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Festival Reveals Wide Variety of Asian Cultures in Utah

June 15, 2008

By Steven Oberbeck, The Salt Lake Tribune

Jun. 15–As a teenager, Ken Yamane watched his father tend his bonsai trees and wondered at times what he found so fascinating about them.

“Mostly, I just looked upon it as something that he did,” Yamane said. “I really didn’t think much about it at the time.”

Now about 50 years later, Yamane has more than 100 bonsai trees in his home and has come to understand the appeal that the art of growing, shaping and nurturing the miniature container-grown trees held for his father.

“It is part of my heritage. I have found that it is something that I love to do,” he said, explaining he took up the hobby in 1990 after retiring from the U.S. Air Force and having spent time in Japan and Taiwan. “And it’s not a bad pastime. It keeps me at home.”

Yamane wasn’t at home Saturday, though.

Instead, he was displaying seven of his bonsai trees at the Asian Festival at the South Towne Exposition Center in Sandy. The festival, sponsored by the Asian Association of Utah and now in its 31st year, is intended as a celebration of the Asian cultures that are represented among Utah’s population.

“We’re here to share our cultures, our arts and our foods,” said Shu Cheng, executive director of the Asian Association of Utah. “We are eager to get to know our neighbors and for them to get to know us.”

There are roughly 50,000 Asians and Asian-Americans in Utah, or about 2 percent of the state’s population, according to 2006 U.S. Census estimates.

Yet beneath that number lies a wide diversity of Asian cultures, each with their own traditions and heritage, arts and languages. Among the exhibitors at the festival were Utahns whose families came from Tibet, the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, Korea, China and Laos.

“I would estimate there are as many as 50 to 60 different [Asian] ethnic groups represented in Utah,” Cheng said. “We have well over a dozen represented here at the festival.”

The first Asian Festival was held in 1977 at a time when Utah was becoming home to a growing number of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and other Asian countries. And those groups brought with them cultures different than the small but well-established Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Filipino communities that already existed in the state.

“We wanted to help people understand each other,” Cheng said. “And I believe we’ve made progress in accomplishing that goal. This year alone, we have more than 500 volunteers from throughout Utah helping put on this festival.”

Yamane and his friend Judy Iwamoto have been volunteering at the festival for 15 years.

As families stopped by to view Yamane’s Bonsai trees, Iwamoto drew the children aside to show them how to fold a origami frog that would jump away from their fingers. “They just love the frogs,” she said.

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