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Here's Why Kansas City Is The First Stop On Elite Chinese Performers' New Year's Tour

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Courtesy Kansas City Chinese American Association
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A Dai Dance pair in the 'Cultures of China' performance.

Forest Rong of Overland Park has succeeded in convincing China to allow one of its most elite performance companies to launch a tour of the United States in Kansas City.

Rong grew up in Zhenghou, China, but he’s called Overland Park home for 16 years.

“This is the only place I’ve stayed and this is the only job I’ve had,” Rong says during a conversation in the conference room at Black & Veatch, where he has worked as an engineer for his entire adult life.

As president of the Kansas City Chinese American Association, Rong is perhaps the community’s most energetic advocate. Over the last two decades, he says, the metro’s Chinese population has grown dramatically. For example, he says, 15 years ago, Kansas State University and the University of Kansas had between 100 and 200 Chinese students. Now, he estimates each university has approximately 1,500.

Kansas City is home to nearly 15,000 Chinese immigrants and their descendants, he estimates, while acknowledging that’s not many compared to cities such as Los Angeles or New York.

“They probably already have 500,000, so adding another 10,000 is not a big deal. For us, it is a big deal,” he says.

Rong credits engineering and tech companies for spurring the rapid growth.

“I think those engineering jobs provide a basis for the Chinese immigrant,” he says, noting that some members of the Chinese community are second-generation and have never been to China.

Familiarity with those numbers is what helped him convince the government to send the performers.

The global “Cultures of China” New Year’s tour will cover 38 cities in 17 countries during the two weeks in which China celebrates New Year’s events. Because one ensemble of performers cannot cover that much ground, the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council employs several troupes, not all of which are as elite as the one visiting Kansas City.

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Credit Courtesy Kansas City Chinese American Association
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Performers in the 50-member 'Cultures of China' troupe touring North America to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

“To have a national level group that’s directly under the management of a national government entity, means that all of the performers in this group have been selected from many, many thousands of performers,” says Sheree Willis, the executive director of the University of Kansas’ Confucius Institute, one of 100 in the United States that works to educate the public about Chinese language and culture.

The 50-member troupe covering North America will stop in Kansas City before going on to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago, thanks to Rong, who represented the metro area to the Chinese government last year, impressing upon them that Kansas City was ready for one of the elite troupes.

In addition to the performers, other distinguished guests will visit as well.

“We typically have the Chinese New Year by ourselves,” Rong says. But, this year, the Kansas City community will also be honored by a visit from eight representatives from the Chinese Consulate in Chicago, including Consul General Hong Lei.

One reason the upcoming performance is so extraordinary, Rong says, is that it’s an opportunity for audiences to experience songs and dances of multiple lesser-known ethnic groups.

The performance will follow a young urban person backpacking through China. Along the way, the backpacker encounters Tibetan, Miao, Hui, Hani, Khazak, Mongolian, Yao, and Zhuang ethnic groups.

“When we think of Chinese culture we probably think of the art and music of the dominant Han group, and many Americans may not be aware that China actually has a wide diversity of ethnic groups, many languages, many cultures,” adds Willis, noting that the Chinese government officially recognizes 56 such ethnic groups.

“Even Chinese people probably don’t have very many opportunities to see all those costumes or all those songs or their ways of dance,” Rong says.

Cultures of China, Festival of Spring,” 7 p.m., Friday, Feb. 3 at the Music Hall, 301 W 13th St, Kansas City, Missouri, 64105.

Anne Kniggendorf’s writing appears regularly in The Kansas City Star and Ink magazine. Follow her on Twitter @annekniggendorf.  

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