By J.K. YAMAMOTO
Rafu Staff Writer
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and other city officials kicked off Asian Pacific Islander American Heritage Month with an award ceremony and the unveiling of the APIAHM Calendar and Cultural Guide at Los Angeles City Hall on April 27.
The honorees were: K.W. Lee, award-winning journalist and founder of the first national English-language Korean American newspaper, Koreatown Weekly; Jyoti Nanda, faculty member in the David J. Epstein Public Interest Law Program and Critical Race Studies Program at UCLA’s School of Law; and Michelle Kwan, the most decorated figure skater in U.S. history.
Following a performance by Bollywood Flash Mob, Villaraigosa cited events in Asian American history to show how far the community has come. “In 1854, California’s Supreme Court ruled that the testimony of a Chinese man who witnessed a murder by a white man was inadmissible. The court justified its ruling with the statement that the Chinese were ‘a race of people whom nature has marked as inferior.’ Today that same court, the highest court in our state, boasts a majority of justices of Asian descent.
“In 1942, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Driven by fear and suspicion, this infamous directive ordered the internment of the Japanese Americans. To our lasting shame, tens of thousands of Angelenos of Japanese descent were uprooted and forced into internment camps. Today the Japanese American community is a sparkling strand in the colorful weave of cultural and civic life in our city …
“In 1992, 20 years ago this month, Los Angeles erupted into violence. Korean American Angelenos call this ‘Sa-I-Gu.’ During those six days in April, Korean Americans were targeted with violence … businesses were burned, people were bruised and battered. Fifty percent of the property damage was to Korean-owned businesses. Angelenos, especially the Korean community, felt abandoned by the police and the city leadership. Today, Koreatown is a bustling cultural and commercial center filled with vitality and promise. It’s a jewel in our city’s crown.”
The mayor added, “For over a century, men and women from all across Asia have come to Los Angeles … to settle, to start families, to find refuge, to study, to do business, to sojourn. Through the decades and over the many generations, our Asian American and Pacific Islander communities have grown and prospered … They’ve infused this city with their values and their cultural energy … L.A. is unthinkable without its Asian American and Pacific Islander communities.”
Presenting the Spirit of Los Angeles Award, Villaraigosa said, “Journalism was never a career for K.W. Lee; it’s always been a calling. He came to this country from what is now known as North Korea in 1950 and has been writing ever since. He worked for papers across the country, big and small … Over his decades-long career, he’s covered some of our most important stories … civil rights struggles in the South, the fight for economic justice in Appalachia, the Los Angeles civil unrest.”
An educator as well as a writer, Lee has “used words to give voice to the voiceless and to make the world a better place,” Villaraigosa said.
Saying that he was “humbled” and “shocked” to be honored, Lee recalled that when he arrived in San Francisco more than 60 years ago as an “FOB” (fresh off the boat), Asian Americans were “out of sight and mind of mainstream America.” Looking at the progress that has been made since then, he said, “I’m just overwhelmed. What I see now is also beyond my imagination … The future is here.”
In presenting the Dream of Los Angeles Award to Nanda, Villaraigosa noted, “She’s worked on the Juvenile Justice Project … (which is) is dedicated to finding alternatives to locking kids up and throwing away the key … She’s co-founder of the 911 Legal Response Network, an advocacy group based in L.A. committed to fighting hate crimes. The South Asian Bar Association Public Interest Foundation, an organization she helped to co-found, provides thousands of grants to support students and nonprofits dedicated to public interest law.”
The mayor thanked Nanda for “her tireless advocacy on behalf of the vulnerable and her passionate fight against discrimination.”
Noting that lawyers sometimes have a negative reputation, Nanda thanked the city for “affirming that public interest law is a noble profession.”
Born in Kenya to parents of Indian descent — her father is second-generation Kenyan and her mother is from pre-independence Pakistan — and raised in New York and California, she said, “I really feel that when I tell my story, I’m not just talking about myself; this is a story of Los Angelenos.”
In presenting the Hope of Los Angeles Award to Kwan, Villaraigosa said, “World titles, national titles, Olympic medals — Michelle has won them all multiple times … But she is equally accomplished off the ice. In 2006, she was appointed the first U.S. public diplomacy envoy (by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice). In 2010, President Obama appointed Michelle to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition … Michelle was elected to both the United States Figure Skating Hall of Fame, the only one to be inducted in 2012, and the World Figure Skating Hall of Fame. Michelle Kwan is one of our country’s greatest athletes.”
“This award means a lot to me,” Kwan said. “I’m born and raised in Los Angeles … This is my home. I love the spirit, the energy, the people — it really shapes the person I am today. And just as I am proud to represent Los Angeles, I’m proud to be Chinese American. Growing up Chinese American in Los Angeles was a great experience for me …
“A lot of people ask me, ‘Do you feel more Chinese or American?’ I say both. I’m very very proud of my Chinese heritage but I am through and through all American … All the accomplishments I’ve been able to achieve … are reflective of my Chinese heritage and my American upbringing.”
City Attorney Carmen Trutanich, who also presented commendations to the honorees, explained that May was selected to honor Asian Pacific Islanders because the first Japanese immigrants arrived on May 7, 1843 and the Transcontinental Railroad, built in large part by Chinese immigrants, was completed on May 10, 1869.
“This city is so great …140 different countries represented here, over 200 languages,” he said. “We live in peace. We are the example to the rest of the globe. We have the second-largest Asian population in the United States here in Los Angeles.”
Councilmember Bill Rosendahl discussed his participation in the April 25 dedication of a marker at the corner of Lincoln and Venice to commemorate the Japanese American internment. “Seventy years ago … they were rounded up and they were taken away to buses and they went to Manzanar. I went to Manzanar with West Los Angeles United Methodist Church … We never will forget what happened to the Japanese Americans. It was an outrageous act.”
Having spent time in the Philippines as a journalist, he also recognized the city’s Filipino American community.
Councilmember Joe Buscaino said that he learned about the internment camps from Assemblymember Warren Furutani, his opponent in a runoff election earlier this year. He added that a recent visit to China increased his appreciation of L.A.’s cultural diversity.
Councilmember Dennis Zine pointed out LAPD Deputy Chief Terry Hara, “who I knew when he was a motorcycle officer.” Now that Hara is running for office, Zine expressed hope that he will “assume a position of leadership with this council.”
The event concluded with the unveiling of the APIA Heritage Month Calendar and Cultural Guide by the honorees, councilmembers and Trutanich. Villaraigosa was unable to join the unveiling as he had to leave early to attend the funeral of Mary Cedillo, mother of Assemblymember Gil Cedillo.
This year’s APIAHM co-chairs are City Clerk June Lagmay and Board of Public Works President Pro Tem John J. Choi.
Following the ceremony, a public event featuring food and live entertainment took place at the City Hall South Plaza. Themed “Breaking the Mold,” the event was sponsored by TimeWarner.
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