Pan-Asian Dance Troupe Phoenix Rising 2020

Philadelphia’s Asian-American Artists contend with loss & racism in the wake of Covid-19

by Lewis J Whittington for The Dance Journal

May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month but celebrations have been canceled because of social distancing and current stay-at-home restrictions. On top of all of the uncertainties, loss, and strife of dealing with the Covid-19 outbreak, Asian-American communities have had to contend with increasing incidents nationwide of harassment, violence, and racial hatred.

In Philadelphia’s Chinatown district, even before the restrictions were in place in March, Asian restaurants were experiencing boycotts, and people started to target Asian-Americans as somehow being the root cause of the spread of the virus. Two local Asian-American arts organizations, both committed to community engagement and cultural goodwill, are also dealing with outbreaks of racial hostilities.

The Asian-Arts Initiative (AAI) located in the heart of Chinatown North is a multi-media art gallery, performance space, and community center. AAI reflects the full cultural diversity of Asian-Pacific Heritage and by design is among the most multi-culturally inclusive arts institutions in the Center City district, “committed to an exchange of art, ideas and dialogue among local neighborhood residents.” AAI’s dance programming presents all forms of international and regional dance. AAI is currently closed because of the pandemic, but their after school program for middle-school students is continuing online.

Anne Ishii, artistic director of Asian Arts Initiative, has brought wide attention to the incidents of anti-Asian bigotry that have emerged amid the pandemic in Philadelphia. In a phone interview last weekend, Ishii cited cases of verbal abuse and “ugly occurrences” in the city toward Asian Americans in the Chinatown district. Earlier this month Ishii penned a powerful op-ed in the Inquirer bringing awareness to what is becoming a nationwide problem. Ishii also responded directly to Democratic 2020 Presidential candidate Andrew Yang’s opinion piece encouraging Asian-Americans to be more ‘American’ to avoid racial bigotry,

Ishii has Japanese-Korean heritage, and said that so many in the Philadelphia Asian community, especially with Chinese heritage are experiencing profound grief at the loss of relatives and friends. Ishii noted that many Asian people in Philadelphia are first and second generation. “We’re negotiating several tragedies. For one… a lot of us are mourning people in Asia we know who have died of the virus, followed by the bias attacks and boycotts in our commercial corridor. And now this direct harassment”

“The other thing we are now up against,” Ishii added “is Mayor Kenney’s budget eliminating the entire Office of Arts, Culture, and Creative Economy along with The Philadelphia Cultural Fund.” The four million annual budget according to Ishii is a modest amount, to begin with, but “what’s overlooked is that agency is responsible mostly for serving artists who don’t have the advantage of having private funding, colleges, and corporate support. So it’s a lot of minorities, independent artists, and underrepresented folks.”

Ishii has also been collecting testaments and community statements about what people are experiencing regarding the protection of Asian communities.  Those statements will be presented in part at the public budget hearing to be held by City Council.

The Asian Arts Initiative can survive for the time being because of the organization’s endowment. For now, Ishii is mobilizing resources for community solidarity and awareness of racial discrimination against Asian American communities. “I have had responses from a few members of City Council about the protection of Asian American communities”. Ishii reiterated that the top priority should be the “safety and dignity of Asian Americans.”

In an ABC 6 News virtual Town Hall hosted by Nydia Han last Thursday, Ishii and other Asian-American physicians, artists, and community leaders talked about the crisis. Han concluded the forum by citing Ishii’s rallying cry to be “unapologetically Asian” She further added,  “I know that sounds simplistic…. We need to clap back to respond to racism. Acknowledge that we are here. Join in solidarity across the community, around language, country of origin, or just zip code.”

Meanwhile, at the University of Pennsylvania, the Pan-Asian Dance Troupe celebrated its 20th-anniversary program in February, just weeks before everything changed for the 32 students that make up the company.  Artistic director, Cherie Sio started her directorship this term and said that the graduating class is finishing their course work online.

“This time of year we usually have a lot of gigs outside of Penn’s campus. We’ve been hosting internal and external workshops for the larger community.” The Troupe’s aesthetic is a fusion of traditional and classical dance from all of the Asian countries. Through their community performance, they seek to educate others on Pan-Asian culture.

Despite the shutdown for the rest of the term, they are already making contingencies plans to prepare for the University reopening, even though the actual dates of when that will be are still unknown. “We’re trying to deal with all contingencies going forward.”  This includes planning dance performances, training, and rehearsing in spaces while observing social distancing.  “The dance alumni are very involved. Everyone feels that the school is going to open in the fall.”

As chaotic as everything has been coping with the pandemic, Ms. Sio acknowledges that she too has had to deal with verbal harassment since the virus outbreak in Philadelphia. “I’m from China, and have experienced some hard, not normal conversations at the supermarket and on the street.” She has also heard stories around campus about clashes between the Asian population and other residents in Philadelphia.

Sio observes that “even though the Asian-American population is smaller than a lot of large US cities, in University City I can see the impact.”

“I understand where this fear stems from, especially with the leadership,” adding “that’s the problem that needs to be addressed,” Even though US officials have stopped referring to the pandemic as the ‘Wuhan’, ‘Kungfu’ or ‘Chinese virus’, the damage continues to play out in the lives of real people.

The Washington Post reported that in just the past month the FBI has documented more than 1,100 incidents targeting Asian Americans in at least 36 states. Indeed, irrational racial hatred continues to be a toxic social side-effect of this pandemic that has even affected a segment of our own arts community.

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