Asian District

Ken Koshio, a Japanese drummer who entertained at the Asian Festival last year, will be returning fort this year’s Chiense Lunar New Year celebration in Mesa’s Asian Dstrict.(Winnie Kho Kaplan/Special to Tribune)

Ushering in the Lunar New Year in Asia means setting off firecrackers and fireworks and creating a messy, noisy and immersive experience that differs from the North American version of looking at fireworks from afar. 

“We just had our New Year fireworks, but this one has a different appeal to it; it has a lot more of a street vendor vibe. They light it up and they don’t necessarily care about the mess, the smell, everyone just wants to be there for the celebration,” explained Anthony Amphonephong, executive director of the Asian Chamber of Commerce.

Two upcoming celebrations in Mesa celebrating Chinese Lunar New Year will try to offer the real atmosphere. Fireworks, lion dancing, Japanese Taiko Drums and Vietnamese fan dancing will make up the cultural extravaganzas. 

Lunar New Year Celebration 2023, The Year of the Rabbit will take place 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday, Jan. 21, at AZ International Marketplace in Mesa’s Asian District, while Culture Night, Celebrating Asian Lunar New Year organized by the Asian Festival will take place 4-10 p.m. Jan. 28 at Mesa Community College. Both outdoor events are free to attend.

“We Asians love to celebrate. So, we organized this for the community to come out and celebrate and have fun,” said local Realtor Winnie Kho Kaplan, whose husband, Steve Kaplan, founded the Asian Festival last year.

As an adviser to the festival, Winnie Kho recently secured a nonprofit designation to facilitate obtaining sponsors and keep it free so that the community may participate in large numbers.

Culture Night will have about 100 booths selling crafts and demonstrations including lantern making, kung fu, calligraphy and a tea ceremony. 

Entertainment includes a lion dance, international live jazz music performed by John Williams (formerly of Herbie Hancock), Taiko Japanese drumming artist Ken Koshio and cultural dances from various Asian countries.

The Asian District also wants to spread cultural awareness and events such as these is a good first step. 

“Its aim is to create a central hub for the general public to celebrate with cultural performances and things that they normally would not have access to,” said Amphonephong, who expects at least 2,000 people to attend. 

Children will receive the traditional red envelopes with money and 5- to 10-year-olds may appear in a beauty pageant. 

“It’s good for anyone who loves cultures. The New Year celebration is joyful,” said David Pham, a member of the Arizona Vietnamese community, which is partnering with AZ International Marketplace to put on the show. 

Amphonephong said the festival is being held during the day, oriented toward the family and focused on the cultural aspect of the holiday. The district has dozens of stores and supermarkets providing goods and services.

Outside, there will be about five main food vendors selling Chinese food, Filipino fusion, Vietnamese Pho and a donut cart. “It’s a smaller event and more intimate, that’s what they want to keep it as,” he added.

This is the third Chinese New Year celebration being held in the Asian District. 

The first one was held just before the pandemic hit in 2020, and it was “a huge success,” attended by more than 10,000 people. Coming out of Covid, last year’s event attracted about 12,000, and the district held another one, a night market, in October.

Initially, the Asian District Night Market was built around marketability in the area.

“As we recently branded the Asian District, we wanted to bring traffic and a lot of eyes to the area, so we recently held the Asian District Night Market,” Amphonephong said.

“We want every business owner to have the opportunity to host whatever seems fit for their business and this also goes along with it. The Lunar New Year is a very, very big celebration in the Chinese and the Vietnamese community,” he said. 

“AZ International wanted to host their own, so we are letting them take the reins on it and we are just helping them out, providing them the resources and what we’ve done in the past to help them succeed,” he added. 

The Valley has a burgeoning Asian population. 

Amphonephong, who is of Laotian descent, said that when he was small, his family used to know every Laotian who lived in the area.

Nowadays, it is different, he said. A Laotian community is developing in Laveen, and many people are moving there from across the country. 

“It’s hard to keep track. There are at least about 100 families,” he said.

If You Go...

Lunar New Year Celebration: 4-0 p.m. Jan. 21 at Arizona International Marketplace, 1920 W. Broadway Road, Mesa. Lion dances at 1 and 3 p.m. and fireworks displays at 1 p.m., 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.

Culture Night organized by Asian Festival will take place 4-10 p.m. Jan. 28 at Mesa Community College, 1833 W. Southern Ave., Mesa.

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