On a recent Saturday, a group of teenagers strike gongs and big bass drums while lions dance. They’re not real lions, of course. They’re groups of dancers dressed in long furry costumes. They’re part of the Michigan Lion Dance team.
Performer Ivan Yeh, a junior at Novi High School, says the lion dance is meant to scare off evil spirits.
“A lion is usually, traditionally has two people, a head and a tail,” Yeh says. “And depending on what part of China they’re from, some will perform dances, some will perform martial arts, et cetera.”
The festival at this community center is a celebration of Chinese culture. As part of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, the Association of Chinese Americans in Madison Heights hosted a cultural festival to showcase the community’s history and art. The event was organized by student volunteers across Metro Detroit.
In another performance, a group of little kids line up to show off their basic kung fu skills. Afterward, there’s a lesson on how to play Go, a board game that dates back thousands of years.
Yi-An Liao plays the piano in one corner of the room. The 15-year-old is performing pieces by Tan Dun, a contemporary composer born in China. Liao says his music holds a special place in her memory.
“I’ve played these pieces for actually a piano competition,” Liao says. “Most people when they go to piano competitions, they play pieces by Western composers like Chopin, Haydn, Mozart. So, it was very unique for me to be able to play a piece by an Eastern composer.”
Liao says she chose these pieces because they express aspects of her cultural identity. “I’m very proud of being Chinese-American. It’s like a blend between the Chinese culture and the American culture. East and West.”
‘A way to keep both sides alive’
Besides the performances, there’s booths for activities like tea making and calligraphy.
11-year-old Raina Li sits at a table and teaches others how to make traditional Chinese rice dumplings with red beans and bamboo leaves.
“You want to fold the bamboo into a cone-like shape and then you want to put all the ingredients in,” Raina says. “Afterwards, if you fold it into the right shape and then tie it, you can boil it and then it’s really yummy, it’s really sweet.”
Raina’s older sister, Brooke, is also helping. She introduces herself in English and in Chinese. She says many Chinese-Americans like herself have two names.
“Having the name Li Ruo Yi is sort of like reminding myself I may live in America but I am still Chinese in a way,” Brooke says. “It’s just a way to keep both sides of us alive.”
That kind of cultural awareness is a core principle of the Association of Chinese Americans. The organization is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. The Detroit chapter helped launch a national network during the civil rights movement, now called OCA-Asian Pacific American Advocates.
The work continues
ACA President Elinor Ho says the work continues, especially after COVID-19 marked the beginning of a new strain of bigotry against their community.
“We want to have a better environment for our future generation,” Ho says. “We’re all Americans. But we just have our different heritages.”
Ingrid Huang is part of that future generation. She’s co-president of the teen volunteer council that organized today’s festival. Huang says as a first-generation American, she has a unique responsibility.
“As the kids of those immigrants, it’s our job to continuously spread this culture to each next generation and to kind of like keep our culture and make sure it doesn’t get lost.”
Since arriving as early as 1879, Michigan’s Chinese-American community has been growing. According to AAPI Data, it’s doubled over the last 20 years, with more than 70,000 Chinese Americans now living in the state.
Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders are the fastest growing population in the country and in Metro Detroit.
All photos by Eli Newman