Temple Center rehearsed Kung Fu in one corner of Garfield Park as the San Gabriel Valley Chinese Cultural Center performed a Dragon Dance at the main stage.
The Kim Sung Hwa Korean Dance Company practiced between palm trees and the Te Aho Nui Tahitian dancers posed for photos as they waited to begin an otea dance. All seem like similar forms of entertainment on the surface, but yet very distinct.
“Diversity is an inclusionary concept,” said Councilwoman Evelyn Zneimer, whose father is from Hawaii and mother is from the Philippines. “It brings out the good in people. Sharing cultures from everybody, you’re aware that they’re doing it differently or you have some similarities. It’s really a wonderful asset for the community.”