Road Trip: Cleveland’s Asia Town District

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People gather in Cleveland's Asia Town district to watch a traditional dance.(Photo: Karen Shaeffer Producer)
People gather in Cleveland's Asia Town district to watch a traditional dance.(Photo: Karen Shaeffer Producer)

As musicians strike up traditional Chinese cymbals, gongs and drums, the crowd at Cleveland’s Asia Plaza parts to reveal a gold-spangled, white-furred Chinese lion.

The lion whips and gyrates to the music as it circles the audience. The lion’s red-tongued mouth plucks red -and-gold, cash-filled envelopes from the hands of giggling children.

This is the traditional lion dance of the Chinese Lunar New year, meant to bring good luck. George Kwan, a Cleveland policeman, is the head of the dance troupe. He says it was his father – a native of mainland China – who started him dancing.

“This was my father’s tradition. When he was alive, he trained us. He got us more training than we ever wanted. And we’re continuing on that tradition. Now we’re working on the third generation,” Kwan says.

Today Cleveland’s Asia Town is a vibrant 15-block district of restaurants, groceries, and small shops, marked by distinctive red banners, pagoda-style storefronts, and Chinese zodiac street sculptures.

But in the 1870′s, when the first Chinese immigrants arrived from the gold fields of California, their laundries and garment shops occupied just a few blocks on Ontario Street.

John Grabowski, an historian at the Western Reserve Historical Society, says an incident in 1925 nearly destroyed the community. That’s when murders between rival Chinese gangs, or “tongs,” led to a police raid on Cleveland’s Chinatown.

“They simply went out and arrested everybody was Chinese or picked them up. And that had repercussions. The repercussions were in diplomatic relations with China, it went right to Washington,” Grabowski says.

City officials eventually apologized, but not before they tore down the original Chinese settlement. Later Asian immigrants suffered similar indignities.

During World War II Cleveland’s Japanese-Americans , along with tens of thousands of others nationwide, were rounded up and held in West Coast internment camps. After their release some chose to resettle in Cleveland.

“I felt there were a lot of misunderstandings of cultural differences,” says renowned Cleveland filmmaker Johnny Wu.

Wu is also president of the local chapter of the Organization of Chinese-Americans. He says a few years ago, he began thinking about ways to bridge what he saw as the cultural divide between Cleveland’s Asian and non-Asian populations.

“Lots of people felt that the Asian culture was very tabu for them or very secretive. And also, the Asian community is very close-knit, it doesn’t want to trust anyone outside their own community. So it built this barrier between eastern and western culture,” Wu says.

So five years ago Wu and other Asian -Americans from Japan, Korea, the Phillippines, and Vietnam organized the first day-long Chinese New Year celebration, which now attracts hundreds of visitors.

There’s also a two-day annual Asian Festival held in May, as well as Dragon Boat races on the Cuyahoga River in September.

In the meantime, the region’s Asian population continues to grow, about 33-thousand in the last census, many of them business and medical professionals. And the city of Cleveland is now working on a 10-year plan to make Asia Town an even more vibrant and welcoming neighborhood.

The New Ohio Guide is produced by the Ohio Humanities Council, a state affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities. You can find more episodes from “The New Ohio Guide” at www.seeohiofirst.org.

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